Some days, getting back to work is a real struggle. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by our endless to-do list or tempted by the social media or news just a tab away. And we can quickly find ourselves zoning out and procrastinating the work that needs to get done.
And let’s face facts—once we’re pulled away into distraction, it can feel nearly impossible to re-focus and motivate ourselves back to work.
So how do you shift gears and actually get back to work? Try these five proven strategies to get going again and finish what needs to get done:
1. Take a Time-Restrained Break
We all need natural breaks from work. While it might feel like we just need to plow forward and push ourselves to finish the work, research actually shows that short breaks can actually improve focus, replenish energy, and increase productivity.((Cognition: Brief Diversions Vastly Improve Focus, Researchers Find))
So, instead of pressuring yourself to “get back to work,” take an intentional break to refuel and enjoy the momentary pause that you’re actually needing.
But the key is for the break to be—a break. To keep yourself from getting lost in the break and never getting back to work, set a timer on the break. When your brain knows that the break is temporary, it’s more likely to maximize the restful benefits of the break and not try to get caught up in focused thinking about something new.
Whether you’re taking a 15-minute pause or a 30-minute lunch, a time-restrained break lets you rest and rejuvenate so that you can jump back into it when the timer goes off.
2. Reward Yourself for Completing the Task
When we’re not feeling motivated, the most effective way to turn it around is to create motivation. Create some reward that you’ll give yourself if you complete the task at hand—it could be an afternoon walk, an ice cream sundae, or an hour of video games at the end of the workday. Whatever reward you choose, just make sure it’s one that actually excites you and that you’ll look forward to.
The anticipation of the reward will give you the motivation to finish the task because you begin to associate the task with the enjoyable reward you’ll get afterward. For example, if you’ve got to finish a report by the end of the day, you could decide to celebrate by picking up your favorite food for dinner. The entire day, the thought of that delicious meal can give you an added boost to get the job done.
But you don’t just have to wait until your work is finished to reward yourself. In fact, research shows that periodic rewards earlier actually improve productivity and focus the most.((Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: It’s About Time: Earlier Rewards Increase Intrinsic Motivation.))
So, rather than wait until you finish the whole task to get the big reward, you could plan out smaller rewards in between, such as a coffee break after the first section or a walk around the neighborhood after the second. These small breaks are both time-restrained (as mentioned in the strategy above) and reward-based to give you the motivation to keep going.
And that extra motivation can help you get back to work and get the tasks done with a lot less resistance.
3. Make a Smart to-Do List
Getting back to work feels overwhelming when there’s a lot to do. And, these days, the endless tasks on our to-do lists make it hard to even begin to tackle them. When we’ve got a really long to-do list, our first instinct is actually to avoid doing anything rather than even look at that laundry list.
So, instead of focusing on all of the tasks, get smarter with your to-do list.
Generic to-do lists don’t work for most people because they create overwhelm before the tasks are even started. But what does work is a manageable prioritization of what actually needs to get done.
To get started with a smart to-do list, make a list of everything you have to do, and then star the most pressing three need-to-do tasks and put the rest of the list aside.
When we’re forced to prioritize only three tasks, we shift our focus to what will make the greatest impact. And three tasks is a lot more manageable than the 50 we previously had on our list, so it’s easier to muster up the motivation to get back to work. We can all finish three simple things.
And then, if you complete those three tasks with time to spare, go ahead and choose another three., and then another three. By splitting the list up into sets of three by priority, you reduce overwhelm and increase the odds of getting more checked off the list.
Ironically, when you choose to cut your list down to just three tasks, you actually make it possible to do more tasks because you tackle the list in manageable bits that reduce overwhelm, increase productivity, and maintain the motivation necessary to get it all done.
4. Reach Out for Support
According to Newton’s Law of Inertia, an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Or, in other words, you’re unlikely to get yourself moving again without a little support.
It’s really hard to get started up again once you’ve stopped something. So odds of willing ourselves there without some outside force are pretty low. That means that you need something outside of yourself–like a friend or colleague–to re-motivate yourself.
If you’re feeling stuck and unable to get back to work, reach out for support from someone who can give you a little motivation. You could bounce ideas off of a colleague to get yourself re-inspired; or work through your resistance with a quick phone call to a friend; or even get new ideas on how to tackle the project from a new angle.
In fact, research even shows that quick chats with colleagues and friends can actually boost the area of the brain that controls focus, planning, prioritization, and even organization.((Social Psychological and Personality Science: Friends (and Sometimes Enemies) With Cognitive Benefits: What Types of Social Interactions Boost Executive Functioning?)) That means that taking a moment to talk and ask for support can optimize your brain to be even more effective.
So, next time you’re stuck, reach out for support and chat your way back to motivation.
5. Just Start, And Start Small
The hardest part of getting back to work is always—getting back to work—or, actually starting up again.
But every big project is really just a compilation of small, simple steps. A proposal is started with just one word. A phone call is started with dialing one number. A new initiative is started with just one e-mail. Everything is started by just—starting.
It can feel overwhelming to get started when you don’t know how to complete the entire project or have clarity over what the end result will look like. So don’t.
Instead, just start. For example, let’s say you’ve got a massive writer’s block. You can simply start typing, “I don’t know what to write, but I’m determined to write today. So I’m going to keep typing until I have an idea.” And now you’re started. You’ve already overcome the biggest hurdle–writing words on a page.
You may not have the clarity yet, but you’ve shifted yourself into the mode that will give you that clarity.
By beginning in the process of working again, your mind eventually switches gears back into work mode. You don’t have to be motivated to get back into it; you just have to start.
It’s really hard to get back to work when you’re out of the swing of it. It can feel completely overwhelming, like nothing can remotivate you. And all of the tasks are just hanging over your head, preventing you from even enjoying your procrastination.
The brain actually functions differently when it’s deep in “work mode” versus “non-work mode”, making it hard to switch from one to the other.
That’s why we need proven strategies that can help you get right back to work and finally cross what needs to get done off the list.
By giving yourself time-restrained breaks, creating rewards, making a smart to-do list, reaching out for support, and just starting, you’re setting yourself up for success in getting it all done.
And the sooner you get back to work, the sooner you can finish the tasks and enjoy your time off without anything else hanging over your head.
More Motivational Tips
- Why We Lose Motivation Once in a While and How to Fix It
- How to Get Motivated to Work and Start off Your Day with Positivity
- Why Intrinsic Motivation Is So Powerful (And How to Find It)
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