Focus On This Podcast

105. Helpline: How to Make Progress on “Off” Days



Some days you just aren’t on your toes. You didn’t sleep well the night before. Or you fought with someone you care about. Or you’ve received some bad news. It’s hard to show up and get stuff done. But your work doesn’t just disappear because you’re having an off day. What do you do when you feel off kilter?

In this episode, Courtney, Verbs, and Blake walk through four tips for balancing productivity with self-kindness when you’re having an “off” day. These days happen to everyone. The key is having grace for yourself and using the right tools to set yourself up for momentum and success the next day.

In this episode, you’ll discover—

  • How small actions can get you into the rhythm of the day
  • The power of rituals to help you start feeling more like yourself
  • Why it’s okay to dial back to a Big 1 or a Big 2 on “off” days
  • When taking care of yourself may be your highest-leverage move

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Episode Transcript

Verbs: Welcome to another episode of Focus on This, the most productive podcast on the Internet, so you can banish distractions, get the right stuff done, and finally start loving Mondays. I’m Verbs, here with Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton. Once again, happy Monday to you both.

Courtney: Happy Monday.

Blake: Happy Monday to you, good sir.

Courtney: I was getting little dance moves in there before we got on.

Verbs: I didn’t know if you were on the Peloton there or if you were just…

Courtney: I got a new stand-up desk, and I have one of those balance boards so you can go back and forth, and it is strangely entertaining. So, I apologize at the front of this podcast. If I have too much energy for you, let’s blame it on the stand-up desk. I recommend it for all the people.

Verbs: Freedom. Blake, this is normally where you chime in, so I’ll pass it to you.

Blake: Oh, right, right.

Courtney: We’re recording a podcast.

Blake: Funny quip.

Courtney: We talk about this all the time. We talk about this more offline than online, but I laugh at your jokes so much, even when I try not to. I listen to the podcast, and I think, “Oh my gosh! Stop laughing. It’s not that funny. Stop laughing.” I will make a joke, and Verbs and Nick (our producer) will both laugh, so I know it’s funny. It’s two out of three. Okay? It’s funny. Blake looks at me with a straight deadpan look. You’re welcome, Blake. I’m going to try to hold back this episode. I’m going to try to reign it in, hold the laughs.

Blake: Okay. Cool. That’ll be my challenge. I like having a little challenge every episode. It helps me stay on my toes.

Courtney: Great. Let’s do it.

Verbs: Yeah, because as you say, “Stay on your toes,” there are some days where you just aren’t on your toes, and those are referred to, commonly, as your “off” days. Not like you’re on paid time leave or anything like that.

Blake: Whoa!

Courtney: You’re the master.

Verbs: This is the transition of the century right here.

Blake: These transitions…

Verbs: All right. Guys, today we’re talking about “off” days. Not your paid time off off days or just checking out of work for a couple of days, but days where you just don’t feel like you’re on your toes. You’re not on it at all. Have either one of you recently…? Obviously, times have been crazy, but have you recently experienced a day where you just felt like it was hard to show up for work and get stuff done? Courtney, I see that hand.

Courtney: Last week… I kid you not. It was perfect timing for this podcast. My husband Chase and I, after the night was over, looked at each other and said, “Did the kids just unite against us?” Like, forces… They were like, “Let’s do this. Let’s show the parents what we’re made of.” Our youngest, who is an incredible sleeper, 8 months old… She was awake the first half of the night with a runny nose, so all that stuff, like steam showers… You name it, we tried it. It was great. Awesome.

Then we’re finally like, “Oh, we’re going to go back to sleep. This is going to be amazing.” Then our 5-year-old had nightmares the whole second half of the night. Literally, at the end of the night, my husband and I looked at each other and were like, “Legitimately, how much sleep did we get?” and we were like, “Probably two hours.” I mean, it was a train wreck. The next day, I had a four-hour coaching session, and then I had an executive team meeting that day.

Verbs: On the same day. Wow.

Courtney: I literally felt like I was floating. Do y’all ever feel like that? You know, when you just have not had enough sleep that you’re kind of like, “I feel like I’m on cold medicine over here.” That was my most recent “off” day. It was a week ago.

Verbs: Blake, what about you?

Blake: Oh boy. There was this time in 2008, the economic crisis, I think I got in a bad mood once.

Courtney: I laughed again.

Blake: Does it count if you’re sick? I feel like I’ve had two colds this summer somehow. It’s always where you feel like… Especially because we’re all equipped to work from home. It’s like, “Well, I can work. I’m not going to go out and start shaking hands with everybody, or anything, but I can be online and do it,” but you feel out of it.

Another time recently that was an “off” day, maybe off in terms of productivity, but being kind of… When you come back from vacation, but you feel like that vacation time could have been one or two more months longer than what it was…I mean days. And you go, “Oh, yeah. I have to gear back in and slide back in, and I’m sort of out of touch with the rhythm of work because I’ve been away for five or six days,” or something like that. So, last month for me was a few of those, both sick and coming back from vacation.

