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What to Do When Your Productivity Breaks Down

I’ve been there – a to-do list so outdated that it’s useless. Feeling overwhelmed by everything that has to be done. Having to apologize for missing a meeting. Working late to catch up on work. These are all classic signs that it’s time to take a breath, regroup and get back on track.

It can be easy to feel like giving up when your productivity spins out of control. It’s time to take charge of your to-do list. Get back that sense of calm control you have when you know you’re doing the right work.

In this article, I show you the exact steps to get your productivity back on track. I also show you the techniques you need to stick with it when life happens.

Your Productivity Redux

Part 1: Create mental space to unwind and think

Let go of feeling bad about getting off track. No one has perfect willpower. Right now – yes right this instant – look at your calendar and reserve a one-hour block of time. Schedule it during a time when you know you can focus. At the appointed time, close your door and turn off all electronic notifications that could distract you.

This is how you’re going to use that time:

  1. Gather into one pile all your notes, receipts, and other bits of clutter that need to be processed. Deal with each item using the Getting Things Done (GTD) process. 
  2. Grab a piece of paper or open a blank electronic note, and jot all the nagging things you need to do or remember.
  3. Look at your calendar or agenda to get a sense of your upcoming commitments for the next few days.
  4. Then look at your task list. Is it outdated? If so, set it aside and start a new one. You can always review the old one later and bring anything across that you want to keep.
  5. Is there anything that MUST be done today or tomorrow? Record it on paper or in your calendar.
  6. For each thing that MUST be done today or tomorrow, write down the next action that needs to be taken. Break it down into the smallest possible action (e.g., find the notes for the project).

After that, you will have a clear sense of your obligations and how you can meet them.

Part 2: Baby steps to get back on track

Take action on your new list by doing the following:

  1. Whatever you wrote down that has to be done today, do that first. If it seems overwhelming, only work on it 10 minutes, and then take a break. Come back to it, and get it done before lunch if possible.
  2. Hold on to your list of completed tasks. Review it at the end of the day to see how much you accomplished. Savor your wins.
  3. Before you stop work for the day, identify the one thing that must be done tomorrow, and resolve to do it first thing in the morning.

What happened?

Now is your opportunity to learn from the past. Think back to what stopped working and why. Was your email overwhelming after returning from vacation or an illness? Did the busy season at work leave your to-do list buried?

Identify one thing that would help you avoid the situation in the future. Is there something you can do to recover faster next time?

For instance, if the system failed because you were sick for a week, you could have a reboot process to get you going again. That could be setting aside an hour on your calendar to do the catch-up process described above.

If the system failed because you took on a new commitment, then you could remove a competing commitment that isn’t bringing you closer to your goals.

You’ve felt productive before, and you can do it again. Everyone’s productivity methods flex and change over time. The important thing is to take a breath, and just get started with the smallest next action.