How To Stay Productive When You Don't Want To Get Out Of Bed
Like many of my essays, this began as a list for my own benefit. I keep a lot of lists and a lot of notes. A small percentage seem like they might be useful, so I turn them into something publishable
Most of what I know about productivity comes from times when I’ve been depressed and still have work I need to get done. Those times have taught me that productivity isn’t really about motivation. It’s about:
Knowing what you need to do and why.
Putting systems in place to make it as easy as possible to get it done.
Cutting out anything which gets in the way.
Likewise, I don’t believe in overly specific productivity strategies and techniques. It’s personal. We all have our own ways of working, we all have systems which are effective for us. That changes over time. Productivity is different on days when we have a clear calendar and lots of time, and days which are cluttered with commitments and when we haven’t slept well. And it’s obviously going to be different based on our lifestyles.
Chris Bailey writes in The Productivity Project (the book which has helped me the most with this because it’s simple and personalizable) that it’s about three ingredients: time, energy and attention. On a typical day, one of those areas is usually lacking. We might have lots of energy but not much time, or plenty of time but no attention. That requires trade-offs. Time to restore energy. Attention to compensate for less time. Energy to pay attention. I have systems to ensure I have enough time and attention, so energy is my main bottleneck.
It isn’t all about work - this is what has helped me to be a functional human during many of the times when I didn’t want to get out of bed, let alone do anything requiring true effort. But demotivation spirals. Not getting out of bed all day (which I have done more times than I can count) causes everything to pile up and become overwhelming. The next day, it’s even harder. And the next. I need ways to break the cycle.
This is what has worked for me over the years.
Eliminate procrastination by answering two questions.
As I have written before, I don't believe any of us procrastinate because we are lazy or incompetent. We procrastinate because we cannot answer these two questions.
1-What do I need to do? (Specific and in detail.)
2-Why do I need to do it? (Again, specific and in detail.)
It's simple, but getting those two points clear always helps me when I'm struggling with getting something done. Motivation is fragile, but it is renewable. The best way to renew it is not with Pinterest quotes or hanging cat posters. It's by clarifying our reasons - ideally on paper. If there is no answer to those two question, it can be a sign that this isn’t worth doing. As Chris Bailey writes:
“Working deliberately and purposefully throughout the day can make or break how productive you are. But having a purpose is just as important. The intention behind your actions is like the shaft behind an arrowhead - it’s pretty difficult to become more productive day in and day out when you don’t care about what you want to accomplish on a deeper level...Investing countless hours becoming more productive or taking on new habits and routines is a waste of time if you don’t care about the changes you’re trying to make.”
Take a lesson from Napoleon - Cut out the busy work.
On tough days when I know I won't have the energy to get many hours of work done, I focus on two or three big things which will actually move the needle towards a particular goal. The small stuff - chores, non-urgent email, anything overly uncomfortable or dull - can wait. Today I just need to get the important work done because that's a good use of limited motivation. It helps to break everything down into tiny steps too.
Most of what we do each day doesn't matter - it's what we do out of habit or obligation or because everyone else is doing it. It can be hard to break that drive long term, but it's easy to do for a single day. Putting off irrelevant work isn't procrastinating, it's being smart. Apparently, Napoleon had a habit of avoiding opening his mail for as long as possible, knowing that most fires soon put themselves out and most emergencies resolve themselves. Even if today's plans don't involve invading Russia, it's a good practice to adopt.
Be boring and avoid unnecessary choices.
Making choices is draining. Decision fatigue is a real problem. I am constantly looking for ways to cut choices out of my life because I know it saps my motivation for other areas. Read the Paradox of Choice if you don't believe me. This involves stuff like:
- Wearing basically the same outfit every day. I have two pairs of black trousers, a few black t-shirts and black shirts and one one pair of trainers. That's my uniform - black trousers, a black t-shirt or shirt depending on weather and white trainers each day. Jumpers depend on which of my two is clean. Jewelry is a no - I don't own any unless you count my watch. Makeup is a no at least six days a week, usually with one day when I want to make an effort. Seriously. This works and eliminates one more hurdle in the morning.
