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Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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How much of your day is really productive? According to Voucher Cloud,[1] the average office worker is only truly productive for about two hours and 23 minutes in a whole eight-hour day​​. That’s over five hours every day that’s not really getting you anywhere. It’s a lot of time slipping away.

It’s like being stuck in a rut – the more you try to climb out, the more stuck you feel. Ever finish a day and wonder, “What did I even do today?” You’re not alone in that.

The real trouble with not feeling productive isn’t just a bad day. It’s getting caught in a cycle of never-ending busyness, where you’re always busy but never really getting ahead. This can leave you feeling rushed all the time but not really getting much done.

In this article, we’re going to dig into why this happens and, more importantly, what you can do about it. If you’re looking to make your days count, whether you’re swamped at work or trying to make the most of your time, you’ll find some real, practical ways to step out of this productivity trap.


Why Do You Feel Unproductive?

Understanding the reasons behind unproductivity is the first step toward resolving it. Let’s explore some common culprits:

Drowning in an Ocean of Tasks

When your to-do list becomes a never-ending story, the sheer volume of tasks can be overwhelming. This overwhelm often leads to decision fatigue, where the more choices you face, the harder each one becomes to make. It can also trap you in analysis paralysis, where you overthink and underact. The mental load of too many tasks can make you feel stuck and reduce your productivity.

Losing Focus in a Connected World

In today’s world, distractions are like uninvited guests at a party, always popping up. Without effective distraction management, you can easily be pulled away from what you need to do. This is especially true if your day is filled with emails, messages, and unexpected meetings. These interruptions can hijack your focus, making it tough to stick to your main tasks.

When Control Slows You Down

The desire for perfection and control can be a double-edged sword. Striving for perfection can cause you to spend too much time on minor details, slowing down progress. For example, a writer who constantly edits their work may struggle to complete it. Sometimes, to move forward, you need to ease up on the reins of control.

Directionless Efforts

Having a clear goal is like having a GPS for your work; without it, you’re just driving around aimlessly. I remember an editor who felt lost in his work. He was busy but without a clear objective, his efforts were scattered. Once he understood the goal of his role, his productivity soared. A clear direction helps you focus your efforts and avoid wasting time on unproductive tasks.

Prioritization Paralysis

When you treat all tasks as equally important, you can end up spreading yourself too thin. Imagine a salesperson who prioritizes paperwork over client meetings. They might miss out on key sales opportunities. Prioritizing tasks helps you focus on what really moves the needle.

Running on Empty

Energy is a critical component of productivity. If you’re exhausted, your work will suffer. It’s like trying to drive a car without gas. In fields like healthcare, where long hours are common, lack of rest can lead to burnout and errors. Ensuring you have enough energy is crucial for maintaining productivity.

Loss of Motivation

Motivation is the fuel for productivity. If you’re not motivated, staying on task is a challenge. Factors like lack of recognition, inadequate compensation, or limited growth opportunities can sap your motivation. It’s important to address these external factors to maintain your drive and enthusiasm for your work.

What To Do When You Feel Unproductive

Tackling unproductivity isn’t just about working harder; it’s about working smarter. Whether your unproductivity stems from motivational issues or a lack of effective strategies, there’s a way forward.

If motivation is your stumbling block, it might be time to reevaluate your path. Are you engaged in work that truly matters to you? Check out Why You’re Feeling Restless and Unmotivated for insights.


If your challenge is more about how you work rather than why, here are 7 strategies to enhance your productivity:

1. Reflect on Your Goal

Begin by taking a step back and thinking about what you really want to achieve. Unclear goals can zap your motivation and productivity.

Ask yourself what matters most to you and define a specific, measurable goal aligned with your values and ambitions.

For example, if you’re a freelance writer, identify your ultimate aim. Is it to publish in a renowned magazine, write a bestselling book, or establish a popular blog? Having a clear end goal can give your daily efforts direction and meaning.

If setting long-term goals feels overwhelming, start small with weekly goals. These smaller objectives can spur you into action and give you a sense of achievement.


