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The tools and knowledge for productivity. Les outils et connaissances pour la productivité.


The lifebuoy tactic: save yourself from an unproductive day


Is your evening, weekend or vacation day off to a bad start? Have you been struggling to make real progress on that big task you set out to accomplish this morning? You had strong intentions when you went to bed last night but you’ve been in this situation before. You know that if you don’t intervene soon, there’s a strong chance that you’ll decide to just “take it easy” for the rest of the time you initially put aside to get some things done today. That decision might feel good, at least for a little while, but later this evening when you reflect back on how little you got done today, you won’t feel so proud of yourself. Even worse, you’ll likely feel even worse tomorrow when your to-do list has accumulated even more backlog. You might then decide to “take it easy” on that day as well. This is a dangerous spiral.

You need to throw yourself a lifebuoy and save the day. You need to rescue the willpower and energy you still have available to be productive for the next few hours and avoid getting stuck in a vortex of laziness.

Here’s how:

1. Positive self-talk
Start with some positive self-talk: I will be productive today. I will get things done. I will make a short plan for today and stick to it. I will get to relax after I make some progress on my tasks. I will feel accomplished by the time I sit down to relax later today.

2. Write a short plan for the day
Given how the day has gone so far for you, today is no longer about maximisation and efficiency; it’s about salvaging the remaining time and energy you have left for today. The goal here is for you to know you took one step in the right direction, instead of standing still or even taking a step back.

Using whatever tools you prefer (digital, paper) write out the task list which is outlined below. You should aim to have a task list which is realistic and feasible so that you will have at least 3 hours left at the end of the day in order to relax. There’s a good chance that you got where you are right now due to exhaustion or a need to be compassionate towards yourself, so you’ll work in a period of relaxation for later on today.

Start a timer for 10 minutes. No matter what, after that 10-minute timer goes off, you will still stop trying to add or change tasks in your plan for today; you’ll go with whatever you have written down in that amount of time or less.

A) Easy tasks (2)
Start by writing two important but easy to accomplish tasks. You’ll be starting with those, as it will give you some momentum to continue on with your day. A simple but effective suggestion is to make these 1-2 tasks something simple, like the act of turning on household appliances that will do some work for you throughout the day (load and start the dishwasher, start the washing machine, etc.)

B) Critical tasks (ideally 1 to 4)
These are tasks that you know you must have done by the end of the day or else there will be important consequences for you soon. A good example of these is to make sure you pick up medical prescriptions or, depending on the time of the month, to pay your credit card bills on time. If you don’t have any impending deadlines for any of your tasks, just write a few of the more important tasks you want to get done or habits you really want to maintain.

C) One hour spent on a difficult task
You know that lengthy or complex project you keep putting off? You’ll commit to spending an hour on it today, no matter what. If you don’t, you risk getting stuck in a spiral where you resort to this lifebuoy tactic on a regular basis. Remember: today’s objective has shifted and we’re now trying to prevent you from drowning. If you don’t try to make progress on your large-scale projects, you’ll be much more likely to need more “lifebuoys” in the near future, as these projects will suck the willpower and energy out of you on other days like today. Use a timer to make sure you work a full total of 60 minutes on the project.

D) Other tasks (1 to 4)
These are miscellaneous tasks that you could get done today but aren’t critical. Getting to these would be a bonus.

E) Reward
Write a reward for yourself for having accomplished the tasks on your plan for today. This reward should be substantial (watching a movie, taking a long bath, playing video games, etc.). I would recommend that you measure it in time and that it last at least a lofty 3 hours or even longer if you’re trying to salvage an entire day. Why such a generous reward? Because you really want to motivate yourself to have the self-discipline to stick to your plan throughout the next few hours to at least get a few things done today. The aim here is to give you enough hope and energy to hold on to the lifebuoy while you’re pulled out of a vortex of laziness. There are, however, some rules attached to the reward.

The rules for the reward are simple: you will promise yourself that you will only get the reward if you fully complete steps A, B and C of your plan for today:

  • A: Easy tasks (2)

  • B: Critical tasks (1 to 4)

  • C: 1 hour spent on a difficult task

The completion of your Other tasks (step D) are not necessary for you to get your reward, though there is a high likelihood that you’ll make some progress on these tasks once you have hit your stride. What you could do is to add some bonus time to your reward, if you’re able to check off all of the tasks on step D as well.

There is also some worth to writing out your tasks for today even if you don’t make any progress. Knowing that you potentially could have but didn’t do everything on your to-do list in order to deserve your reward will help keep you honest about your abilities and remaining energy level for now. This new knowledge will help you work in more rest time for yourself in the future, as well as improve your ability to estimate how much you can get done in a day. Essentially, this new information can help prevent you from burning out.

3.  Take a shower
Put down your paper list or device and, if you haven’t already, take a shower. It will help wake you up and feel energised. A warm shower is also a great way to work in some self-care and to mentally prepare for what’s ahead.

4. Get dressed
Don’t stay in your pyjamas all day. Get dressed. Put yourself together well enough that you would be comfortable going out for an errand. This will help improve your self-confidence for today and will also ensure that you’re able to go out and get things done that require you to be in public, if necessary.

5. Get to work
Grab the short plan you wrote in step 2 and start working your way down your list of tasks. Brew some coffee and have some snacks easily accessible to keep you going throughout your day.

6. Reward
You did it. The day was saved. You managed to stay productive despite how you felt earlier when you were stuck trying not to drown. Now you get to relax while also feeling proud about yourself and knowing that you have made progress on important areas in your life. Good job.

All in all, using this tactic, your day should look like this:

  • Write a short plan

  • Take a shower

  • Get dressed

  • Complete 2 easy tasks

  • Complete 1 to 4 critical tasks

  • Spend 1 hour on a difficult / complex task

  • Optional: make progress on other tasks

  • Reward (3+ hours)