You’re busy. You’re spinning more plates than you can count. You’ve got children who rely on you to stand still, at the centre of the universe, spinning those plates and smoothing their path for them. You’ve also got your own stuff, your own plates to spin, your own goals to achieve. It’s exhausting, and you need to figure out how to be productive despite that exhaustion.
That’s what this post’s about.
If a lot of writers are to be believed, staying productive relies on either:
a) getting a full eight hours’ sleep every single night.
b) choosing to only sleep three hours a night so as to cram even more plate-spinning into your day.
If you’re like me, eight hours of sleep is a luxury rather than a regular occurrence. You’re also probably not keen on sacrificing any amount of sleep in order to make the night-time hours more productive.
So, here’s my take on how to be productive, even when you’re exhausted, and even when you feel split between all the different areas of responsibility you have.
What Is Productivity Anyway?
When I talk about how to be productive, I’m thinking about a personal definition of productivity.
Productivity means different things to different people, and it’s on you to decide how that will look in your life.
For me, in this season of life, I’m focusing on the following things (in no particular order) when I think about how to be productive:
- keeping my home running relatively smoothly.
- being available for my children on a day-to-day basis, and staying on top of their needs.
- putting in enough time at work.
- keeping my business moving forward.
- staying healthy both mentally and physically.
There’s more than that, but those are the big things that jump to mind.
Your list will be different, but I bet there’s a decent amount of crossover there.
You need to know what being productive means for you, before you figure out how to be productive.
The title of this post talks about staying productive even when you’re exhausted.
I want to take a moment here to issue a caveat.
It’s important to distinguish between the kind of exhaustion that’s safe to push through, and that other, more dangerous kind.
There are days when you don’t feel ready for that alarm clock when it goes off, and you’d rather roll over and hit the snooze button. (Don’t though – here’s why).
You’re often tired, but you know that you have to keep on doing All The Things regardless. If we stopped every time we were tired, we’d get trapped in that vicious circle of never doing anything.
Sometimes, though, exhaustion is a warning sign of burnout, or depression, or a nasty combination of the two.
If you’re suffering from burnout and feeling that sense of overwhelm through your whole life, then no amount of posts on how to be productive are likely to fix that.
If that’s you, please stop reading this. You don’t need advice on how to keep going, you need advice on how to heal.
How To Be Productive When You Just Don’t Feel Like It.
The best way I know to stay productive when you’re tired is to have solid systems.
We’ve all got things we do that help us stay on the rails.
Systems are like good friends. If you take care of them in the best of times, they’ll take care of you the rest of the time.
What kinds of systems am I talking about?
It’s about putting as much of your life on autopilot as you can. Freeing up your brain for the important stuff.
If getting up and dressed every day is something you’ve worked on and made a habit, then it becomes almost easier to do that than to not do it.
This stuff takes a bit of setting up.
You can’t expect to get your whole life running smoothly and automatically overnight.
Build New Habits Gradually.
What we’re actually talking about is a series of habits.
Put together, those habits can be magical, keeping the show on the road even when you don’t feel like it.
You need to take it slowly though.
Trying to get up at six every morning when you’ve been used to hitting the snooze? Getting your whole house clean and tidy when it’s currently a cluttered mess? Setting up the perfect after-school routine for your kids? Doing that all at once is a recipe for disaster.
One. Thing. At. A. Time.
My current focus is on establishing Leo Babauta’s Zen To Done system.
He opens with the point that most productivity systems are a series of habits, but that they don’t give enough information on how to establish those habits.
Babauta’s suggestion? Add new habits just one or two at a time.
Since I used ZTD successfully for a few years before, I’ve jumped in with the first three habits straight away. Even so, I’ve made sure to give it a full month before trying to move on to the next phase of implementation.
If you’ve got a series of new habits to cultivate, make a plan to introduce one at a time.
Systems and habits are helpful because they remove decision-making from a lot of tasks.
If you’ve got a system for your daily housework, then you know what needs to be done and when. It’s harder to argue with a list than to argue with your brain. I’m using a simple checklist in Airtable at the moment, shared with my husband so that we can both check things off.
When there’s a system in place for tasks you need to do repeatedly, it’s easy to stay on task. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you write a report or take on a new client.
Let your systems take some of the mental load for you so that your brain is free to do the important thought work.
How To Be Productive Using Evening And Morning Routines.
Okay, so this is kind of like the systems stuff above, but I think it deserves its own section.
I’ve read a lot about morning routines. Actually, though, I think the evening routine is an even more important part of the productivity puzzle.
I’ve recently started getting up earlier. Not crazy early, because unbroken sleep still isn’t a given in this house. (He’s FIVE, he has to start sleeping through soon, right?) Still early though, aiming to beat the youngest offspring out of bed at least by long enough to make coffee.
My mornings run so much more smoothly if I’ve set things up the night before.
Evening Routine Ideas.
There’s still a long way to go before I can really say I’ve got an evening routine that’s properly working for me, but here are some examples of things you might want to think about.
- Choosing your clothes and setting them out before you go to bed. Even better, choose all your outfits for the week, and build a capsule wardrobe where everything goes with everything else.
- Planning the day ahead – setting your Most Important Tasks (MITs) for tomorrow, checking the calendar for appointments, and generally having an idea in your head of how it’s all going to go. (So much easier to resolve a calendar clash if you know about it more than five minutes before the appointment!)
- Checking your meal plan to see what’s for dinner tomorrow. This lets you get food out of the freezer, or schedule dinner prep into a quieter time in the day, rather than the witching hour before dinner.
The morning and evening routines can be cornerstones in your quest to figure out how to be productive.