Verbs: Yeah. Amazingly, somehow, your work just doesn’t disappear because you’re having an “off” day. That’s just the fact of the matter. It’s not exact science, but today we’re going to walk you through four tips for what to do when you’re experiencing those “off” days.

Courtney: The first tip is to start with small wins. We talk a lot about momentum. When you feel off, everything is a little harder. If you’re floating around, feeling like you’re on cold medicine, it is harder. We talk about this a lot with goal setting, that you want to set the bar low, so low you trip over it, like, getting started is so easy. That same principle can be applied when you’re having an “off” day.

What you don’t want to do is go try to tackle that massive project you’ve been putting off for a month because it is so hard. Most likely, what would happen if you did that is you would just give up and go to sleep or you would fail. What you’re really looking for is something easy. That might look like just setting your Big 3 for the day, especially if you’re in the habit of doing that. It’s probably going to be pretty habitual. It’s probably going to be something easy for you to do.

Maybe respond to the most important email in your inbox. It’s an easy task for you to do. Maybe mark off one task that has been nagging you for a while but isn’t that huge project I was referring to earlier. The idea is not to get pulled into low-leverage work but just to give yourself a little bit of stretching, if you will, to get rolling and get a little bit of momentum as you get into your day. What about you two? How do you set small wins early in the day?

Blake: I don’t want to step all over our next tip. I’ll kind of allude to it. You talked about habits, Courtney. Sometimes when I’m having an “off” day, usually it’s I stayed up late the night before, for some reason, or I didn’t get enough sleep, or something like that, and things can be starting off late or behind or tired.

I think what helps me… I literally had this this morning where my normal routine time started later. What I did is I just went through the motions of it even though I shrunk the activity time very small, because even just doing it… I literally went to the gym so late I had time for, I think, two exercises. I was in my car longer than I was at the gym, probably, but I wanted to reinforce that. “Hey, I went there. I came back.”

Before we started our day recording podcasts and stuff… Normally, I have more time getting everything ready and some time to do some meditation. Literally, I set a timer for 90 seconds on my phone just to have 90 seconds worth of meditation time. That, to me, is a small win: taking maybe what you would normally do that would feel like a win and just saying, “Hey, even though I can’t do it all out, I can do a little bit, and that little bit will put me in the right direction.”

Verbs: I’m with Blake on that. Just small things going into the day where at least it’s like, “Okay. I was at least aware enough and capable of accomplishing the process of making coffee.” Or just even itemizing what the Daily Big 3 should look like, knowing, “Okay. I’m setting myself up so I at least know what I can focus on today.” Those small wins really help gain the little bit of momentum you may need to get into the rhythm of the day if need be.

Blake: Which leads us to the second tip: reconnect with your rituals. Courtney, you had mentioned about setting the Big 3, how maybe you’re already in the habit of doing that. When you’re feeling off, rituals matter more than ever, because the idea of a ritual is it’s something that puts you in a mental, emotional, even physical state without a lot of effort because you’ve built this habit. You’ve automated the practice.

Just like brushing your teeth and getting dressed in the morning feels automatic or driving to your office feels automatic, a ritual can become an automated way to go from feeling totally out of sorts and off to feeling more like yourself. Courtney and Verbs, we talk about four primary rituals, but when you’re having an “off” day, which of those four do you find yourself leaning into or utilizing to help you get back on track? How does that flow for you?

Courtney: The one that is the easiest for me is the one I lean into when I feel off, and that’s my workday startup. I feel like I’m in such a great practice of that it feels more intuitive. I want to say the one I probably should lean into the most is my morning ritual, but usually that involves working out and getting up earlier, and those things are harder for me on an “off” day.

So, usually my morning ritual gets compressed, but my workday startup… I want to leave that as close to what I do every day so that everything that follows it feels like, “Okay. This train is back on track” and the work can flow from there. Now, do I wish I still got my Peloton workout on when I had only slept two hours? I do, but it’s just not realistic, and I think there are times where life happens.

Verbs: Yeah. For me, normally if I’m having an “off” day, it’s probably due to a lack of sleep or an interruption of sleep, so what becomes important is that evening ritual of saying, “Okay. I just need to prep myself for this next day, make sure I go to bed at a decent time,” and not feel like, “All right. Well, let me just end the day watching a movie,” or something like that, because I’m just going to be more tired and it’s going to compound. So, normally, it’s just getting a good rest in the evening and making sure I’m walking down into that evening ritual and getting some good rest.

Courtney: All right. That’s a good segue to our next tip, which is to cut yourself some slack. I talk about having grace with ourselves a lot on this podcast. Just like we were talking about, it really is not practical for me to go do a 45-minute Peloton ride after I’ve slept two hours. I don’t think anybody in the world would be like, “Yeah, that’s a good usage of what you should be doing.” In the same way, we wouldn’t expect a runner who was sore to go set their personal record. It’s just not feasible, even for ourselves.

