How to Get Out of a (Productivity) Slump

This summer started with a move — halfway across this big country! After nine years living in the city that had become home, leaving friends that were almost family behind, the TONS of books that will help me finish writing my PhD dissertation packed and loaded, we moved. I cannot deal with uncertainty. Are you like me? If you are, then you know the funk I got myself: living in temporary housing, not knowing where my kid will start school in six weeks, knowing that I will have to travel again for a residential fellowship in less than 6 weeks… As I said… funk!

For a teensy little summary of this blog click here!

My three-tasks-a-day routine wasn’t working. I thought making up my trusty lists would allow my mind to settle down and at least get the minimum done. But, that was not to be. I had to seek out other ways. Some productivity gurus say the three-a-day list is ideal because we think in threes (eg: Chris Bailey following Tim Allen’s Getting Things Done). Some others say no more than 4-6. On the other end of that spectrum, there are others who have said that to do lists are obsolete. So what was I to do?

When I am confused about anything in life, I go back to the sage advice my advisor gave me when I first started writing my dissertation. “When in a bind, think of the smallest step that you can take to move forward. The tiniest step.”

So I decided: until I get back to speed, I will only have one thing on my priority task list Just one.

The first day that I tried the strategy, I decided the task I had to tackle was to find a place for my kid’s haircut. I had other things on the list including responding to emails, updating my summer fellowship institution about my status and more important stuff but this one was a small to-do and a much needed one at that. So that’s what we did–I found a place in our new (temporary) neighborhood, made an appointment, and we walked over to get his haircut.

Time spent on task: 1.5 hours.

Then I cleaned up the house and cooked for the first time since we moved here.

The next day I took care of another big task: finding summer programs for the kid. I chose this one because it was weighing heavily on my mind and without the child in a program of some kind, none of my PhD-related work will ever get done! It took me more than a day to find a combination of camps and programs that did the trick. But when I finished the task, I felt this immeasurable relief, as if, life was returning to normal.

I automatically moved to the next task on my list–pending emails. It wasn’t even a conscious thought, I was on the laptop and I moved a tab over and opened gmail! It was only at the end of the day that I realized that I had gone from zero to three things on my to-do list in three days. Granted, these were not the heavy-weights of my task list but the important point was that I got started. I was back on track.

Just when I thought that I was the only person to have discovered the power of the one and one-only task list, Blinkist introduced me to Jeff Sander’s book on time management ‘The Free Time Formula’ where he points out that the most effective to do list is one where there is only one priority task. Priority, singular. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about priorities in plural! Our brain’s ability to multi-task is a myth. (Read this interesting article on why multitasking is bad for our brains.) So when you have a lot going on in your life, dial it down a bit and give the poor brain a breather.

The next time you are in a productivity slump, don’t try brain dumping or any of the hundred other productivity hacks that ask you to do more or have many steps to them. (I personally love brain dumping rituals and do it regularly, but I find it unsuitable in a slump situation. If you want me to do a post on my version of what a brain dump is and when it helps, leave a comment below.) When you are in a slump, the ideal thing to do is to baby step your way around your to do lists. After all, the slow and steady tortoise did win the race now, didn’t she!

You know how this story ends! Be the tortoise!!

How to get out of a productivity slump in five easy steps:

  • Do not make to-do lists if they make you anxious. (Even if they usually make you happy!)
  • Give yourself a few minutes of quiet time and assess what is the one task (big or small) that’s bothering you the most. (Psst… it can be just taking a shower. It’s summer after all.)
  • Do the task that you chose. Don’t assign a time or a specific number of hours to get it done. Just do it when you can and the best you can. Take one day or as many days as you need to finish it.
  • Once you are done with that task, hurray! You are not slumping anymore. Move on to the next task that is occupying your mind. Repeat step above.
  • Continue your one task priority listing (and doing) as long as you need to get over the slump. I guarantee you, it won’t take you more than two tasks to get back on track!
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