- Daily rituals and routines. The obvious point which everyone yammers on about. We don't need to copy Hemmingway's daily routine or take cues from Tony Robbins. Do what works for you, however weird it seems to others. My formula for morning/evening routines is pretty much reading + something to clear my mind (journal writing, meditation, a short walk) + practical self-care stuff (skin care etc) + clearing to neutral + tea/coffee. Sure, I used to have super complex 15 step routines but they were fragile, time-consuming and took motivation to begin. Now I keep things simple and flexible, meaning my routines are less affected by disruptions. There's nothing on there I don't actively want to do, so it takes no effort. Automating chunks of the day cuts out the need for motivation. Thomas Frank’s video on the topic is great for figuring out how to do this.
-Repeated meals/beverages/choices when eating out. I would never give health advice because a) I'm not a doctor b) I can't follow most of it myself and have a ton of terrible habits and c) anyone who does so on the internet without any relevant qualifications is an irresponsible idiot. BUT this is a point which I have heard from a lot of people who do know what they are talking about, and it's the only thing that keeps me from living on crap while eliminating choices/stress in the process. Doesn't mean never trying anything new, but on days when I'm low on motivation, I don't want to choose between a million different types of milk/syrup/beans at Starbucks.
-Repeated, durable purchases. For me, that means sticking to buying the same stuff which I know works and is practical: Moleskine notebooks (any other brand falls apart after a week in my rucksack), Doc Marten boots or Air Max trainers, Lamy fountain pens always etc. I look for brands which don't change their styles every other week.
Outsource motivation through commitments and deadlines.
When I'm struggling to get motivated to do something, I look for ways to set a deadline or attach it to a commitment. Putting off a piece of work? I schedule the invoice to go out at the exact time I plan to finish it so I have no choice. Avoiding the gym? I book classes. Generally not getting anything done? I try to plan something with a friend/family later in the day, to set a hard limit on the time I have to work. A different form of deadline I use is a simple time limit for certain aversive tasks, e.g. giving myself half an hour to answer emails per day to stop me overthinking them, an hour to get an outline done, two hours to do all the research I need for a piece. It stops it from dragging out over the entire day. From an article I love by David on SignalvNosie:
“The purpose of a self-imposed deadline is to sharpen the edge of your prioritization sword and stake a flag of coordination for the team. It’s not a hill to die on. It’s not a justification for weeks of death marching. It’s a voluntary constraint on scope.”
A commitment or deadline essentially outsources motivation by making it extrinsic, not intrinsic.
Design an environment which makes motivation redundant.
How can you set up your home/work space to require less motivation? Simple example: washing the dishes. I used to always put this off until I had nothing clean, because why bother washing up before that? Then I moved into a flat which only has one sink. If I don't wash up each night, I can't clean my teeth/wash my face (unless I want tooth paste-y, soapy dishes.) Now that I have an actual reason to do it, washing up requires no motivation.
The same goes for keeping water bottles in each room, putting my vitamins where I will see them each morning, and keeping books EVERYWHERE. Books go anywhere I could possibly need one - always in my bag, by my bed, in my living room/ work space, bathroom, at places I visit often, etc. This is one of the ways I am able to read 4+ books a week while remembering everything I read - I make it easy. Again, no motivation required. Work wise, it means an environment where everything is organized, easy to access and free of distractions. If I'm demotivated, I will look for any possible way to distract myself, so I need to remove that option altogether.
* * *
Systems like these grow out of need. If I were a super motivated, energetic, always-hustling person, I wouldn’t need to think about productivity. I could just roll out of bed, sprint to my immaculate office and plunge into emails for the next 18 hours. But I’m not, and only about 3 people on this planet actually are like that. The rest of us have heaps of crappy days when diminishing returns quickly set in, or getting started on anything feels impossible. That doesn’t just apply to people (like me at the moment) who have flexible schedules. Whenever I’ve worked in a ‘real’ work environment, I’ve always noticed the same. People reach a point sometimes where they stop getting anything done and just dither.
The purpose, for me, is to make motivation antifragile - for it to be stronger after setbacks because they offer opportunities to better understand what works and what doesn’t.