How to stay productive when there’s no internet

For when turning it off and then on again just doesn't work.

Frustrated young man due to weak internet reception

No internet connection. It’s amazing how one little grey icon can make you feel cut off from the world. Whether you’re on a road trip with no Wi-Fi access or your office’s internet has gone down for the day, here’s how you can keep getting things done offline.

Use offline services to keep working

When greeted with that dreaded “Unable to Connect” message, you may be tempted to play Google’s Dinosaur Game for the rest of the day. But you can do better. Plenty of online services allow offline access, including Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar. You won’t be able to download new messages or sync new files, obviously, but you’ll be able to see whatever was there the last time your computer was online.

You may, however, be unable to allow offline access while you’re disconnected, so it’s important to plan ahead by checking your settings when you have internet. The last time I lost connection, for example, I found out I’d flipped this switch long ago and was able to continue plowing through work with ease.

Desktop apps almost always allow offline access too, so if you need to read your email in Microsoft Outlook or reference notes in Evernote, you’ll be able to open them up and keep on working. They’ll sync new changes when your connection returns. If you know the internet’s going to be down ahead of time, you can even download articles you might need for work in an app like Pocket for offline access later.

Do some (figurative) house cleaning

There’s a good chance your computer’s hard drive is a disorganized mess. No matter how obsessive you are about keeping things clean, other work always gets in the way. Even as I write this, the latest photos of my kid are still waiting to be moved to my photo manager, my desktop is full of shortcuts I don’t need, and my hard drive is still screaming that it’s low on space.

When you’re offline, it’s the perfect opportunity to take care of these boring-but-necessary duties. You need to handle them at some point, so what better time than when you’re forced to put other jobs on hold? Clear up that hard drive. Clean your messy desktop. Remove those browser extensions you aren’t using. And maybe even give your laptop a physical wipe-down—it’s probably pretty grimy.

Catch up on non-digital to-dos

Every day, I put off important-but-not-urgent tasks in favor of more pressing office work. I need to call the plumber and finally fix that water heater. I need to mow the lawn. I need to go to the bank. And I really need to go through the pile of junk mail on my kitchen table. It’s amazing how fast your to-do list can grow while “real” work is getting done.

Since a lot of these tasks don’t require internet—or even a computer, for that matter—they’re a great choice for when your connection goes kaput. So start chugging away at the ones you can do where you are—you obviously can’t mow the lawn if you’re stuck in the office. Even if you never leave your desk, making all those phone calls you’ve been putting off will take a lot of your mind. While you’re at it, call your family, too—they probably haven’t heard from you in ages.

Bring on a brainstorm

With so many tasks coming at you each day, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. According to David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done” and creator of the productivity method with the same name, the key to organizing your jumbled thoughts is getting them out of your head and down on paper. This will help you avoid that anxious feeling you get when you have a long list of stuff you want to remember, but are worried you’ll forget it. You can’t forget what’s written in front of you.

With the internet down, it’s a good time to do just that, so grab a piece of paper and do a brain dump. Write down everything that’s been on your mind: ideas you’ve been meaning to pitch to your boss, whatever’s been stressing you out at home, even that ridiculous thought you had in the shower. Once it’s all out there, figure out which tasks you might be able to delegate to others and which ones you can get out of the way immediately. Once you separate the meaningful from the mess, you can jump back into work more confidently when the internet returns.

Learn that skill you’ve been putting off

There are so many parts of my job I’d like to do better, but never get around to learning. I’d like to get some Photoshop chops, for example, or at least program some keyboard shortcuts for my most oft-used actions. And I’m sure I’m doing everything in Excel the long way instead of the efficient way.

Sure, the internet can be incredibly helpful for learning how these tools work, but you’d be surprised what you can do with a little offline exploration. Poke around the menus and see what you find. And if you’re in an office, maybe the Excel expert down the hall would be willing to give you a brief crash course. After all, their internet’s down too, so their day just blew wide open.

Unplug and take a walk

There’s no shame in using broken internet as an opportunity to take a break from work. In fact, you should probably be standing up and taking breaks more often, since sitting all day is slowly killing you, and that screen is probably causing some eye strain.

Stepping away doesn’t make you a slacker—studies have shown that mental breaks can help keep you focused, and that taking a walk can boost your creative thinking. So while you might not have an excuse to take the day off and go home, use the downed internet to your advantage and get a quick breath of fresh air. Who knows, it may give you a new perspective on that task you’ve been stuck on, giving you a boost of momentum to get the job done.