How to be productive when you’re not at your best

Woman wearing headphones using a laptop.
(Image credit: Shutterstock: fizkes)

We’ve all had days where we’re just not feeling it – whether it’s through lack of sleep, distractions in our personal life or even a few too many drinks the night before.

Sadly, though, the work doesn’t stop when you’re exhausted, distracted or just not motivated. And if you find yourself in that position from time to time, you’ll have to ensure that you can still complete your tasks by the end of the day.

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There are plenty of strategies that you can deploy if you need to find some focus and energy when you’re not feeling at your best – and we’ve explored ten of them right here.

Explore the rest of the site for more workplace assistance, too: we’ve got the best organization tips to turbo-charge your productivity and the ultimate guide to creating a healthy work/life balance.

Ditch the distractions 

Even on your best day you’re going to find yourself distracted by smartphone notifications, email pings and instant messages, so if you’re tired, these constant disturbances can seriously derail your productivity and lead to even more procrastination.

If you don’t want to be sabotaged by interruptions, use your phone’s do not disturb or flight modes to stop constant alerts. And if you need to take more drastic measures, close your PC’s email client or disable its notifications – instead, schedule thirty minutes or an hour later to deal with your emails. If you’re desperate and if you don’t need a web connection to work, consider unplugging your router or disabling your wireless to stop every interruption.

Turn up the tunes 

Plenty of people enjoy working to music, but if you’re tired or struggling to stay engaged then you’ll have more work success if you pay attention to what music you’re playing. Studies have shown that you’re more energetic and engaged if you listen to fast-paced music, so that should be the first requirement for any productivity playlist.

Anything with repetitive rhythms is great for productivity, and ensure that the music has no lyrics or lyrics you don’t know – that way, you won’t get distracted by your favorite tunes.

Manage your workflow 

If you’re not particularly motivated or focused you won’t get anything done if you sit at your desk and look at a daunting, messy list of tasks – or one vast project that you don’t know how to attack.

Instead, take a different approach. If you’ve got a huge task and you’re not sure where to begin, break it down into smaller and more manageable chunks – you won’t be so daunted and you’ll be more inclined to tackle those modest step. If you’ve got a long list of tasks, concentrate on the trickier and more important stuff first – even if you don’t feel great at the start of the day, you’ll feel worse later, and you can use that time for easier and trivial jobs.

Stay hydrated 

Dehydration causes tiredness and a lack of concentration, and if you feel dehydrated then it’s already too late and your cognitive abilities will already be suffering. So, even if you’re not feeling thirsty, have a drink right now – your brain will thank you for it.

Plenty of people struggle with getting enough water during a busy working day, so buy a large water bottle that shows how much you should drink daily – they’re perfect for tracking your intake. Devices like Fitbits and apps like Waterllama include drinks trackers, too, so they’re perfect for keeping tabs on your hydration.

Caffeine and sugar 

It’s not just about drinking water, either – if you need an immediate blast of energy, make a strong coffee or drink something with lots of sugar. You’ll feel the benefits almost immediately.

Don’t go overboard here, though. If you spend all day absorbing caffeine or sugar, you’ll end up with a headache or a distracted, anxious brain, and those symptoms won’t help you get the job done when you’re already having focus and concentration issues.

Get moving and get outside 

Physical movement will improve your mental state alongside your physical health, so if you know you’re tired and struggling then you should try to start the day with some exercise. A short run, some basic stretches or a walk in the open air are achievable for most people and will improve your focus throughout the working day.

Exercise improves your heart rate and boosts the flow of oxygen to your brain – and if your brain is getting more oxygen, it’ll be in a better position to help you concentrate on your job.

Break away 

If you’ve woken up tired, stressed or distracted, you won’t get much out of your workday if you spend hours staring at your screen.

Instead, you should change the way you work to incorporate more breaks. Try to get five minutes away from your desk for a few minutes in every hour, and use a productivity timer app to remind yourself if you’re liable to forget to take a break. Whether you walk outside, get a drink or chat to colleagues, you’ll be more productive at your desk if you take frequent, short breaks.

Indeed, short breaks have been shown to improve workplace focus, and you’ll need all the help you can get if you’re not having the best day. And if you can find the time, take a ten or twenty-minute nap – research has shown that even a short sleep can do wonders for your concentration and energy levels.  

Take a deep breath 

If you’re not having the best working day, you should install an app like Headspace or Calm to learn about breathing techniques and meditation.

If you learn about calming breathing methods then you’ll be more capable when it comes to dealing with stressful work situations, and you’ll do a better job of keeping productive when you’re feeling anxious or distracted. It’s a small change and only takes a few minutes each day – but it’ll make a huge difference if you need a boost.

Keep things light 

Science has proven that natural light and fresh air can improve your mood, concentration and focus, and you’ll need all the help you can get if you’re not feeling great. If it’s possible in your working environment, draw your blinds or curtains to allow natural light into the space so your brain knows that it’s time to work.

We also recommend that you open the window so you can get some fresh air – you’ll feel better than if you rely on your office’s musty air-con systems.

Stand and deliver 

Science proves that standing up while you work boosts your cognitive function, focus and mood – so if you can work while standing, you’ll get more done even if you’re not feeling particularly engaged.

This could be a permanent change, too, especially if you’ve got the cash to afford a standing desk or if your company will invest in it on your behalf. And if you can’t stand to work or just don’t want to, sit up straight – you’ll me more productive if you have better posture.

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Mike has worked as a technology journalist for more than a decade and has written for most of the UK’s big technology titles alongside numerous global outlets. He loves PCs, laptops and any new hardware, and covers everything from the latest business trends to high-end gaming gear.