Surviving Personal Productivity Down-Time

It happens to the best of us. An utter lack of interest. Unshruggable lethargy. Uncontrollable procrastination. Debilitating laziness. Uncaring apathy. With the kind of busy lives we live, it’s inevitable that once in a while our mind, body and spirit go on strike and no amount of coaxing seems to make things happen. No amount of cajoling can make you want to do the job in front of you. Unfortunately, none of the bosses (who themselves might be going through the same phase) care, since they have bosses and their bosses have bosses and so on. In a world where productivity and personal effectiveness are key, how do you survive through a phase of “down-time”?

Here are a few tips that I find helpful. Maybe some combination of the techniques will help you get through your down time. Some of you may find some of these suggestions blasphemous, but do remember – none of these are meant to be long-term solutions. They are just quick fixes to help you survive through a short patch of utter desperation while you try and figure out how to best get yourself out of the rut.

If at all possible, take vacation.
Just wanted to get that one out the way. If you have vacation time available and are not saving it up for an ear-marked purposed, this may be a good time to use some of it. A total lack of motivation maybe your tired brain’s way of telling you that it’s time to relax and take some time off. Workers in USA are supposed to take significantly less amount of time off compared to our peers in Europe. Are you one of the people responsible for these statistics? Vacation does not necessarily have to mean a week off on an exotic island (though, if you can afford it, I would say, go for it!). But it does mean days without computers, client calls or PDA. Spend the time with your kids – take them for a picnic, or hang out by the pool. Bake a cake together. Run with your pets in the park. Just do something that will help you forget your work for a day or two, heck maybe even a week or 10 days :) More often than not, just this one trick is enough to recharge your spirit.

But if that’s not an option, here are some other things you can do at the work place to survive the dry spell.

Break things up into small tasks.
If you have to show up at work, then the best thing to do conquer and rule. Do not think about your lifelong career goals, or even tomorrow– just focus on getting through today. Break up what needs to be done this day into several small tasks. And attack them one at a time. You could prioritize your tasks in several different ways depending on how far gone you are. The best technique would be to put them in the order of importance and start out with the most critical one. But if you totally lack the drive, then pick the task that you least detest and start working on it. The idea is to do *something*. And when the task is done, do the next one on the list and so on until the day is done.

Pick one thing about your job that you really like and focus on it.
More often than not, we expect too much from our jobs. We want lax hours, and at the same time we want the work to be challenging and stimulating. We want great pay and at the same time a good work-life balance. We want great benefits, short commute, good location… The list just goes on. I agree that all these things are great to have in a job, but more likely, there will be something missing for sure. This can lead to disillusionment and a possible lack of interest and motivation. If this is the case, then prioritize what is really important to you, and focus on just those aspects.

Remember your boss (or colleague) is just another guy in the rut.
A lot of times, the work environment makes it very difficult to stay interested on the job. Maybe it’s a demanding boss. Or an annoying colleague. How you let it effect you is up to you. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you let the people around you effect how you feel, then really, you have only yourself to blame. When you start to feel distraught by the way your boss or colleague treats you, just remember, they are people just like you. They have no authority or power over how you feel. Everything is in your head. Usually remembering that they are just the same as me – no better, no worse – helps me not get effected by what anybody else says or does.

Put a carrot on a stick and hold it before your eyes.
To make the days go by a little easy, allocate a break and stick to it. For instance, for the past few months, me and a couple of other colleagues get together around 3:00 for a short coffee break. We still drink the free coffee available at work – but instead of having it in the break room, we walk down to the break room of a different floor, settle into comfortable chairs and gossip to our hearts content :) Somehow knowing that the monotony of the afternoon will be broken by a juicy gossip, ahem, coffee break helps get through the monotony of the afternoons when nothing earth shattering happens (which is most days!).

Put yourself on “automaton” mode.
If things are really nasty and you just don’t think you can get through the day, then put your self on auto-pilot. Take on only those tasks that you know your can do with minimal effort. Keep at it without thinking too much – thought is your worst enemy. Just be a robot for the time being. Remember though, that has some really negative side effects and should not be done on an every day basis. (Well, you could, but then you have no right to complain after that that you are in a rut!). This is generally a good technique for surviving through very short periods of down-time while making sure that your personal productivity curve at least stays flat instead of showing a huge dip

Snap yourself out of it by taking on a challenge.
Obviously, it’s either this or the previous, but not both. This one is very helpful when you are ready to pull yourself back out of the dumps and get back into action. Take on something challenging that will keep pushing you into finally getting things done. It may seem hard at first, but once you are in the groove you know you can keep going. Before you take on the challenge though, make sure that know your limits and how much you can push yourself!

Think of all the worse circumstances you could be in.
No don’t laugh! When all else fails, this will work! When you think of all the people who are in a worse situation than you are, you will start to feel “not-so-bad” about your own situation. It’s just human nature to blow things out of proportion when it comes to our own miseries. But when we look at some of the “real” problems that people have out there, it will help put things in perspective and you might start to feel OK about yourself. Here, here and here are some ways to kill time and realize that your boss or your work isn't the worst one after all :)

Ultimately, it is up to you to pull yourself out of the “down-time” and get back in the groove. How good you do your job determines how much money you will make, which in turn determines your financial well being (that and whole bunch of other things, but you get the point). Since how well you do your job depends a lot on how motivated you are, it is in your best interest that you stabilize your situation using one of the tricks above (or other tricks – whatever works best). Then you can start to focus on improving your long-term outlook. I.e., looking at the chart below, for now focus on making your curve look at least OK(ish) and eventually get back to being "good".

Here are a few related articles from elsewhere on the blogosphere that you might find interesting:

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Matt said...

I like the list - I find that if I'm in a rut or it feels like I might be heading for one I spend some time doing nothing then pushing myself at small tasks (typically around the house - like cleaning). This lets me forget why I wasn't in a happy place mentally and lets my brain recharge a bit.

Another one for your list would be to go away for a weekend. Most people can't afford to take a vacation but a simple change of scenery for a couple days might be enough

ispf said...

Matt: Thanks. You are right - going away for the weekend is a good idea and one that we resort to quite often. We have a some friends in a close-by city. Hanging out with them for a weekend helps forget the work worries and since it is close enough to drive, we don't end up spending much either.

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Free From Broke said...

Funny, I came upon this post while I procrastinate and should be writing a term paper. Good list. I've been trying to write in small bursts to help keep me going.

Anonymous said...

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