What does a productive day mean to you? I used to think it meant getting some form of "work" done, exercising, and achieving the coveted "inbox zero". And without a doubt, completing the above can leave me with a satisfied sense of accomplishment.

Yet there are days I set out to relax, to rest, to decompress, and I find myself instead doing "productive" things. I don’t end these days with that same great feeling. It's because I did these things when I had planned to rest and take it easy. I didn't relax and decompress the way I had envisioned and not doing that felt counterproductive. Yes I technically got some work done and my email inbox was less cluttered, but I never got the rest and recovery time I needed.

Over the past couple of months, I've tracked what I do and how I feel as a result. I’ve realized that my sense of accomplishment comes down to two things: intention + follow-through. During the week I typically set the intention to get work done with small breaks for exercise, relaxation, and enjoyment. If I throw those intentions aside and decide to procrastinate by watching TV or browsing my phone, I don't feel a sense of satisfaction. If, however, I follow through with focused work and purposeful breaks, I end my day feeling satisfied.

On weekends, my intention flips. I seek relaxation, outdoor time, and spaciousness. If I decide to trade that all for opening my computer with no specific goal, I risk giving away the time in which I had planned to recharge. When that happens I enter the next week with less energy and focus.

If you resonate with what I've shared above, you may be wondering, so what do we do?! I'll offer below what works well for me. I'm always iterating my approach and learning from my experience as well as what works well for others. I'd love to hear what works for you.

Given that we likely have a better grasp of how and why to create a productive work or study day, let's focus on how to create a "productive" off day. (If you work every day, simply choose a pocket of time, no matter how small, that you have control over. And, if you struggle with being productive at work, the below frame will work just as well.)

There are two steps and for each we have some questions we would benefit to consider.

1. Set the Intention for the Day

  • Do you like to do this in the morning or the night before?
  • How do you decide what you want to do on a given day?
  • Do you write it down or simply think it out?
  • How rigid (or not) do you want your day to look?

2. Follow Through on Your Plans

  • How can I be sure to do what I set out to?
  • How can I remain flexible knowing that not everything will go as planned?
  • Why does it matter to me (or not) to do what I set out to do?

There are no right answers, but as I come back to often, what works for you? It's about bringing awareness to what we're currently doing, considering whether what we're doing is working well for us, and making helpful adjustments.

I like to have a general sense of what I plan to do the next day. When that next day arrives, I like to get a bit more detailed on those plans in the morning. For a day in which I plan not to work, I like to choose at least one thing I want to do: make a special dinner, spend time outdoors, do some yard work, read a book. If I can do that one thing, it’s a win.

It’s important not to start by trying to do everything, but rather to set out to do at least one thing you intended to do. Weekday or not, working or not, I consider setting an intention and following-through a win. I call that productive.


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