How to Power Through Desk Work When You’re Not in the Mood

Claire Douglas-Lee: April 5th, 2021

I don’t know about you, but there are days when I really can’t be bothered to tackle my responsibilities. I’m simply not in the mood. Maybe for you, it’s drafting grant proposals, responding to emails, writing articles, working on a chapter of your book, editing a work report, or applying for an endless slew of jobs. Whatever it is — you’re bound to not only your desk but a task you’d rather not do, but nonetheless, must.

Here’s how to snap out f the funk, whatever it may feel like, and power through without losing it.

Accept the work on your plate. Accept that you have no choice but to do it.

Then, let yourself be. Feel whatever emotions arise (why add to the mental chaos by judging yourself for what you feel?) and focus on doing what you can to make the process more manageable and less unpleasant.

What do you need, in order to feel good while you work? What augments your focus?

Can you alter your current workspace?

I’ll often light candles and plug in a string of soft lights — anything to give me the ambiance I need. Cup of tea with a biscuit? Pail of coffee? Ice cold water? Death by chocolate milkshake? Sometimes I’ll play dark music to match my mood and other times I’ll play soft indie.

Ask yourself how you can tailor the environment to your needs.

Think tactile

What clothing might hone your focus?

Sometimes, sitting at my desk in a t-shirt and underwear cultivates a sense of calm, coziness that’s conducive to productivity. Other times, I need to wash my face, put on a classy outfit, and dress as though I’m heading to my highbrow, corporate office job. It’s all about knowing what you need, to feel focused.

Can you move your workspace to a different location?

I find that when I’m always working in the same place, a stifling cloud of monotony coalesces. Switching it up every once in a while helps. It also eases the irritation that results from the “I’d rather be doing x-y-z” itch.

If I’m craving a hangout with friends, I’ll organize a productive meetup to enjoy their presence while simultaneously slamming through my workload. If I’d rather be hiking, I move my workspace outside, to soak up the sun and breathe crisp air. If I’m craving an afternoon on the town, I set up camp in a coffee shop (or at least I did, pre-covid) to be part of that energy.

Set the tone you need. Think outside the box.

Divide your workload into bite-sized tasks. Jot it down on paper, type it out on your laptop — make it visual and concrete.

You’ll have a better idea of exactly what you’ll be doing and suddenly everything will seem slightly more manageable.

I often find myself obsessively checking my email or mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, Pinterest or Medium, while I’m trying to work.

Other times I wander around the house, snacking. /Should I grab some crackers and cheese? Maybe I’ll finish those leftovers I just put back in the fridge, about twelve minutes ago. Another cup of tea?/

These distractions cause me to be even more disengaged from my work than I was, initially. It also causes an overwhelming sense of frustration, because I haven’t made any progress and still have so much to do.

Make a list of what distracts you and get rid of it all, at least temporarily. Put your phone on airplane mode, lock your door, put headphones in (or take them out?). Think ahead and ensure you’ve taken every possible distraction into account.

Establish a beginning/end

Some people find the Pomodoro technique useful. Personally, I find it more effective to take a break after I complete each of my bite-sized goals, rather than setting a 25-minute timer. This allows me to feel accomplished and fully enjoy the breaks I take. I then come back to my desk feeling refreshed and confident in my ability to execute the next task. This cycle is self-perpetuating and it sustains my motivation and focus for longer periods of time.

Either way, establish a start and endpoint for your /focused/period of work.

That being said, if you feel your focus waning, take a break, or work on another element of your task.

Pushing when you’re not focused is a waste of time and energy. Know when it’s time to give it a rest.

As with the focused periods of work, give your breaks a designated start and end time. If they drag out too long, you’ll lose your momentum.

Determine what will give you a good recharge

For me, sometimes it’s doing another productive task. I often get into a funk because I have one (five, more likely) big tasks to complete, plus a million other little endeavours, as well. I become overwhelmed, unmotivated, and consequently don’t accomplish anything. Taking breaks to complete other tasks on my to-do list, lifts a huge weight off my shoulders and makes me feel more on the ball.

Other times, my breaks are more enjoyable. I’ll take a walk to satisfy my craving for fresh air, I’ll make a fancy snack, have a shower, or lie in bed with a book. It can be anything.

Even the “silliest” breaks (Netflixing, for example), can be made intentional. Just make sure it’s a break that genuinely recharges you and is sandwiched between focused periods of work, on either side.

Plan something enjoyable to indulge in after you’ve finished your work. Maybe it’s ordering takeout, uncorking a bottle of wine, or going out for a long drive. Choose whatever will bring you the most joy.

This period functions as a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel: a reason to stay focused and push through. An enjoyable time really does await! It also gives you the opportunity to savour some much-needed time off before you embark on your next big task. Congratulate yourself! You did it! Do something nice for yourself.

The crucial objective, above all, is to feel purposeful.

There’s nothing worse than having a lot on your plate and bumbling around without accomplishing anything. All that amounts to is wasted time. No progress has been made on the necessary tasks and time spent feeling distracted wasn’t utilized to do anything enjoyable, either.

It’s the mindlessness that kills.

Make both your work /and/ breaks intentional. Notice how much more manageable your responsibilities become and how much more you enjoy your downtime.