Some people are good at being busy, without being productive. Starting a ton of things without finishing any of them, doing things purposely inefficiently (just to look busy), procrastinating, and however else someone decides to do things without actually getting work done properly. We all have days like that as well where we can't seem to get into our work.
However, what I'm talking about is when we are properly working, not dawdling, and yet for no apparent reason, at the end of the day, we feel like we've been unproductive and got no work done that day.
Source: Duboc, J.-R. (2012, August 30). brain and gears. CC BY 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/duboc/7896404652
So, why do we feel unproductive even if we were productive? While I don't have anything but anecdotes, it seems that it's mostly a mental thing where we don't feel productive unless we get the things done that we want to, or that are on our to do list.
Unfortunately, for many, a good portion of work is made up of meetings, troubleshooting, and fixing other people's problems as they come up (often suddenly).
I think the worst is feeling like we haven't been productive if there are unread emails in our inbox. While not everyone has this problem, it certainly seems common.
I'm no productivity expert, but I wanted to share some of the strategies that I have tried and others have told me about to alleviate this problem.
Writing Down What You've Done
Rather than determining what you haven't done based on your own pre-written "to do" list, consider writing down what you have done. It doesn't need to be detailed, but when something gets done, write it down, especially if it's something that was unplanned.
Hopefully by the end of the day, there is a decent list of all the things that were accomplished that day even if none of those things were from the "to do" list that you created prior to the day.
Source: Kassallas, M. (2013, October 17). To Do List Chalkboard. CC BY-ND 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/mufidahkassalias/10519508175
Setting Aside Uninterrupted Time
Whether it's to focus on something that is on the to do list or to actually get through all the emails in the inbox, consider setting aside uninterrupted time. These are times that you block off in your calendar so that other people cannot set meetings, that you would not answer your phone, or check your email, and focus solely on the task at hand. If you have a door, you might (mostly) close it to signal that you're busy.
Many people do not realize that one of the issues with getting work done is that some tasks need longer stretches of time that is uninterrupted. This is especially true of writing tasks and coding. If someone interrupts the process, it takes a long time to get back into it.
In some cases, it might even be a good idea to block off an entire half day and work in another room. If need be, leave a note to say where you can be found. This allows distraction-free work while on site where you can still be found in case there is something urgent.
Limiting Email Time
While not everyone is in a position to do so, some of my colleagues have limited when and how much time is spent on email. The idea is to turn off email notification and only check email once or twice a day, consistently at the same time every day, and limiting the amount of time spent on email to just an hour or half hour at a time.
I have heard that it is a major mental shift and takes time to get used to, but many of have tried and continue to limit their email time have found it a success in becoming or at least feeling more productive.
End of the Day
At the end of the day, I think we sometimes need to simply accept the fact that we do not always end up with time to do the things that we want and that are on our own "to do" list. In every job, we need to know how to prioritize and sometimes the problems that crop up just don't give us any choice.
Sometimes we need to recognize that there's always tomorrow.