For a comprehensive approach to setting and achieving your goals, explore The Ultimate Guide to Achieving Goal. This guide can help you find your way.

2. Break Overwhelming Tasks Down into Smaller Ones

Facing a big, challenging task can often lead to procrastination. The key is to divide your goal into smaller, more manageable tasks. This makes it less intimidating and helps you build momentum as you tick off each smaller task.

A handy method for this is the Rewind & Reduce Method. Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Rewind: Start by working backward from your final goal. Identify the main milestones necessary to reach your goal. This gives you a clear roadmap and ensures you stay on track, saving time and effort.
  2. Reduce: Break each milestone into small, focused actions. Aim for tasks you can complete in about an hour. This makes it easier to estimate how long each task will take, ensuring a more efficient workflow.
  3. Summarize: Add up the time estimates for each task. This helps you create a realistic timeline.

For a deeper dive into this method, read How to Break Down a Large Project into Manageable Tasks.

3. Prioritize When Everything Seems Important

To manage your tasks effectively and prevent feeling swamped, prioritization is key. The Superstructure Method is a straightforward way to prioritize tasks intelligently.

This method involves categorizing tasks into three groups: “Must-Haves,” “Should-Haves,” and “Good-to-Haves.” You then schedule these tasks based on how well they align with your main goal.

Here’s an example to illustrate the Superstructure Method:

Picture yourself as a project manager juggling various tasks. Apply the Superstructure Method like this:

  • Must-Haves: These are essential for your project’s success. For example, finalizing the project plan and securing stakeholder approvals.
  • Should-Haves: Important but not critical tasks, such as scheduling team meetings or updating your project management tool.
  • Good-to-Haves: These are beneficial but not essential. Examples include organizing team-building activities or researching additional resources.

By focusing first on the “Must-Haves,” you ensure that you’re addressing the most critical aspects of your project first. This approach helps you stay focused and prevents you from getting overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks at hand.

You can learn more about prioritization in my other article How to Prioritize When Everything Seems Important.

4. Reclaim Focus with the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a simple yet effective way to boost focus and productivity. It involves working in 25-minute segments (each called a “Pomodoro”) followed by a 5-minute break. This structure helps maintain high levels of concentration during work periods and ensures regular rest.

Consider a marketing professional crafting a campaign proposal. They could structure their day using the Pomodoro Technique:

  • Pomodoro #1: Focus on drafting the campaign objectives and target audience. Afterward, take a break to stand, stretch, and refill their water bottle.
  • Pomodoro #2: Work on creating a list of potential marketing channels and tactics. Then, break for a short walk around the office or step outside for some fresh air.
  • Pomodoro #3: Develop the budget and timeline for the campaign. Use the following break for relaxation, like deep breathing exercises.
  • Pomodoro #4: Review and edit the proposal to ensure clarity and coherence.

Repeat this pattern to keep your focus sharp and your productivity high. After completing four Pomodoros, it’s important to take a longer break to recharge.

Learn more about how to implement this technique in The Pomodoro Technique: What It Is & How It Boosts Productivity.

5. Take Charge of Your Mental Energy

A primary productivity obstacle is distraction. While you can mute notifications and find a quiet workspace to tackle external distractions, it’s the internal distractions that are often harder to manage. These include negative thoughts and emotions that arise from daunting tasks, leading you to seek escape in less challenging activities.

As we’ve discussed, breaking down tough tasks can help manage these internal distractions. Additionally, practices like meditation and mindfulness can be incredibly effective in quieting a restless mind. They enhance focus and reduce stress.


Consider incorporating daily meditation into your routine. You don’t need anything fancy – guided meditation apps or simple deep breathing exercises for 10-15 minutes a day can make a big difference.

Learning to let go of what’s beyond your control and concentrating on what you can influence is also vital. For instance, when a team member fretted over a delayed shipment, I advised focusing on customer communication and finding alternative solutions instead of fixating on the delay.

The article How to Learn to Let Go of What You Can’t Control offers more insights on this approach.

