Unproductive Days

Between the highs, there are lows. When did you disappoint yourself, drop the ball, give up, lose motivation, procrastinate – and how did you get unstuck? What is the role of your emotions and passions in productivity? How do you decide on new focuses or directions?

On Sept 20th, we started with these questions, moving on to talk about guilt, the power of the physical body, the “conflict” between valuing emotion and rationality, comparison and social pressure, the practice of acknowledgement and celebration, and why what’s worked for us has worked for us.

Here’s some of our questions and reflections — best used as just a starting point for your own takeaways:


  • Booking a class or a friend so I can get out and do something, esp when I really don’t want to
  • Making it easy to flow — outline big picture goals, clear action items, weed out distractions (ie close social media and messaging)
  • Pretending my tasks are coming from a good friend (rather than me)
  • Create a false sense of urgency by creating small chunks and having to get to places by certain times
  • Giving myself no choice — just taking the leap and doing it
  • Pretending my tasks are coming from a good friend (rather than me)
  • Keeping a visual record of all that I’ve accomplished that day
  • Writing, having something tangible to work with
  • Practicing or rehearsing (ie pretending to get up early and get dressed, go to the gym, sit down and start the first task)
  • Writing down the most important things and doing them first thing next day
  • Being honest about what I enjoy or do not enjoy
  • Actively dismiss the morality of productivity, of being a good/bad person
  • Placing notes to self — about what I love, hate, positive reminders, truths about humanity

Sharing made me realise it’s important to acknowledge what’s worked — I often dismiss or overlook what I’ve tried.


  • I’m more responsible to my commitments toward others than towards myself
  • Deadlines give me a tangible goal (whereas a project just being “important” is stressful and intangible)
  • I am more aware of my own interests and the expectations that are purely external or societal
  • I have ownership over what I’ve done, it’s a result of my own efforts
  • I started on a high note, a different mindset, and it was easier to keep up that momentum
  • Having a big external change (ie school, new apartment, new job) gives me a chance to change my habits
  • When I reflected on past decisions, I could more easily see a pattern
  • I overthink things, but if I start just taking physical action with my body, my mind eventually settles down and catches up

There are many productivity “hacks” and systems, and habits that we’ve refined on our own — they can work differently or not at all depending on the person, and for one person, they might help one day and not the next.

Awareness of the role of deadlines, emotions, social pressures, partners/friends/parents, passion/purpose, and more has been helpful in finding what works.


“Productivity” is about much more than getting things done.

  • “Feeling productive” versus “being productive” — there are days where I do a lot and feel like I’ve accomplished nothing
  • I can get things done, but I don’t know what to do, what direction to go
  • We’re taught to compartmentalise emotions, to be rational and keep it out of work. This made me unhappy and unproductive, so now I bring my emotions to work and work through them.
  • I have an internal reservoir — some work requires more from me than others. This means I can’t be at 100% all the time, and have to use my energy strategically, sometimes moving important tasks to another day.
  • Is reading about productivity or working through depression useful? What’s the balance between intake and digesting information?
  • How do I handle the physiological impact of stress and anxiety? This adds a layer of guilt, and confusion between my mood and mind state and what is mostly a result of physical stress.
  • How do I balance being inspired by a variety of ideas and focus?


  • I notice I simultaneously seek and reject external validation — I want independence over authority, but also look to others to decide what to do
  • I’d like to find some core passion and purpose, and I feel guilty that I both for not yet finding and also wanting it (feeling entitled to do work that enthrals me)
  • It’s hard to separate societal values from my own. For example, society values management, titles, and money, but what really fulfills me is execution and craft.
  • My parents view of success is different from my own — I want them to feel happy and proud of me, to not worry about me, and if feels like it would be easier to just do what they’d expect.
  • There’s a gap between habits that are good in theory and what I actually do
  • 30 Under 30 makes me feel unsuccessful. I feel pressure to do big things as young as possible — this is what gets press.
  • I sometimes use work as a distraction from uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s much easier to complete menial but clear and somewhat useful tasks, than to decide on my next direction.
  • I know it’s good to fail fast, and do a lot of experiments, so I feel particularly bad and stuck when I’m afraid to show imperfect work
  • I focus on what’s not done much more than what I’ve accomplished


One pattern that emerged was a desire to be more compassionate toward ourselves, and recognise highs and lows objectively (or checking ourselves when we overemphasize something).

  • Acknowledge others – instead of just focusing on what’s not done. People are infrequently recognised
  • Acknowledge self  for skills, thoughts, ideas, tough moments, tasks done, etc
  • It’s easy to dismiss acknowledgement as cliche or cheesy, but when I actually take time to celebrate what I’ve done or recognise my strengths, it gives me energy, happiness, and focus
  • I can’t be at 100% all the time, and that’s ok
  • I feel most productive in helping others, and supporting them to find their way — this isn’t typically considered productivity, but it makes me feel fulfilled
  • Check where my guilt and doubts are coming from. Check whose opinions I actually care about.
  • Recognise my “productivity” outside of work
  • I often compare my low moments to other people’s highlights and life’s work — this is unfair and not useful




Angela OgnevUnproductive Days
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