By Christine Song

Productivity and Focus for Unpredictable Days


When things don’t go your way, here’s how to stay on track.

Is your day not going as planned? Been there. 

It can be really frustrating and make you feel a bit out of sorts when you expect your day to go one way and then watch as it dissolves, or suddenly devolves, right before your eyes. This is especially disorienting if you have a lot of days like that in a row.

But it’s never too late to be productive and find focus.

Staying productive and focused on a day when things don’t go as planned is super challenging. Where do you start, what do you prioritize, and how do you get back on track? Hang in there - to help you confront the unexpected head on, here is how you can create a plan of action.

Create a schedule for the day

When you’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to just work, work, work. It’s an easy place to put your anxiety! But that’s not always the most productive thing to do.

Instead, you need to work on the things that are most important to do, just like you always do. And even more than usual, you need to be mindful of your energy so that you don’t burn out.

Set clear guidelines for your day by breaking it up with time for work and time for rest. Decide what you will work on, and then make a logical plan for how things will get done.

Start your day off (or do it the night before) by developing your schedule with the tips below.

Identify timely and non-negotiable schedule items

First, start by creating a rough schedule of non-negotiable and timely items that need to happen each day. After going through your email, messages, planner or notes, ask yourself: 

  • What meetings do you have, and when? 
  • How are the meetings taking place (phone, video, or in person)?
  • What errands or tasks do you have to complete? Are they time-sensitive? (Getting to a store before it closes, picking up a child after school, etc)
  • Do you have any deadlines today or tomorrow?
  • Do you need to follow up with anyone on something you’re waiting for?
  • Anything left over from yesterday that should get done today?

Once you’ve got these items on your radar and written out in your schedule at the necessary times, you can fill in the gaps with focused work on your most important tasks. This might include meeting prep or taking steps on your bigger picture work goals.

Plot out time for focused work

Once the tasks that other people are relying on you for are on your schedule, look at the remaining time. This is where you want to do the work that really matters for you.

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a day. Most of us can only accomplish a couple of significant tasks in a day; in other words, you’ll only make really good progress on 2-3 things each day. That means you must choose them wisely.

Refer to your weekly, monthly, or even yearly goals to help you choose. Don’t get sidetracked by “urgent” tasks; you should be aiming to do the important ones in your free blocks of time.

Here are a few ways to make sure that work gets done:

  • Build in time for interruptions. You might think or wish they won’t happen, but they will. Build in a buffer around tasks that depend on other people; for example, block off time for your meeting to run 15 minutes longer than planned, so that you won’t be rushing for the rest of the day if it goes late.
  • Use the pomodoro method. Plan to work on task for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. After 3 or 4 rounds of this, take a longer 15-20 minute break. Using time focused sessions that are 25 minutes long, versus 2 hours, will allow you to focus on just one task at a time, while still being able to break fairly frequently if people need help from you.
  • Use time blocking. Instead of trying to accomplish several things at once, carve out specific blocks of time for errands, similar tasks, or work on a project. This method improves efficiency by keeping your mind focused on one area at a time. You can time block important work like making progress on a presentation, or you can time block smaller tasks like replying to emails, returning phone calls, or typing meeting notes.

Tips for flexibility when things do go as planned

Sometimes the plan you set at 8:00am has already changed by 11:00am. Instead of fighting it, learn to go with the flow.

Flexibility can be uncomfortable, but it will help you have a better day overall than trying to fight to get back on schedule when things just aren’t working out. 

Mindfulness can help. When things are going completely off the rails, stop for one minute at breathe. Count to 10. Notice your physical environment: what’s one thing you see, one thing you smell, one thing you hear? 

By tapping into the present moment, you can bring down your stress levels and heart rate, which will help you think more clearly moving forward.

Rather than giving up on your schedule all together, you can be flexible wisely by reevaluating your priorities and paring down your needs for the day.

Use a priority matrix and slot in all the tasks you had planned for the day. Categorize them as: 

  • urgent and important (the most important to get done)
  • important but not urgent (second most important to get done, if you can)
  • urgent but not important (less important, see if you can delegate)
  • not important and not urgent (put these off for another day)

Look at the time remaining in your day. What can you realistically accomplish? What can you safely save for another day?

Instead of trying to force it all, make your goal to get 1-2 really important things done. You want to be able to point to solid results at the end of the day. What tasks will enable you to do that?

Keep track of the things that you had planned for the day that you ultimately do not get to so that you can easily track what is being shifted to a future date. 

Communicate

When possible and appropriate, communicate the times you won’t be available or need to focus once you have your schedule in place. Let others around you (physically or virtually) know verbally, by email, or a shared calendar. 

This can minimize disruption during periods when you need to be productive or attend a meeting. This works the other way too, giving you an opportunity to take into account others’ schedules when you’re making your own.

It might seem like if you want to focus, that you need to get away from other people. The opposite is true. The more you communicate, the fewer interruptions you will have because people will have what they need from you. This will enable you to more effectively disconnect and focus during your deep work times.

Be gentle with yourself - everyone has bad days

When your day doesn’t go as planned, be gentle with yourself and remember to be patient. Everyday can’t go as planned, so on those days when the unexpected happens, redefine what productive means to you. What is one thing you can do that will feel like a win?

When you can, take a break. Schedule them in your planner, use reminders from your Fitbit or watch, or set an alarm to take some deep breaths and hit reset every 2 hours or so. Don’t punish yourself for having one (or two) bad days. You can always start again.

For a day filled with too much down time...

What if all of your meetings for the day were cancelled at the last minute, or your assignments were pushed out and you were left with all sorts of free time? 

You could binge watch your favorite shows and take being a couch potato to a whole new level, but eventually, you’ll want (and need) to make your downtime valuable. How do you create structure in your day when it’s completely unstructured?

You need to create structure in your day like you would above by creating a schedule for yourself. Your blocks of time might be filled with different things than you’re used to, but they can still be productive.

  • Work on something from the back burner. There are certain maintenance types of tasks that always get pushed for later, usually because they’re not that fun. However, they can be very important. This might be something like finally cleaning your workspace (shredding old documents, creating filing systems, etc), to enable you to work more efficiently when you’re busy again.
  • Develop your creativity. Pull out inspirational coloring books or practice calligraphy to take advantage of all the benefits of both creativity and calm flow work. You’ll notice you feel more relaxed and you might even feel excited to start on a new project with your creative energy flowing.
  • Start a writing practice. Journaling is a great way to decrease anxiety and improve memory. You can write about your feelings, note what happened each day, respond to writing prompts, or even start a gratitude practice of recording the things you are grateful for each day. 
  • Spring cleaning. Block off time to clean your bedroom, then your kitchen, then your bathroom... You can also tackle this project by the type of cleaning; for example, wash all of the windows and window screens, then tackle the floors, then do the dusting, etc. 
  • Donate unused goods. During your spring cleaning efforts, you’re bound to find things you no longer need. While going through your closets, make a pile of clothes to donate, separating professional attire out to donate to organizations like Dress for Success. Gently used bedding or towels make great donations for animal shelters. If you have pet supplies like a dog leash or exercise pens, humane societies may be able to use those. 

Not every day is a great one, but you can still get things done and feel good about what you have accomplished with a few quick changes. Good luck!