Why Your Most Productive Days Might Be the Ones When You Get the Least Work Done
Being productive is different from being busy.
Busy person isn’t always productive, and a productive person isn’t always busy. It’s all about focusing your energy and making the most of the limited 24 hours we have every day.
Everyone has those busy, exhausting days—the ones where you’re just trying to keep the wheels on and put out all the fires. Don’t get me wrong, those days are essential to any business. However, they don’t leave you with a lot of time to step back and think critically about what you’re doing and why. Maybe if you did have that time, you’d realize that some of those tasks you spent hours on could be done way more effectively.
That’s why your most productive days are often your “thinking days”—those times when you’re able to step back from the day-to-day chaos and analyze your work as a whole. You may not get a lot done in terms of tangible results. However, that time away from your routine may result in developing new processes to save you time, or they may give you an idea to help attract new leads. They may lead to the launch of a new product. A thinking day could be just what you need to grow your business, better lead your department, or plan for a big career change, but none of that is possible when you don’t leave yourself time for critical reflection.
That’s why I believe that everyone could benefit from taking an occasional thinking day to reflect on where they are, what they want, and how to get there. So, if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, it may be time to take your foot of the gas and think up a new approach.
How to Make the Most of Your “Thinking Days”
Taking a thinking day isn’t an excuse to turn on Netflix or take a nap (even if it is well-earned). You still need to treat the process as work. While you should feel free to put your to-so list away, you’ll still want to adopt a loose structure for your day to help guide your thinking, so here are some activities you can work into your day to help you explore and focus your thoughts:
Sit down with a pen and paper or at your computer—whatever works best to allow you to express your thoughts. Set a timer for 20-30 minutes, and just write out your plans and ideas for your business or your department.
- What kind of company do you want to build, and are you there yet?
- Where do you see yourself in a year? What about 5 years? What needs to happen for you to achieve that?
- Are there any major holes in the market that your competitors aren’t satisfying?
- Are there any new products or services you should be offering to better compete in your market?
- What are your major challenges?
These are some loose questions that you can use to guide your thinking, but you can feel free to follow your thoughts wherever they lead you. Don’t worry about grammar or writing in complete sentences. Just write. Or draw. Or whatever helps you put what’s in your head down on paper.
This is a perfect warm-up activity because it allows you to explore the ideas that you don’t usually take the time to put into words see where they go. Maybe you sit down with the intention of thinking up ideas for your marketing strategy, but you end up exploring the possibility of a new product offering.
Don’t feel as though you have to limit yourself in this stage. While a few of your ideas may not be feasible in the short term, they may still lead you to a surprising and worthwhile thought.
Read and Research
We all have our blind spots—those things that we never really learned or have failed to continue learning as we grow.
You may not typically have the time to read all the industry periodicals or stay up to date with the latest industry trends. Maybe you’re the type who has had to learn as they go, and you may still have significant gaps in your knowledge of either your industry specifically or running a business in general. Often, we don’t even know how much we don’t know—that is, until we start reading, listening to experts, or researching our competitors.
No business can thrive in a vacuum. It’s imperative for small business owners, leaders, and entrepreneurs to take time to fill in those knowledge gaps and keep current. Otherwise, you’ll get left in the past.
Now’s the time to find a topic—a buzzword you’ve heard lobbed about at a conference or a new technology you saw cross your news feed—then find out everything you can about it. Be curious, and let yourself fall down the rabbit hole. If you come across another word or concept that you’re unfamiliar with, check that out as well. (Just don’t let yourself end up scrolling through Facebook or reading celebrity gossip instead of working.)
You can set a timer on this activity as well to keep yourself on track, and when you’re done, take some time to jot down some notes and think about how you can apply these ideas to your business.
Find Your “One Thing”
This is an idea that was popularized in The One Thing: The Surprising Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. Basically, the modern myth in business is that everything matters equally. Responding to that Facebook message matters as much as filling out that form which matters as much as creating that sales presentation, and so on and so on until you’re burnt out and feeling like you’re being pulled in a hundred different directions.
The truth is, however, that not everything should be #1 on our priority list. It isn’t to say that only one thing matters but rather that one thing matters at a time. Your goal is to find that one thing that could have the most significant effect on your business, and you put your work into creating systems and models to put that one thing into practice as effectively as possible.
What’s the ONE thing you can do quickly that will make most other things easier or even unnecessary? Figure that out, and you’ll save yourself a whole lot of pointless work and hardship.
No, I’m not talking literally, but just imagine this: If you had to fire yourself, who would you want to take over your business/department/job?
You may be thinking of a specific person or just an amalgamation of ideal traits. Either way, your goal is to identify how you would want that person to look, to behave, and to think. While you aren’t going to get Tim Cook or Bill Gates to come take over for you, you can start to envision the type of leader who will get you the results you want.
Once you have that image in your mind, think about the steps you can take to become more like that person. What knowledge do you need to have? What mindsets do you need to adopt? What behaviors will make you a better leader for your team?
This is a thought exercise that forces you to think critically about yourself and face your weaknesses head on. Every successful business starts with successful leadership, so it’s worth putting some thought into improving yourself to better serve your team and your customers.
Getting Back to Work
Whenever I come up with a new idea for my work, I’m excited to put that idea into practice. The key, however, is to keep that motivation going even after the avalanche of everyday responsibilities comes crashing back down.
To keep yourself accountable to the goals you set during the course of your thinking day, you need a plan—a daily habit, a schedule, a system that will remind you of your aspirations and keep you on the road to success. So, make sure that, before you go back to work, you put a long-term plan in place to help you reach your goals. You may choose to make a calendar with deadlines to achieve certain objectives, a comprehensive plan for the future, or just a to-do list of tasks that you must achieve. Whatever you do, give yourself something tangible and tightly focused that you can use to refer back to and habitually make progress toward.
Just because you’re working hard, doesn’t mean you’re moving forward, and growth isn’t achieved by doing the same thing you’ve always done. Great leaders are constantly stepping back and analyzing both their work and themselves to pinpoint areas for improvement. Taking a day to stop being busy and learn how to be more productive in meeting your goals could be just what you need to push yourself further.