spinning your wheels

We all know the feeling. We work at home where we won’t be interrupted, we are wildly productive, things are getting done and the world is operating as it should. And then it all stops. We stare at our to-do list and can’t seem to make progress. It’s like our car is stuck in the mud and we can’t get anywhere.

Here are some things to do (and NOT do) when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels.

Stop what you’re doing.

This feels counter intuitive. But just as gunning the engine and spinning your wheels in the mud or snow simply puts you deeper in the rut, you need to take your foot off the gas. Give your brain a rest. Go tackle something else, preferably a simple, mindless chore that takes no brainpower and you know you’ll be able to complete. Maybe your brain just needs a rest. Just as insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, doubling down on a task that you aren’t making progress on will only frustrate you and put you deeper in the muck.

Eliminate mental distractions.

Some people possess laser-like focus and aren’t easily distracted by random thoughts, doubts and self-talk. Lucky them. What is distracting you? Do you owe Bob from Accounting an email? Then send it and remove the annoying distraction. Are you worried that you’ll forget to do that task later in the day? Put it on your calendar so that it is out of your brain and you won’t forget it. Block time when you’ll deal with email, so it doesn’t distract you. Closing your web browser when working on another application is surprisingly effective, even if you go through withdrawal the first time or two.

Eliminate physical distractions.

These can be non-work temptations like your phone, or web surfing, or sounds or visual distractions. Try physically putting your distractions out of reach like charging your phone across the room or putting it in a bottom drawer while you are working on something requiring your full attention. One of the easiest productivity enhancers is to turn off the incoming email and message notifications. They will still show up in your in-box but won’t interrupt the flow of your work.

Create a work rhythm.

Ironically, you can put yourself into spin mode by just working too hard on a single project. Our brains weren’t designed for long-term focus. Thirty to forty minutes is about all we can maintain attention on something before our mental tank is empty. Develop a rhythm to tackle tasks that works for you. Alternate simple, easy-to-complete tasks with jobs that take more bandwidth. If you’re working from home, build household chores or walking the dog into your day so you are forced to leave your desk and clear your mind, even for small periods of time.

Confirm your priorities.

Is this thing you’re stuck on really the most important thing you can be doing right now? You wouldn’t be the first person to stubbornly stick to a task that isn’t as important as your other work. Check the priorities on your task list against the other work you need to get done. Better yet, check your priorities with your boss or a co-worker with a real conversation. You know, talking to other humans. Much of that sensation of spinning your wheels comes from being stuck with your own thoughts and not getting input from other smart people.

Of course, if you’re really stuck you can do what you’d do in real life: call for help. Social activity allows you to hear other voices than the ones in your own head, and you might be able to get assistance with that task.

Working from home has its charms, and on most days working uninterrupted is great for productivity. We all get stuck from time to time. It’s not the end of the world, you just have to know when to stop spinning your wheels and try something else.

Keeping yourself out of the ruts is an important part of being a great remote teammate. We’ve got a great course that can transform you into the teammate both you and your colleagues will value.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. You can pre-order Kevin and Wayne’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, now.

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