Why Unproductive Days at Work Are Necessary


The past two years have been tough.

I remember my last unproductive day at work all too well. I decided to work remotely instead of coming into the office.

Then I received a dreaded email that sent shockwaves through my body—a resignation. Our new employee I trained started working for two days and then bounced.

Already short-staffed, this was a blow to our team. What exactly went wrong?

I canceled my meetings to schedule a reluctant exit interview on her part. It wasn’t an exit interview as it lasted a total of two minutes. I referenced why she felt like this wasn’t the right position. Was it something the company did wrong? I immediately jumped to conclusions as to what could our team have possibly done to piss her off in two days?

It turns out it came down to our company not covering her dependent insurance premiums of $200/month. We cover the employee 100% and provide a fully funded HSA that employees can use on their qualified medical expenses (deductible, prescriptions, eyeglasses, etc.) While frustrated, I couldn’t stay mad. She needed to look out for herself and her daughter and take the best offer that came her way, even if it would burn a 2-day bridge with our company.

That day led to one of my most unproductive days at work. I vented to my manager. I did follow our process half-heartedly to fill the position again. But my heart wasn’t in it, and I spent most of the date updating my team members on what happened. My mood immediately soured and I was the poster child of unproductivity.

It’s not exactly something to brag about, right? All freelancers, entrepreneurs, and managers scorn unproductivity. The media always focuses on how to 10x your productivity so that you’ll experience financial freedom like never before! But unproductivity provides a powerful cure in small doses. I’d argue it’s necessary for your well-being and success.

Here’s how you can leverage your “unproductive” days to achieve a better you.

Unproductivity reminds us to prioritize our self-care

When I’m going through an unproductive streak, it’s because my mind is weighing on something else. I’ll have to remind myself that prioritizing my personal life over my career is necessary. Not every day, but there are days where it’s number 1 on my list.

I witness this first-hand every day. Working in a small company has its perks. But it also provides you with a unique front-row seat to your coworkers' lives. But, of course, you’re only privy to what people want to share.

As a human resources professional and confidant, many of my employees feel comfortable sharing their personal lives with me and vice versa.

One of the worst calls to receive is when someone experiences a death in their family. I remember my grandma lying in the hospital in critical condition. My parents gave me daily updates that she’s getting better to pray because the doctor said there’s not much time left.

As I tried to distract myself by going through my workout routine in the gym, I got the call. It’s intuition. I knew what words would be on the end of the other call before I answered. I paused one second longer to catch my breath and received the news I expected. My grandmother passed away, and the following days were anything but productive.

Around the same time, my coworker’s uncle passed away. He was like her second father. We leaned into each other for comfort, knowing that no words could make the pain go away. But the genuine effort provided a blanket of appreciation.

Work took a pause. We both took our respective time off to grieve and requested mental health days throughout the next few months. My colleague and I chatted about life, our plans, and how this next period would be a painful adjustment. The tears would flow, and grief would linger in our lives, permanently but temporarily all the same.

In the end, our bond got stronger. We trusted each other with our most profound and saddest thoughts through a difficult time. And it’ll happen again, although on less serious matters.

Unproductive days at work often result because something else takes priority. It’s perfectly acceptable to honor your priorities. Don’t forget about what you need.

Unproductivity helps us recognize the must-do’s

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” — Mark Twain

This quote inspired Brian Tracy’s philosophy on time management. In Tracy’s famous 2001 book Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, Tracy’s premise is simple: you should tackle the most challenging and most important thing on your to-do list every morning.

In my 9–5 job, I decided to do the eat the frog approach when I had an overwhelming list. Conducting my hardest task first means everything will come easy after that.

This approach is something I also mentor my team members on. We all have that one task at work that everyone hates doing. In my profession, it’s compensation benchmarking. They can be time-consuming and boring. It’s easy to push these to the side until they’re still not completed one week later.

I eat the frog with my writing side hustle too. There are so many days where I feel discouraged. Most of the time, this lies with not completing an article. My drafts lie forgotten in a graveyard full of half-baked ideas.

But while results are essential, consistency is more valuable. Every writer knows the struggle when they can’t achieve their flow state. The only thing we can rely on is discipline. Consistency is more important than any inspiration light bulb. Remaining consistent in writing will lead to better writing, captivating creativity, and progress for each piece I’m working on.

I don’t focus on completing articles. I focus on making progress. That can look like the following:

  • Writing down ten titles to create the best headline

It’s funny how on your most unproductive day, you can still get work done. However, once you reflect on your progress, you realize that you are hyperfocused on the must-dos.

Unproductivity provides a fresh start

Unproductive days lay the groundwork for a fresh start.

There’s a difference between being unproductive (not finishing all your tasks or not being as efficient as you’d like) versus not working at all. I’m not encouraging you to be an unproductive slump at work and get fired.

While not as frequent, I view an unproductive day as a reality check. It’s a hidden benefit that we all yearn to achieve. We put our superhero cape on and think we can fly through everything — work, family, health, etc. And that’s not always the case.

I used to berate myself for having an unproductive day. But that doesn’t help me improve. We need to accept unproductive time throughout our work. After all, it can provide you with a fresh slate.

It's a perfect opportunity to regroup after not completing what I’d like. I start over when I feel like I haven’t made any traction in my recruiting. I rewrite our job ads to attract more candidates. I recheck our salary data to ensure we’re competitive. I try something new. And the steps I set in motion start coming to fruition.

You must embrace your unproductivity today to reach your productive potential tomorrow.

A quick recap:

  • Unproductivity reminds us to prioritize our self-care. When you’re not plowing through work like a machine, something else is in your mind. And it’s giving you a nudge to not forget about it.

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