By redirecting your focus to actionable areas, you can maintain productivity even in challenging situations.

6. Balance Your Energy Meter

Managing your energy is as important as managing your time. Different tasks drain our energy to varying degrees. For example, crafting a proposal is typically more mentally demanding than replying to emails.

It might seem efficient to lump all high-energy tasks together, like brainstorming, writing, and preparing presentations. But this approach can quickly deplete your energy, impacting your productivity.

To keep your energy levels steady, organize your tasks based on the energy they require. Intersperse high-energy tasks with lower-energy ones. And don’t forget to take regular breaks. Activities that rejuvenate you, like exercise, reading, or spending time outdoors, are crucial. They’re not just breaks; they’re recharging stations.


Learn more about managing your energy effectively in Your Guide to Boosting Energy.

By applying these strategies, you’ll not only combat inefficiency but also sharpen your focus and enhance your overall performance.

7. Sync Your Efforts with LifeHack’s Time Flow System

Let’s connect the dots between the productivity tactics we’ve explored above and LifeHack’s Time Flow System — a practical way to bring together everything from setting goals to managing your energy, ensuring you’re not just busy but effectively marching towards your real goals.

Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do

    Step 1: Pinpoint Your North Stars

    Think of North Stars as your big dreams, the ones we talked about when setting clear goals. They’re the guiding lights for all you do.

    • They give you clear direction. Just like setting specific goals, they keep you on track.
    • They’re your constants, changing only when your life takes a major turn.
    • They’re the backbone of your plan, keeping everything you do in line with your big picture.

    Step 2: Map Out Your Initiatives


    here are like breaking down those big dreams into smaller, doable chunks and figuring out what needs your attention first.

    • They’re your action plans. They reflect breaking big goals into smaller steps and prioritizing.
    • Flexible and adaptive, they always stay true to your North Stars.
    • Each one should push you closer to your ultimate goals, weeding out the less important stuff.

    Step 3: Dive into Focus Blocks

    Focus Blocks

    are about taking those prioritized tasks and giving them the undivided attention they deserve, much like using the Pomodoro Technique and keeping an eye on your energy levels.

    • They’re your dedicated work times. Similar to Pomodoro sessions but tailored to your tasks.
    • Each block has a purpose and a time limit.
    • Well-thought-out and prioritized, these blocks make sure your time is spent where it counts.
    • They’re about doing less but better, echoing the idea of keeping your energy levels in check.

    By weaving these steps with the strategies we’ve covered, the Time Flow System helps you not just manage your time, but also make sure every minute counts towards achieving what really matters to you.

    Find out more about the Time Flow System here.

    Final Thoughts

    We all hit a productivity wall now and then. The trick is to recognize what’s behind it. It could be a mountain of tasks, those pesky distractions, a dip in motivation, or just plain burnout. Knowing the root causes is half the battle.

    I urge you to roll up your sleeves and give these strategies a go. Stay upbeat and committed to bettering yourself. With the right mindset and a bit of elbow grease, you can break through those productivity barriers and tap into your true capabilities.

    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do

    Stop Feeling Unproductive

    7 Actions
    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do
    Reflect on Your Goal: Clarify what you want to achieve and set specific, measurable goals aligned with your values.
    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do
    Break Down Goals into Smaller Tasks: Use the Rewind & Reduce Method to divide large goals into manageable steps.
    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do
    Prioritize Tasks with the Superstructure Method: Categorize tasks as Must-Haves, Should-Haves, and Good-to-Haves, and schedule them accordingly.
    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do
    Use the Pomodoro Technique: Work in focused 25-minute intervals followed by 5-minute breaks to maintain concentration and avoid burnout.
    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do
    Calm Your Mind: Practice daily meditation or mindfulness exercises to manage internal distractions and maintain focus.
    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do
    Balance Your Energy Meter: Schedule tasks based on the energy they require and engage in activities that recharge you.
    Why You Feel Unproductive And What To Do
    Integrate Strategies with the Time Flow System: Establish your North Stars, define your Initiatives, and implement Focus Blocks to align your actions with your goals.


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