The key is to get them both to a point where they’re so well-rehearsed that they become automatic, even on those eyes-propped-open-with-matchsticks days.
Use Your First Hour For Yourself.
In a life where the best-laid plans can be derailed at a moment’s notice, by a phone call from school, a trip to A&E, or any number of other things, self-care often gets squeezed out of the equation.
The best way to stop that happening, and the best piece of advice I give but frequently fail to take, is to make the first hour of your day yours.
Getting up earlier than your children isn’t always reasonable, especially if, like me, you have both night owls and early birds amongst your offspring.
I recommend you give it a try, though, or that you find another way to make sure that first hour is focused on yourself as much as possible.
If you can exercise first thing, then you know that’s checked off your list right away. You don’t have to juggle things around to make it happen later.
If the idea of getting up early interests you, then I’d recommend reading The Miracle Morning, by Hal Elrod.
Zap Your To-Do List.
A lot of people reading this are simply trying to do too much.
Take some time to look objectively at your to-do list, and see how you can reduce it.
Delete the things that aren’t truly important or enjoyable.
Delegate where possible – whether by hiring a VA, or simply training your family to do their fair share of the household chores.
Automate – use Amazon Subscribe & Save to make sure that you never run out of nappies, moisturiser, heads for your electric toothbrush, whatever.
Set recurring reminders for things so that you don’t have to remember to change the smoke alarm batteries, or buy someone a birthday card.
Even if you can’t automate the task itself, see if you can automate the trigger process and remove just one or two of the little things taking up space in your head.
Have A System – And Use It.
The best system is the one that you actually use.
Whether it’s a bullet journal, a Filofax, or a gazillion sticky notes, have a system and use it.
I mentioned Zen to Done by Leo Babauta earlier on, and that’s my current system.
I bullet journalled for a long time, and may well go back to it again, but for now this is helping me stay accountable to the things I need to get done in all areas of my life.
Know Your Priorities For The Day.
Get clear, during the planning process, on exactly what you must get done today.
Keep those 1-3 Most Important Tasks (MITs) front-of-mind as you launch into your day, and aim to knock them out as early on as possible.
That’s not to say you won’t get to all the other stuff on your list. It just means that, if your day doesn’t quite go as planned, you know what to focus on in the time you do have.
Distractions And How To Deal With Them.
I’m sure you’ve read the advice to eliminate distractions and give 100% attention to the task at hand.
Multi-tasking is a myth really, and our brains definitely work better when they’re focused on just one task.
The reality of life as a mama, though, is that distractions are inevitable.
You’re probably trying to squeeze some pretty big goals into your downtime. Even if your main work is outside the home, a lot of your personal projects are going to end up sharing time with your family.
Do your kids regularly take three-hour naps and allow you to get deep, focused work done? No, mine either.
I’m writing this with brain.fm playing through headphones, but not quite drowning out iCarly on the television. I’d go to another room to work, except that every time I do that, my five-year-old starts tormenting his nearest sibling!
So, brain.fm for tuning out background noise, a closed door where possible, and the flexibility to roll with the distractions when needed.
My mantra is that, actually, work is probably the distraction, and what we think of as distractions are usually life.
Self-Care And Productivity.
We touched on this a bit when we talked about morning routines.
Self-care is what keeps you running smoothly.
Since you’re probably the fixed point around which everything else in your home and family rotates, you need to be on top form.
If I could boil it down to three essentials though, it would be these:
If you do your best to protect those three habits from being squeezed off the list, then you’ll be doing yourself a great service.
Use A Timer
Maybe I should have put this one further up the list.
How to be productive even when you’re so tired you can barely remember your name? Use a timer.
When you’re exhausted, you’ve been kept up half the night by a sick child, and your house is a wreck, it’s easy to just throw in the towel and decide that there’s just no point in trying to fix anything.
Instead, try telling yourself that you only have to do fifteen minutes, or five, or even two.
Set the timer and race it.
See how fast you can load the dishwasher, and how much less overwhelming the kitchen looks once it’s done.
Another trick is to time your breaks too. If you’re using time blocking to help you organise your day more efficiently, then you probably already do this.
If not, think about how often you sit down to reward yourself with a cuppa and a quick scroll through Faceache, only to find yourself still sitting there 45 minutes later.
A timer can help you fix that.
Do A Time Audit.
The time audit is a tool that I come back to time and time again.
Whenever I feel like I’m not getting as much done as I’d like, or I want to work out how to be productive in my life again, I start tracking my time.
It’s a simple process, just spend two or three days making a note of how you’ve spent each hour.
Be completely honest, since this is for your eyes only.
Then look for patterns, or time leaks.
Do you get loads done in the mornings, and then find yourself in an afternoon slump?
Are you spending whole days just fire-fighting things that would be easier to manage if you changed your systems a little?
Are there tasks that you could batch together, like meal planning, or replying to emails?
There’s no need to go to minimalist extremes, but I think most of us could benefit from a bit of decluttering.
If you’re regularly spending time looking for things that you know you have ‘somewhere’, or moving piles of stuff to get at things behind them, then maybe you’re just battling against Too Much Stuff.
Decluttering can reduce frustration levels and free up time for more important things.
On a related note, one of the things Leo Babauta talks about in Zen to Done is having a home for everything and always putting things away in their proper homes.
That’s definitely something I need to work on, and something I need to train my family to do too.
How To Be Productive Even When You’re Tired.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll have a lot of strategies now for increasing your productivity, and generally just getting your shit together.
You can see, though, that a lot of how to be productive when you’re exhausted comes down to setting things up carefully when you’re not exhausted.
Systems and routines put things on autopilot, and they create well-worn pathways in your brain, making it easier to go with the established flow than to skip doing the things you need to do.
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