How to Get Out of an Unproductive Loop

When you find more tasks accumulating than you can manage, they can quickly escalate. We give you some ideas to help.
How to Get Out of an Unproductive Loop
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 06 March, 2023

When you’re stuck in an unproductive loop, you feel like you have too many accumulated tasks for the resources you have available or the time you estimate you can dedicate to them. Also, a really long to-do list increases the temptation to look the other way, since to do so makes you feel uncomfortable.  Therefore, you look for stimuli to distract you. However, this means your to-do list keeps growing.

For example, say you have five activities to do today but, since you don’t have time for all of them, you only do three. Tomorrow, you were meant to do another five tasks but, since there are now two left over from today, you’ll have to do seven, which is impossible. The dynamic continues, you’re flooded with feelings of discomfort, and you end up trapped in an unproductive loop.

This happens because you’re managing your time poorly. It results in less efficiency and more stress. So, what can you do if you find yourself in this kind of situation? We’re going to explain the unproductive loop and how to escape from it.

Every action you take is a vote in favor of the person you want to become.”

-James Clear-

woman at work
Unproductiveness can be related to poor time management, but also to low motivation and zero recognition.

The unproductive loop

You might get caught up in an unproductive loop without even realizing it. In fact, they tend to start off quietly and only become visible when they’re really pronounced. These are the kinds of dynamics that usually occur:

  • Your working day isn’t long enough for you to completely finish your tasks.
  • You leave pending tasks for the following day, but you don’t finish them then either, because they keep accumulating and there are too many.
  • You decide to prolong your workday. However, this exhausts you and you make mistakes or progress really slowly.
  • The next day, you’re more tired than usual. You experience work stress, along with the feeling that you’re not in control of the situation.
  • You focus on your urgent tasks and try to work as fast as possible. This means you make more mistakes.
  • You continue to prolong your working day. Even so, you still have the feeling that you’re not getting to where you want to be.
  • You reach a point where you have many unfinished tasks. Consequently, you start cutting corners in an attempt to keep up.
  • Even though you’re trying really hard, you don’t receive any recognition for the tasks you did in such a hurry. Emotionally, you’re a mess. You’re stuck in an unproductive loop.

How to get out of an unproductivity loop

In the previous section, we described the classic unproductivity loop. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to follow this pattern. In effect, whenever you work more hours than normal, and your extra effort just isn’t enough, it’s time to stop and think.

Here’s how to escape from an unproductive loop.

Step 1. Locate yourself

Spend an hour making a list of all the things you have to do in your week. Then, separate the tasks into four groups, using the Eisenhower matrix. This consists of a two-by-two matrix where the x-axis represents urgency and the y-axis represents urgency.

  • The upper right-hand quadrant will stand for ‘most urgent and most important’.
  • The lower left-hand quadrant is ‘least urgent and least important’.
  • The upper left is ‘most urgent and least important’.
  • The lower right is ‘least urgent and most important’.

Assign your tasks to each quadrant and work out which quadrant you spend most of your time in. Successful people spend more time in the upper right quadrant.

Step 2. Plan

Commit yourself to working for just one extra hour in your day. In one month (the maximum two), you should be in a position of complying with your schedule, without needing any extra time.

Divide the day into four blocks. Spend 40 percent on your most urgent and most important tasks, 30 percent on the most urgent and least important, 20 percent on the most important and least urgent, and ten percent on the least urgent and least important. Organize everything by blocks, estimate the time each task will take you, and set yourself daily goals to meet.

Step 3. Evaluate and update

It’s extremely important that, as you progress and eliminate tasks, you update your daily schedule. If you’ve already dealt with many important and urgent tasks, spend more time on the important and the non-urgent. The best thing to do is to plan weekly, evaluate at the end of the week, and adjust accordingly.

executive working
Knowing how to differentiate between what’s important and what’s urgent, as well as what’s not, is essential to get out of an unproductive loop.

Preventing unproductive loops

By following the steps indicated, you’ll be able to get out of your unproductive loop. However, if you become overconfident and start procrastinating again, you’ll find yourself back in the same situation in no time.

The best thing is to take advantage of the situation and establish a solid work system. Keep using the time blocking scheme as it’s really useful. However, the most important thing is that you protect your rest time since your productivity depends on it to a considerable extent.

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  • Montalvo, J. F., & Piñol, E. (2000). Horario laboral y salud: consecuencias psicológicas de los turnos de trabajo. Revista de psicopatología y psicología clínica, 5(3), 207-222.
  • Pereyra, G. (2007). Heterogeneidad, improductividad y ocio. Andamios, 3(6), 217-237.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.