How to Stay Productive (Even When You Feel Like Garbage)

I’m certainly not the world’s most productive guy.

But even though I do my fair share of procrastinating with mindless Twitter scrolling or the occasional Netflix binge, I have one productivity secret that’s paid off big time:

I’m deadly consistent.

In 3 years of blogging, for example, I’ve never once missed publishing an article for my weekly newsletter. Every single Monday morning—rain or shine, sickness or health, Christmas or summer vacation—I always publish something.

And the secret to this level of consistency?

Doing the work doesn’t depend on how I feel.

Of course, I try to choose work that’s intrinsically motivating and enjoyable. And I always try to take full advantage of those times when I am feeling highly motivated or inspired.

But we all feel like garbage sometimes. And staying productive means having a plan for working well even when you’re not feeling your best.

Here are 4 principles I’ve cultivated over the years that help me stay consistently productive regardless of how I happen to feel.


1. Optimize for energy.

Optimizing for energy means prioritizing tasks according to how much energy they will give you.

Here’s an example from my own work as a writer:

  • I typically prioritize my work by importance of the task. Often, the most important thing I can do is to write a draft of a new article. Everything in my work hinges on producing high-quality, engaging articles each week, so it’s usually top of my to-do list.
  • Usually, this works fine. Because even though drafting new articles is quite cognitively demanding, it’s also intrinsically motivating—I generally enjoy writing. So most days, the enjoyment of writing outcompetes the pain of doing something difficult.
  • But some days I sit down at the desk and I’m already in an energy deficit. Maybe my 1-year-old daughter was up all night sick and I didn’t get much sleep. Maybe I’m worried and stressed about a big presentation or interview I have coming up. In any case, no matter how much I enjoy my work, sometimes I show up to write and I’m just not feeling it.
  • One option is to “push through” or “grind it out.” Occasionally this works. But more often than not, it leads to low quality work that I then have to go back to and spend even more time and energy revising—or sometimes just throwing out completely.
  • The better alternative is to re-prioritize my to-do list from the start. Specifically, I re-rank tasks not according to how important they are, but instead, according to how energizing they are. For example, even though calling up a friend to chat about our respective businesses isn’t super “important,” it’s often very energizing. This means that after the call, even though I spent an hour not writing, the energy I got from the call will frequently make up for it and then some.

Deep down most people believe that they need motivation in order to take action—that feeling good is like fuel that powers meaningful work.

While this is partly true, it misses a crucial fact about the relationship between feeling and action: It’s a two-way street.

Taking action leads to feeling good just as often as feeling good leads to taking action.

You can harness this effect by “flipping” your to-do list to prioritize energy over importance. And even though this can feel like a waste in the short term—doing less important tasks when there are big ones that need to get done—long-term, you’re more likely to get the big ones done if you have energy.

Instead of waiting around for motivation to strike, optimizing for energy shows you that you can create it.

And once you really learn this, everything changes.

2. Be compassionate with the garbage.

It’s okay to feel like garbage sometimes. We all do.

What separates consistently productive people from the rest is that they don’t get emotionally overwhelmed by feeling like garbage.

For example, when I feel bad and unmotivated to work, the following thoughts often cross my mind:

  • Maybe you’re just not cut out for this…
  • Why can’t you just suck it up and get through this?
  • If you were more disciplined, this wouldn’t be an issue…

And along with these rather nasty bits of negative self-talk, some little bits of painful emotion show up as well:

  • Maybe you’re just not cut out for this… leads to fear.
  • Why can’t you just suck it up and get through this? leads to shame.
  • If you were more disciplined, this wouldn’t be an issue… leads to anger.

Still, all of this is pretty normal. It’s normal to feel unmotivated sometimes. And when you do, it’s normal to have some annoying or discouraging thoughts and emotions cross your mind.

But it’s how you respond to feeling bad that matters most.

Many people get stuck in their negative thoughts and emotions because they’re too hard on themselves and self-critical:

  • They really believe that because they feel bad that means they’re lazy.
  • They really believe that because they procrastinated they’re undisciplined.
  • They really believe that if they feel unmotivated then they won’t be able to do good work.

My secret weapon is that I know my mind is frequently full of shit.

I know that my mind will often say overly negative, critical, even downright mean things to me sometimes. But I’m really good at not believing everything I think.

I know that I’m often going to feel unmotivated or lazy but I don’t think this means anything about me as a person.

I know that my emotions will often pull me toward taking the easy, less painful path. But I don’t trust my emotions and try to only follow them if they align with my values and what I think is right.

In short, I manage to stay pretty productive because I’m really good at self-compassion.

I don’t beat myself up for little setbacks and mistakes and I remind myself frequently that feeling bad or unmotivated is totally normal and really not that big a deal in the long-run.

I cultivate a healthy skepticism of my own thoughts and feelings, never assuming that they are altogether true or helpful.

In general, one of the biggest secrets to my consistent productivity is that I try my best to stick to The Other Golden Rule:

When times are tough, treat yourself like you would treat a friend.

