Sometimes, I get stuck on a project. It could be because I’ve come across a problem I can’t solve, because I’m not sure where to start, or even just good, old-fashioned procrastination.
When those moments happen, conventional wisdom says I should barricade myself in my office, put my nose to the grindstone, and push myself to get as much done as I possibly can before it’s time to go home (or worse — not go home until it’s done).
There’s only one problem: that doesn’t work for me. The more I push myself when I’m stuck, the more stuck I become.
What does work, however, are things that are often considered time wasters or distractions – aka, very unproductive things.
So here are 7 of my favorite ways to get motivated by wasting time, for anyone out there who’s struggling to complete a project (or actively avoiding one).
Bonus: if you’re in need of some motivation right this very second, reading this post is an excellent way to try this out!
- Do Something ElseWe get our best ideas in the shower because decreasing external stimulus (the scientific term for “doing something easy”) allows our brain to become more active, leading to those brilliant “a-ha!” moments.I use this to my advantage when I’m stuck on a project: instead of continuing to struggle through, hoping the answer will come to me, I do something routine and let my mind do its background work. It’s also useful because it whittles down all those little tasks on my to do list that I can never seem to get done, like filing or cleaning out my desk drawers.
- Do nothingI can get so frustrated with a task or project that it clouds my thinking. When this happens, I stop everything and take 5-10 minutes to focus on my breathing.Mindful breathing and meditation have a whole host of benefits, including increasing teamwork, creativity, and happiness. But studies have also shown that taking a few minutes to pay attention to our breathing can also make us better decision makers and rational thinkers.
Some days, I find it hard to slow down even for just those few minutes, so I keep this site bookmarked to help me to do nothing.
- Check Social MediaDespite its reputation as a distraction, social media has actually been shown to make us more efficient. In fact, the more social networks a person is on, the more productive they tend to be, just like those who socialize more at work.If I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, or even if I just need a little break, I have no qualms about checking one or more social media accounts, and letting it take me somewhere for a few minutes. And just in case the lure of easy dinner recipes and celebrity gossip is too strong, I use tools to keep me from going past the point of no return.
- Leave a task unfinishedIt’s called the Zeigarnik effect, and it’s the same thing that makes TV show cliffhangers so potent: if something’s unfinished, our brains can’t stop thinking about it.This is more of a preemptive way to stay motivated, so I typically use this any time I’m randomly struck by inspiration and want to keep that momentum going. If I’m in the zone, I stop before I hit a wall. When it’s finally time to return to the task, I’m usually able to get right back into it because I’m so excited to be working on it again.
- Only work for 5 minutesThis works in two ways: if I am avoiding something, committing to just 5 minutes makes it easier to start, and usually gets me over the hump of not feeling motivated. And because it leaves the task unfinished, it causes the Zeigarnik effect, which helps me stay motivated.Sometimes, though, it’s a task I don’t want to do, and those 5 minutes feel like 5 hours. In those instances, I just try to do 5 minutes every day, because doing a little of a task often will eventually lead to it getting done (no matter how much I hate it).
- Do lessIt seems like the best way to be more productive is to fill our time with as many tasks and projects as possible, but a study found that people who freed up more time in their day ended up increasing the quality of their work.When I start to feel like my productivity is tanking, the first thing I do is narrow down my to do list to just the Big 3 things I need to get done. Giving myself more space is often all I need to get motivated because it makes me feel more in control. And not only does it help me get back into a project, but it also helps me get it done well.
- Do the fun stuff firstThis one is a piece of advice from writer & director Joss Whedon: start with the fun stuff. It gives you a light at the end of the tunnel when you have to tackle the parts of a project or task you don’t find as fun.I will often put at least one fun task in my Big 3 and do it first whenever possible. Then I let the energy and confidence I feel while I do it influence the rest of the things I feel less motivated to do.
There are definitely many more “unproductive” ways to get and stay motivated, like going for a walk, chatting with your coworkers, or eating chocolate. Find the ones that are right for by trying a few and seeing what makes you feel the most motivated.
Now go forth and be unproductive!