Dealing With Unproductive Days

You’ve been staring at the laptop screen or notebook for what seems like ages, downed umpteen cups of coffee, checked your Instagram every five milliseconds and somehow ended up watching funny animal videos for sixty-seven minutes straight. Unproductivity has many shapes and forms, but for most of us it’s a guilt-inducer. And while we do try and guard against it as much as possible, sometimes the very act of squeezing productivity out of ourselves leads to less work done.

We’ve all had days like these, and we’d all love to be handed the key to permanently warding them off. There’s no such key, I’m afraid, but there are ways to pick oneself up and keep going despite having had such days. (And believe me, I’ve had a colossal number of them).

The first thing we need to understand is what goes into an ‘unproductivity fit’, so to speak.

There are two aspects to it. First, there’s the fact of being unproductive itself. You were supposed to get work done, you didn’t. There were goals you had set, which you didn’t meet. Time that could have been spent on useful pursuits got wasted because you weren’t focused enough. That’s the ‘material loss’ aspect.

The second aspect is the guilt spiral that kicks in. You didn’t work today. And you didn’t work yesterday either. Look around you, everyone else is working. They’ll go on to accomplish things. You won’t. You’ll just stay at the bottom like the sad sack you are. You’re ruining your own life. You’re no good and you never were any good. You don’t deserve for anything good to happen to you. You’re a failure. You suck.

If you ask me, it’s hard to pick which is worse. And unfortunately they always seem to come together. (As if one negative emotion weren’t bad enough to deal with.)

And if you’re a writer, that’s not where the story ends.

You see, the writer’s psyche is a complicated one. We’re high-strung folks. We’re prone to fits of negative emotion. We’re always on the lookout, consciously or not, for opportunities to shove work aside and hate ourselves instead. It sounds melodramatic, but then we are melodramatic. It appears to be the nature of the beast – if you want to create art, you need to be at least partially a mess. And then there’s the other bitter pill to swallow, which is that creativity simply can’t be forced sometimes. Even when we try and block out distractions, even when we divert our mind to other activities in the hope of breaking out of creative lethargy, it doesn’t always work. “If you don’t succeed once, keep trying” doesn’t necessarily work. We’re forced to deal with the fact that our creativity – our lifeblood – can and does often fail us. And when it fails us, we’re left with a void – a void of black despair about what we’re doing with our lives and why we’re so unlucky. So while non-creatives might recover quickly from having been unproductive, we writers are likelier to take a big hit to our mental health, one that leaves long-lasting after-effects.

In short, we need to take extra care to keep the negativity of not having been productive within manageable limits.

So how do you do that?

The first step is to define what ‘manageable’ means to you. Are you fine with grumbling for half a day and then spending the last hour or so watching Netflix because it’s too late to start anything new? Okay. Are you more the sort who’d cry furiously for an hour, take a hot bath, make some coffee and then restart? That’s okay too. There’s no right or wrong way to cope with feelings. What’s important is to do the coping and allow them the leeway they need to wear themselves out. So whether you’ve given yourself half an hour or half a day, make the most of it and lament your heart out.

After a point, you’ll find that you’re tired. Those feelings have taken a lot out of you. Now’s the time to relax, get yourself a nice hot drink and think – calmly, without stressing – of things you can do to salvage the day. Maybe there isn’t enough time left to work in earnest on a project (or maybe you’re just not in the mental space for it) but can you write some notes for a project? Can you read a couple of short stories? Can you freewrite for one or two pages? Can you look up some magazines you can submit your work to? Anything that counts as progress towards your writing goals, counts as being productive. And maybe, if you’re up for taking a crack at your writing regardless of how much time is left, you could end up surprising yourself. Maybe, fuelled by the guilt of not doing anything all day, you could produce some fine writing in that half-hour before bed. And even if you produce only average writing, it still counts. It’s still work that would not have happened if you hadn’t pushed yourself. It’s something positive you did, and you should feel proud of yourself for it.

And if you do try salvaging the day and it still doesn’t work, take a step back and have another look at your feelings. Maybe there’s something more serious on your mind that isn’t letting you relax? Maybe you’ve been stressed for a long time and it’s all coming out now? If that’s the case, it’s healthier to lose one workday and let yourself feel and recover as you need to. Consider it an investment in all the days to follow – if you’ve given your stress centre-stage today, chances are you won’t need to give it a role at all tomorrow.

Ultimately, everyone has unproductive days even when they try to avoid against them. The trick is not to wish that they won’t happen but to be prepared for dealing with them when they happen. Know when to give yourself leeway to feel all day, and know when to push yourself harder and get down to work despite not feeling your best. The more such days you go through, the better attuned you’ll be to your needs, and the less risk you’ll run of succumbing to the allures of cat videos when there’s a great story to be written.

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