For most of your life, you’ve likely had it beaten into you that the only way to succeed and productive is to be hard on yourself.

But in the words of the great Dr. Phil: How’s that working for ya?

Try a little self-compassion instead. I think you’ll find it far more productive.

3. Write down the one thing.

When it comes to staying consistently productive, what you don’t do is at least as important as what you do.

I often get overwhelmed with my work. Because I have a lot of things I want to be working on, it can be hard sometimes to understand what I really need to be working on at any given moment.

Normally, I rely on motivation to get me through this dilemma: I squint my eyes, find the thing that looks most fun, and go full-steam ahead with that. But as mentioned earlier, we don’t always feel motivated—even to work on things we normally enjoy.

And when I’m not feeling as motivated or energetic as I’m used to, it’s easy to get overwhelmed—like you’re juggling too many things at once and at any moment everything’s going to come crashing down.

Well, I have one very simple trick that helps enormously when it comes to overwhelm: I write down my one thing.

My one thing is the answer to this question:

At the end of the day, if I did _____________ I would be proud of myself.

I find this question incredibly clarifying. And when I can get even a little bit more clarity, it often cuts through much of my overwhelm and need to procrastinate.

Confusion is the mother of procrastination. Productivity is the child of clarity.

4. Go for a walk (without a phone).

Staying consistently productive requires rest and the focus that comes with it.

And while you’re hopefully getting a pretty good night’s sleep, nocturnal rest isn’t the only kind of rest we need.

You’ll be a lot more productive if you’re smart about resting throughout your day.

Now, most people fall into one of two traps when it comes to resting throughout the day:

  1. They just don’t do it. This is dumb. If your plan for being consistently productive is to just power through all day every day, I’m not sure there’s much I can say that will help you. You’ll probably have to crash and burn to finally see the error in this type of strategy.
  2. More commonly, people try to rest throughout the day, but they do it in ways that aren’t really restful. In other words, what you think will be restful is actually more stressful or energy-consuming.

For example, many people think that resting requires a lack of physical activity or a serious reduction in it. While this might be true if your work involves manual labor or playing professional basketball, most of you reading this are probably some kind of knowledge worker, which is code for you sit in front of a computer all day.

In this case, expending more physical energy will actually help you feel more energetic. So instead of plopping down on the couch as a form of rest, try moving instead. Go for a walk, get a quick 20-minute workout in, or even just do some push-ups.

The other form of fake-rest that many of us fall into is being online. It seems like a quick scroll through Facebook would be a welcome relief compared to the drudgery of your normal work. But in reality, Facebook, social media more generally, and often any kind of online activity is not going to be genuinely restful.

You probably spend all day online in one form or another. This means what you really need to get genuine rest is some non-online time. And one of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to go for a walk WITHOUT your phone.

I’m a therapist and a writer, which means I spend all my working day indoors, sitting down, and usually in front of a computer.

And what I’ve found is, going for a walk (usually 20-30 minutes) is incredibly refreshing and invigorating. I can’t think of a single instance when I felt less energized or more tired as a result.

But the kicker is that I get a much bigger boost in energy when I don’t bring my phone and listen to a podcast, check my email, etc. Just me and the wide, wide world.

Give it a shot. I don’t think you’ll regret it.


All You Need to Know

Staying productive even when you feel like garbage is about being smart with what little motivation you do have:

Optimize for energy.

Be compassionate with the garbage.

Write down the one thing.

Go for a walk (without your phone).

10 Comments

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HI Nick, Love all your articles , I can see this one .for me , ties in with Emotional maturity, I am on my feet all day working with children and can feel emotionally and physically drained…Its tempting to just sit down at the end of the day..but i love this advice about doing what energizes me most… I sometimes do lie down just for 30 mins and this can help me re-charge for the evening time…thanks once again..:))

Thank you Nick….Spot on!
This article was perfectly stated and very helpful.
I wrote it ….‘Be kind to yourself’
This quote was also ‘ perfect for me yesterday and when I am being ‘cornered’ by life and Especially with the current state of affairs. (see below)
Cheers.

‘Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words –
and never stops at all.’
Emily Dickinson

Very seldomly I write down notes during reading an article, but this one is a gem which came at the exactly right moment. Thank you Nick for it!

Thanks for this, Nick! It really resonated with me. I work in a very demanding, professional environment with little work-life balance and I often find my thoughts beating myself up for small mistakes and lack of motivation. Through therapy and your posts (this one in particular), I have learned/am learning how to manage these thoughts through self-compassion. I am starting to recognize that it is OK to not feel 100% motivated or thrilled to get to work everyday. What I have found helpful is reminding myself how hard I worked to get to where I am today and letting go of constantly holding myself to impractically high standards.

Exactly what I needed to read at this very moment. Feeling pretty unmotivated and garbage-y with all that’s going on in our world at the moment. Thank you for the motivation and inspiration! I love the idea of “At the end of the day, if I did _____________ I would be proud of myself.” Definitely using that one.

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