How Not to Be Productive

How not to be productive

You must have noticed how your productivity fluctuates day to day: sometimes you can’t concentrate or the mood isn’t right, or your flow is broken by frequent interruptions.

On other days you’ll feel like you could do everything twice over and still climb the Mt. Everest whilst holding your breath!

These extreme fluctuations used to annoy me as I struggled to be in control of my own productivity. To-do lists just made me more anxious, especially on the days when I failed to tick all the boxes.

I thought Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity chain would be a great idea, but I still cheated and then the guilt of having cheated would pile on even more pressure.

In the end I realised I was spending more time trying to learn how to be productive and forcing myself to put a vast array of techniques into practice than working. All too often I felt I was lagging behind and wouldn’t ever catch up.

Even worse, my work wasn’t always consistent because my productivity would oscillate so much.

It’s true that there are many chance circumstances that can affect your productivity and output on a given day, but it took some time before I acknowledged that there are so many other variables over which I had no control. It’s pretty crazy that I hadn’t thought to leverage these to help myself remain consistent.

The good news is that my productivity is no longer like a sheet in the wind. Sure, I still have bad days, but even then I can remain fairly in control of the end result. And, all it took was changing these three “dont’s” into “dos”!

Here are 3 steps to how not to be productive.

1. Not sleeping enough

As sick as I was of hearing advice to sleep instead of stretching my workday well into the night, I learned that sleeping is what makes the difference between being busy and being productive.

Lack of sleep causes our attention to slip more frequently whilst also making it harder to recover from interruptions.[1] Even without factoring in a lack of sleep, our work is likely to get worse the longer we are awake.

This is can be attributed to our need for sleep building throughout the day, making it harder to maintain alertness and remain motivated and engaged.

Getting by on 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night, I thought I was sleeping enough. However, research reveals there is a vast gap between how sleepy we think we are (i.e. not much) and how sleepy we really are[1] (a lot), especially if it’s been a while since we last got a good night’s sleep.

Contrary to my workweek habit, on the weekend I would always sleep in — a telling sign of sleep deprivation and sleep debt.

Studies suggest it’s particularly important for young adults to get enough shut-eye, as their working memory and attention are seriously impacted by repeated sleep loss[2].

I, myself, have often cut back on sleep in order to get something done or read a book. If only I’d known then that following just one night of sub-optimal sleep (less than 5 hours) one’s abilities and performance suffer more than they would after almost two sleepless days.[3]

If science suggests that just sleeping can already increase productivity, why aren’t more of us doing it?

2. Failing to feed positive emotions

Did you not hear that being happy at work increases productivity? It has been shown that a happy worker can take on a bigger workload without the quality of his work suffering.

If you feed and experience positive emotions (e.g. enthusiasm, satisfaction), it is likely you are improving your productivity. I should know — many times after we’ve had a few laughs in the office, I not only get a boost in my mood, but find it easier to get into a task and then just breeze through it.

Other methods to improve the mood at one’s workplace include putting more plants in the office or taking a break for a nap!

If it’s not possible to improve the lighting in the office, just spending some time in the sunshine might also help for a more positive mood.

However, when I’m struggling at work without laughs to boost my mood, there’s nothing like a bout of exercise to refresh my mind, which brings us to the last ‘don’t’…

3. Avoiding physical activity during the workday

It might seem ludicrous to exercise on one’s lunchbreak — it’s a bother, you’ll waste time showering and re-applying make-up, yada yada yada. However, a midday workout has been shown to improve a person’s productivity and it can help them drop a few pounds to boot!

Alternatively, getting exercise in before a shift at work should have the same benefits.

Interestingly, physical activity has been proven to increase productivity both in terms of increasing our ability to manage our workload and increasing how much we actually do. It has been also shown to decrease daytime sleepiness, missed responses and help us sustain attention. As you may well know, exercise also boosts mood and concentration.

Best of all, I don’t always find it necessary to dash off to the gym to do it — a walk around the office and (dare I say it) a run up the stairs will do almost as well in helping me focus and demolish any task for the following few hours.

However once 3pm has rolled around only a walk paired with a breath of fresh air will help me fight the inevitable drop in productivity. You really don’t have to be an avid gym goer to benefit from physical activity.

Ultimately, each person will likely have their own tricks to boost their morale and productivity, but sometimes it’s worth having a look at the bigger picture – are there any factors you haven’t considered yet that could be leveraged to bring your productivity up a notch, or three?


[1] Durmer, J.S., Dinges, D.F. (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology 25(1), 117-129.

[2] Van Dongen, H.P.A., Maislin, G., Mullington, J.M., Dinges, D.F. (2003). The cummulative cost of additional wakefulness: dose-response effects on neurobehavioral functions and sleep physiology from chronic sleep restriction and total sleep deprivation. Sleep 2, 117-126.

[3] Pilcher, J., Huffcut, A.I., (1996). Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta analysis. Sleep, 19(4), 318-326.

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A night owl turned sleep enthusiast Helena contributes to the Sleepio blog, bringing you the latest sleep research and up-to-date information on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.


  1. Jorge Diaz on the 31st May

    Thanks Helena! Great article! Nice tip about the 3pm walk 🙂

    • Helena Pilih on the 4th June

      Hi Jorge, thanks – it’s my favourite one! 🙂

  2. Kristy M Lopez on the 31st May

    How odd…I have noticed the same things. If I don’t want to be productive then I’ll decide to stay up super late watching a movie (that I can usually watch at any time), I’ll nurture those negative emotions and stay in a fowl mood, and I’ll just sit at my desk all day and not walk around to get the blood flowing. Yeah…these are things I really do try to avoid. Being productive can be advantageous to keeping your job.

    • Helena Pilih on the 4th June

      Hi Kristy, thanks for sharing – great point about negative emotions! They too have been found to hurt our productivity! In this 2009 study ( workers who often experienced any positive emotion were able to tackle more work whilst maintaining the same high quality to their work.

  3. Katie Paterson on the 31st May

    Great article, great reminder that we need to take care of ourselves first so that we can take care of business when at work!

    • Helena Pilih on the 4th June

      Hi Katie, I completely agree and wish you the best of luck in taking care of business!

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