Salvaging a Bad Day (Or Reason #137 Why I Always Aim for Slack in My Schedule)

Some days just go south. I usually know by about 10:30 a.m. if it is going to be one of those days. You know the days: you look at your to do list and realize that unless you magically gain the power of time travel, most items on your list are not going to get done. Maybe you’re just not feeling your work today, and your motivation is low. Maybe you are getting sick, or had a bad night’s sleep, and are having trouble concentrating. Maybe one of your projects blew up and you spent most of your day dealing with that, to the detriment of the things you had planned to do. Whatever the reason, your plans are essentially canceled and that to do list is not getting done.

I used to just write those days off. I’d struggle through and just hope the damage wouldn’t be too bad. Over time, though, I’ve learned to be a bit more strategic with how I handle my Bad Days.

Of course, sometimes the best answer is to just give up entirely. If I’m getting sick, the best move is probably to go rest. But sometimes I really need to salvage what I can of the day’s to do list.

First, I look at my list and re-prioritize. What items really have to get done? Sure, I thought all of those items should get done, but chances are, they aren’t all due tomorrow. Even if they all have similar deadlines, some projects are more able to tolerate a slip than others. Also, the different tasks may take different amounts of time and effort. Perhaps it is worth letting one large task slip for a day if I can get three others done.

To be honest, I rarely have items on my list that are absolutely, positively due the next day, with no wiggle room. I try not to plan my work that way. Instead, I try to set myself a deadline to finish a project at least a couple of days before the real deadline. I also spend some effort on identifying intermediate milestones on larger projects, which I use to help keep the project on track. I pick deadlines for those milestones, but schedule them so that missing that deadline by a few days won’t derail the entire project. Both of these practices help me handle Bad Days and other unexpected events. What I’m really doing when I’m re-prioritizing is trying to minimize the impact of this Bad Day on the next few days. I don’t want one Bad Day to turn into a longer term period of being stressed out and behind on my work.

Therefore, I also consider why my day went bad. If I’m suffering from low motivation, I’m more likely to salvage something from my to do list if I focus on the things I find most enjoyable. Sometimes, I’ll pick something I think sounds interesting or fun even if I have other items on my list that should be a higher priority. Because I have slack in my schedule, it makes more sense to try to keep at least some of my work on track, and to trust that tomorrow will be a better day.


I sat down to write a short post about how I salvage a bad day. When I read through what I wrote, though, I think what I’ve really done is write another ode to the benefits of building some slack into your work schedule. And I’m OK with that! “Don’t overbook yourself” might be my top piece of time management advice. Very few people do their best work when in a state of constant schedule panic.

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