5 Ways to Turn Around an Unproductive Week

Getting more done can be a poor goal. Try this instead.

Posted Nov 25, 2019

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Have you ever found yourself in this scenario? You started the week with big goals for what you'd get done, but it hasn't gotten off to a good start and you feel demoralized. If you find yourself in this situation, pick one or two of these tips to turn the emotional tone of your week around.

1. Get back on track with a habit.

We all have behaviors we intend to stick with regularly: reading before bed, going to the gym, packing lunch, etc. If life has intervened and you've gotten off track with your intended habit, take this opportunity to get back on that route. Doing this will likely give you a big mood boost. 

Think about the array of intended habits you have that fall into this category. There are likely some simpler and some more complex ones. For instance, I intend to send my new blog posts to my email subscribers, but I realized I hadn't sent the last three of them! This was an easy habit to get back on track with since it was just a few clicks. Don't overthink how to get back on track. If there are several different options for how you could proceed, it probably doesn't matter which you pick compared to the value of just getting it done.

Even habits you stick to inconsistently can still have a lot of value, so instead of beating yourself up about having let a habit fall by the wayside, try picking it back up for a day or two.

2. Do an under-10-minute task you've put off for over a week.

When you've procrastinated with a small task, that can create a huge psychological burden. You'll likely be getting thought intrusions about the need to do the task, holding the task in mental limbo will be creating a burden on your memory, and you might be loading up on self-criticism about why you're so terrible at "adulting."

Getting anything done you've put off for an extended period will lift that psychological burden, no matter what it is. Return that email, make that phone call, collect up those library books that need returning, clean out your fridge, etc.

Attempt one task that, realistically, will take under 10 minutes. If that spurs you on, try another couple of tasks that meet the same criteria, up to a max of three. If you have a task that fits this category but might take longer than 10 minutes, such as tidying up a room, then set a timer and do 10 minutes worth only.

This suggestion isn't particularly aimed at achieving important things so much as it's aimed at giving you a quick boost of achievement to help you move through any state of lethargy you might be feeling. That's why I suggest limiting yourself to 10 minutes. The idea is to boost your energy through doing a task that doesn't require much thinking, and then move onto whatever is truly important. If you exhaust yourself, that won't work.

3. Re-evaluate what's important.

Most people tend to attribute being unproductive or procrastinating as being due to poor willpower or other negative personal qualities. That could be the wrong diagnosis of the core issue. If you're struggling to get things done, it might be because you're attempting to do a huge array of things that aren't going to change your life much. 

If you have too much to do, try looking for ways to do less—but do behaviors that will have a bigger impact. Some very tiny behaviors can have a massive flow-on impact. The behaviors that have the potential to have the biggest impact on your life are often those that are novel or those that can be automated. In terms of automation, think starting retirement savings, having a smart home routine that helps you get to bed earlier, or getting a robot vacuum that cleans your floor while you're at work every day. In terms of novel behaviors, it could be something like asking a friend if you can rent their RV for the weekend. 

It can be ok to let repetitive behaviors slide (e.g., to get behind on cleaning your house), if you're exploring new frontiers in your life, or setting up systems that will have recurring payoffs.

If you're prone to procrastination, overthinking, fluctuating energy, etc., then it's especially important that when you do go through spurts of productivity that what you do is impactful enough to mitigate your lulls. 

If your aim is to get more done, rethink that. Getting more done is a poor aim compared with getting less done but choosing behaviors that are more impactful.

4. Move forward rather than attempt to catch up.

This point is really an extension of the last one. What you assessed as important enough to go on your to-do list earlier in the week might no longer make the cut. Be psychologically flexible and pick what's important to do now that you're more realistically assessing your energy and time and the relative value of different behaviors. There is a good chance that the most impactful behavior you could do today wasn't even on your to-do list at the start of the week.

If doing anything impactful feels beyond you with your current energy levels, try getting a very early night to give you a fresh start tomorrow. A good night's sleep is often all you need for mental clarity and for behaviors that felt too hard to feel manageable.

5. Start or finish a task, depending on what you find harder.

Author Gretchen Rubin has a great distinction between finishers and openers—whether you get more joy from finishing or starting things. She references examples like starting new bottles of shampoo vs. finishing the last of the shampoo and throwing the bottle away. 

However, I like applying this idea to whether you find it easier to start tasks or finish them. I find getting started easy and finishing hard, whereas my spouse is the reverse. If you find finishing hard, do some more steps of a project you've started, or ideally, pick a project you can knock off (which might involve breaking down a larger project into littler, but meaningful parts, like completing installing a new door rather than completing renovating an entire room). If you find starting hard, make a start on anything important that's on your to-do list.

Summing Up

When your week starts badly, it doesn't mean you've lost the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful that will have a significant impact on your life. Turning around an unproductive week typically involves managing your emotions and energy levels, which you can do via accomplishing a few small, easy wins. This can give you the oomph and mental clarity to identify something significant that is within your capacity to get done this week. 

What you end up doing may be completely different than whatever you thought was important enough to work on at the beginning of the week, since lulls in energy and motivation can be good springboards into new directions.