Recapturing a Derailed Day

Some days you wake up with the best intentions. You have a plan. You’re going to be productive. Everything is in order and then just as you sit down to work, something unexpected happens.

Maybe a client calls you in a panic because they forgot an important component in a package they’re about to send and they need your help ASAP. Maybe you get a call from the school telling you to come pick up your daughter because she suddenly has the stomach flu. Maybe you want to be productive, but you’re still resisting doing what you planned, and so you waste an hour surfing websites in the name of research.

Whatever it is, that totally manageable to-do list you prepared for the day is suddenly super-daunting. Before you know it, you’re thinking about taking the rest of the day off and starting fresh tomorrow.

Truth is, that’s okay to do now and again, but if you find yourself caught in this scenario more than once a month, you need to know how to get back on track, fast.

Strategies for Getting Your Day Back on Track

Strategy One: Re-Do Your To-Do List for What’s Left of the Day

Once the fires are put out or once you recognize that you’re resisting doing the work you’d planned, do something to put you back in a fresh mindset. My favorite thing to do is to take a quick, brisk walk around the block. You could also take a shower, do some yoga, punch a punching bag … whatever helps to clear your head.

Whatever you choose, spend ten minutes at it, and then come back to your to-do list. Pull out a fresh sheet of paper or open a fresh document on your computer.

Pick the top five things you want to accomplish and put them on your new list. Estimate how much time each task will take and compare the totals for the five tasks to the amount of time left in your workday. Maybe you can add another task or two to your list. Maybe you need to remove one of the tasks. The key is to make a plan that will fit into what’s left of your day and that will still allow you to accomplish the most important things on your list.

Strategy Two: Start From Where You Are — But Start Immediately

Another way to recapture your derailed day is to start your day over in the middle. So, once you’ve taken care of the disruption — or realized that you’re stalling — immediately refocus your attention on the work you need to do and treat it like you’re at the beginning of your day.

From there, work like you would normally work until the time you normally work to. You probably won’t get everything done that you had originally planned for, but you’ll still get more done than if you decided to scrap the day … and that means less stress tomorrow.

Strategy Three: Find Your Point of Resistance and Eliminate It

In my experience, when a day derails without an obvious emergency, it’s usually because I’m resisting something. Maybe there’s some research I need to do and I’m not sure where to start. Or maybe there’s something I need to complete and I’ve blown out of proportion the amount of time it’s going to take, so I keep putting it off. Or, maybe I’ve got a task on my list that I just find unpleasant, and so I keep finding ways to avoid it.

If you’re like me, you probably find yourself resisting certain things on your list from time-to-time. Sometimes, you probably avoid these tasks by doing other work that needs doing. That can work okay for a while. But, eventually, you’re going to reach the point where you just know that you need to get done whatever it is you’ve been putting off. And, when you reach that point, if you’re still resisting, you’re likely to find yourself in the middle of a derailed day.

So, what to do? Really, there’s just one thing to do … identify what you’re resisting, roll up those web-writing sleeves, and tackle it head on.

Trust me, you’ll feel great once it’s complete and you can cross it off your list.

Strategy Four: Give Everything 15 Minutes of Focus

Sometimes the root cause of a derailed day is a difficulty prioritizing. You can’t decide what is most important to work on and so you don’t work on anything.

If that’s what is happening — and you can usually tell because you’ll find yourself thinking, “Okay, I need to get Task A done … oh, wait, will that leave me time for Task B … and what about Tasks C and D, I really need to get those done, too.” If that sounds like the spiral of thoughts swirling through your mind, it means you haven’t prioritized your projects. Sometimes if you haven’t prioritized your projects, it’s because you know they’re all important.

So, what to do? When you find yourself in this situation, my recommendation is to spend 15 minutes on each thing you’re juggling. Set a timer and try to work at a break-neck pace until it goes off. Then switch to the next task and do the same.

I usually find that when I do this, by the time I’ve given 15 minutes to everything important on my list, I have a better idea of what I need to do to finish each item and can wrap up my to-do list more successfully than I’d anticipated.

Strategy Five: Work From Big to Small

Another thing you can do to make good progress in a day that seemed to be going nowhere is to pick the biggest task on your list and work on it until it’s done. Give it all the time it needs. Refuse to worry about anything else until you’ve completed everything you had planned for that task for the day.

Then, tackle the next biggest thing on your list.

When you work big to small, you’ll often find that you build momentum and that by the time your day is approaching its end, you’re only left with a handful of manageable tasks that you can wrap up before clocking off.

There are lots of reasons that a day can go south when you’re a freelancer. It happens to everyone from time-to-time, but if it’s happening to you on a regular basis, you need to have a plan in place to recapture your day and turn it into something productive — despite the false start. Try these strategies to see how they work for you. You might try one strategy one day and another on a different day depending on why you’re off track and what you find works best for you. If you have another strategy you use to get back on track, tell us about it in the comments below.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


Click to Rate:
Average: 5.0
Published: February 28, 2011

2 Responses to “Recapturing a Derailed Day”

  1. This article was a lifesaver for me today, Heather. Started out with big plans, but by 11, my day was totally shredded. I was ready to call it quits, and start over again tomorrow. But I took your advice instead.

    After lunch and a brisk walk, I was ready to try again, and this afternoon I finally finished my restaurant review for the copywriting course! Yay!

    Thanks! I'm going to print this off so I can read it whenever I need it!

    DarleneNMarch 1, 2011 at 7:36 pm

  2. I obviously have an account, but have forgotten the pass word, etc.

    I'm also a song writer, but don't know yet how I could sell anything in writing. Are there special places that buy from beginning writers?

    Is it a viable effort to post "Resume Writer" at the local college?

    Just wondering.

    Guest (Anita Timmons)March 23, 2011 at 6:48 pm


Guest, Add a Comment
Please Note: Your comments will be seen by all visitors.

You are commenting as a guest. If you’re an AWAI Member, Login to myAWAI for easier commenting, email alerts, and more!

(If you don’t yet have an AWAI Member account, you can create one for free.)


This name will appear next to your comment.


Your email is required but will not be displayed.


Text only. Your comment may be trimmed if it exceeds 500 characters.

Type the Shadowed Word
Too hard to read? See a new image | Listen to the letters


Hint: The letters above appear as shadows and spell a real word. If you have trouble reading it, you can use the links to view a new image or listen to the letters being spoken.

(*all fields required)