If we think about our work as our performance, like an athlete, it’s just not realistic to expect of ourselves that we’re going to have our highest, most productive days on our “off” days. Now, again, hopefully these tips help salvage some of that where you are still productive, but give yourself grace. Give yourself the ability to say, “Yeah. I only slept two hours last night. I’m going to do everything I can to get this train back on the track, but it’s not going to be the most productive day of all time.”

Blake: I think it’s helpful to renegotiate your commitments as a form of cutting yourself some slack. If you recognize, “Hey, crap hit the fan” or “I’m completely exhausted because some emergency happened last night,” or whatever happened, if you can look at your calendar… Maybe you had this Big 3 planned for the day already that you set the day before or you had some meetings in place…

Figure out what can go. What could be rescheduled? Which of those meetings could be put off until tomorrow? What things from even the Big 3… Maybe there are some things that don’t absolutely have to be there. With other people and with yourself, try to under-promise, because that’s a good way to create some buffer for what will likely be a less-than-optimal productive day from you.

Verbs: Sure. I think that’s important just to… Again, part of having grace with yourself is realizing and acknowledging “Hey, I’m not at 100 percent today, and I’m no less of who I am if I have to dial back on my Big 3 or renegotiate some of those commitments. I just have to set myself up, wanting to get through the day until I get back into a normal rhythm.”

The fourth tip is take care of your needs. I have what, I feel like, is a great example for this tip as we’re coming out of this 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The big discussion was Simone Biles. Now I know a lot of people had to say whatever they had to say when she backed out of a few of the events, but to me, this is a prime example of taking care of your needs. Simone Biles is a world-renowned gymnast who has won multiple medals, so if she says, “Hey, I’m not at 100 percent today…”

I read an article about this thing… I guess in the gymnastic world it’s called air awareness. So, if she’s saying, “Hey, here’s what’s ahead of me in these routines, and I feel like I’m not feeling right when I’m in the air and doing these twists, and all that…” For her to say, “I’m just going to pull out,” and her stepping away or out of that event could have been life-saving for her, at least physically, mentally, and emotionally, probably. But having that awareness to say, “I need to take care of my mental health in this area, even if that means pulling out of an Olympic world competition. If that has to be done, then so be it.”

I feel like that was maybe an example for not only athletes who were there participating, as I’m sure some of them took some of those same steps to regain their mental health in that situation where it’s a high-pressure situation, but I think that’s a lesson we could also take away of just saying, “Hey, acknowledge this is what’s going on. Let me go take care of my need before I get back to my normal performance pace.”

Blake: I think there’s a mindset shift that needs to happen for you to take care of yourself. You bring up Simone Biles, and the thought crossed my mind, she is a multi-gold medalist. She’s already a champion. Sometimes I think it’s hard… I think about my own self. It’s hard for me to take time or resources to take care of a need or even ask, “What do I need that I’m not getting?” and take care of myself if I’m in this head space of “I’m a failure” or “I’m behind and everything is going to fall apart.”

If you have a view of yourself of “I am a productive person. I can accomplish the most important things in my day,” and whatever your highest contribution is to your job, or whatever else, to be like, “No, I am successful, and it’s because I’m a successful person that I can afford…” Simone Biles isn’t done. Not only is she a champion; she knows she’s a champion-to-be. She literally medaled like 15 minutes later, which was remarkable, you know, coming back.

Courtney: We’ve talked about her as a champion. She’s not just a champion. She is the greatest gymnast of all time. This is the best of the best of the best.

Blake: Absolutely. So, we can get into specific techniques for taking care of yourself, but I do think part of it starts with that mentality that you are worth it and it’s your highest leverage move a lot of times. There’s a pillow and a mat right next to me, and sometimes I know, yes, there are 10 emails I have to send, but I have a call in 15 minutes, and the best thing I can do is to serve that person. That’s my highest leverage. I need to just rest my eyes for 10 minutes. It kind of communicates some self-worth. You can’t take that step, I guess, unless you have that.

Verbs: So, the good news is you don’t have to feel stuck on your “off” days. You can balance productivity with self-kindness by starting with small wins, reconnecting with your rituals, cutting yourself some slack, and taking care of your needs. Any final thoughts for our Focus on This listeners? Courtney, I’ll bounce it to you.

Courtney: Yeah. I think it’s a good reminder to know that this happens to everyone. We talked about Simone Biles. We’ll throw Michael Hyatt into the mix here. We’ll throw…I was going to say Elon Musk…whoever it is who you think has just done it, who has arrived. They have “off” days too, and probably more than you would even think.

So, having grace for yourself is really important, and then hopefully some of these tools… When you get to one of those “off” days, if you can have these in mind, it can really propel you, especially into the next day, really getting that momentum, getting things back on track, and then the next day is “Okay. Now I’m performing at my best. I am doing the work. I’m contributing in the way I have been hired to do.” So, hopefully that’s a good reminder for everybody listening.

Verbs: Thank you for joining us on Focus on This. This is the most productive podcast on the Internet, so please share it with your friends and remember to join our Full Focus Planner Community right there on Facebook. We’ll be here next week with another great episode, but until then…

All: Stay focused!