Bad days come in varying degrees. Everyone has “those” mornings — you spill coffee on your favorite shirt, realize you’re out of dog food and misplace the car keys … all before 8:00 a.m.
Then there are the really bad days: day-after-day heaviness as you cope with a major life stressor like a breakup, an illness or loss.
Reality can be a tough pill to swallow — especially when you have to traverse life while digesting it.
The stronger the emotion, the more likely it will affect your performance at work, according to career and executive coach Nancy Scheel, who runs Jody Michael Associates’ Atlanta office.
“When you’re feeling emotionally drained, it can be hard to concentrate — let alone do your best work,” she explains.
As Nancy emphasizes, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to powering through rough times. “For some people, work is a great distraction when they’re struggling with ‘real life’ issues. Others find it impossible to focus.”
Don’t Let a Bad Day Interfere with Your Productivity: 4 Areas to Consider
While it might be tempting to pull the covers over your head and hide — indefinitely — most of us have to pull ourselves up by the boot straps and get on with life.
What can you do when you feel so depleted by major life stressors? Nancy says that there are four main areas to consider in choosing the strategies that can help increase your productivity at work — even when you’re having a bad day. They are, as listed below, your internal world, your physical being, your social connections and your environment.
“We tend to forget at least one area of focus,” Nancy adds. “Usually, it’s our least favorite one or the one in which we feel the least adept. That area may be just the place to start.”
For each of the four areas, we’ve listed two potential strategies you can try to get your day back on positive footing.
“Know that it’s OK to experiment with different strategies. If you try one thing and it doesn’t work, drop it. And don’t beat yourself up about it, adding to your emotional burden. Coping is an extremely individualized process,” she says.
- “It’s all in your head”
Of course that’s not true. Life happens. Parents age, family members fall ill, basements flood, accidents happen, relationships end … and the list goes on.
While the events that trigger your emotional state might be impossible to circumvent, your response to them lies within your control. Only you really know your internal experiences; and only you hold the reins to manage your thoughts, moods and perspective.
Strategy: Separate the emotions from the story — Most of us are unaware that we often prolong negative emotions by feeding them with a deluge of thoughts. As neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte Taylor discovered, the brain circuit that starts with a thought, produces an emotion and results in a physiological response lasts less than 90 seconds. Ruminating, reliving the event over and over in your mind, retriggers the emotion. Nancy explains to clients. “Letting go of the content helps you isolate — and process — the emotion without adding fuel to the fire.”
Strategy: Engage in lower-level activities — If your job allows flexibility, take advantage of it. If you’re having a bad day, you can increase your productivity by taking a chunk of time to catch up on rote tasks, like filing reports or updating client records. Save diving head first into a new project until you’re in a better energetic state.
- The mind-body connection
The way you present yourself to the outside world is reflected in your somatic communication — posture, gestures, eye contact and tone of voice — and in your behavior. Even the way you dress has an impact on the way you feel, as well as how you’re perceived by others.
Strategy: Take good care of yourself — Eat well and drink a lot of water! When people are having a bad day (or a string of them), they tend to over-rely on caffeine and sugar, short-term fixes at best. A good night’s sleep also important for optimal brain function, especially during rough patches. In fact, recent research shows that increasing the quality of your sleep — rather than quantity — enhances cognition and mood state.
Strategy: Practice self-compassion — Do something nice for yourself, Nancy recommends. “It’s all about small indulgences. Don’t go off the deep end and eat an entire cake (you’ll likely regret that later), but listen to your favorite playlist on the way to work, or perhaps treat yourself to a new cologne or hand lotion during your lunch break.”
- Get by with a little help from your social circle
While you might feel like hibernating when you’re down in the dumps, for some people, a dose of socialization can do wonders to lift your spirits. As Nancy says, “People often feel a resistance to this when they need it the most; when you’re having a bad day, it may be tempting to push people away. Instead, try to allow others to lend support.”
Strategy: Accept social support — Even though you normally work through your lunch hour, or use that time to run errands, meeting a good friend for lunch can be a much more productive way to break the cycle when you’re having a bad day.
Strategy: Get out of your own head — By offering to help a co-worker on a project, or listening to someone else who’s having a bad day, you take the focus off yourself. Helping another person is a classic win-win strategy.
- Alter your physical environment
Sights, sounds and even smells can alter the energy of your physical surroundings, impacting your mood state. If you’re having a bad day, you might be more sensitive to minor annoyances, like construction noise. On the upside, there are many things you can do to tweak your environment. From lighting a scented candle to taking a walk outside, even the slightest change in the atmosphere around you can be liberating, calming or even energizing.
Strategy: Create order out of chaos — At work, taking 15 minutes to organize your workspace can dramatically improve your focus. “Asserting control over something seemingly trivial can be tremendously helpful — particularly during times when you feel as though the entire world has spiraled out of your control,” Nancy says. “It’s almost as if you say to yourself: ‘OK, life has gone haywire, but I can file this stack of papers.’ The results are tangible, and the sense of accomplishment is immediate.”
Strategy: Get outside — Spending time outside can help boost your mood regardless of the time of year. Even if you live in an urban center, taking a 20-minute break at a public park can reduce your stress levels.
What other strategies have you found helpful to boost your productivity at work — even on a bad day?