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How to Be Productive When You’re “Not Feeling Like It”

That dreadful feeling of “I need to do this, but I don’t feel like it”.

This was a pile of random notes I collated for myself so I could pick out a method to use when I feel unproductive (which has been a lot lately) and…it became an article. These might sound obvious but there might be some tidbits in there for you, who knows. If you’re procrastinating, might as well read on. 😁

Start Right — Pen to Paper

Pen to paper instead of thoughts to chaos.


I tried planning the night before and also in the morning but the former didn’t work and the latter works on good days and doesn’t work on bad days. On my most unproductive days I like to write a master task list of everything I need to do in the week and then choose the tasks as the day goes by. And then adding them to my to-do list.

I know, I know. Why so redundant? You don’t have to have a separate to-do list, but I just find that the act of adding tasks I’ve done to my planner motivates me more than seeing a long list of undone or migrated tasks.

Anyhow, these are the questions I would ask myself as I choose each task:

- What makes me feel productive or is important now (aka what do I need to do)?
- What’s achievable now (aka what I can do)?
- What do I feel like doing (aka what you want to do)?


As everyone that knows me knows, I’m obsessed with self-evaluation and I think figuring out the root cause of why I’m not feeling productive is a necessity, especially if it’s elongated. Sometimes it’s true that I’m just feeling lazy, but other times it’s because of a subconscious fear or negative belief (which is probably not true).

A good way is to take on the role of a kid and ask why consecutively — the 5 Whys — to figure out the root issue.

Sometimes it’s possible to figure it out on the spot, other times, it requires some digging and a continuous journaling habit. But journaling is good for whatever reason. Here’s a good article on some cognitive/ un-biased journaling method for self-evaluation.

Start Again — Reset

Stop and S̶t̶a̶r̶e̶ Move — Have a break (and maybe a Kit-Kat *wink*)

This is a bit of an overlap with my next point but what I wanted to point out here is to literally stop whatever you’re doing when you feel a certain way. Don’t start scrolling your phone or distract yourself right away because before you know it, you’ll be an hour into a “quick break”.

Just stop, stretch, take a walk around your house, get a drink. And refer to the lists you (would’ve) made in the next point.

Prepare a Battle Plan — “If I feel… then I’ll…”

“A list which includes making a list??” Yes. And this “tip” could work in other areas of your life too.

I came across this “If, then” approach from this video and found it helpful. Basically, the idea is to make a list of actions to take when you’re feeling a certain way. For example, “If I’m feeling tired, I would take a 10min nap, get a snack, drink some coffee”, and “If I’m feeling unmotivated, I would refer to my ‘Feel Good’ folder*, listen to some pumped-up music”.

The idea is to have something to rely on instead of thinking of what you should do when you’re in a negative space, say feeling tired, sad, angry, bored. I like finding new things to add to the list — for example listening to the Harry Potter OST motivates me and when I’m bored I can read one (or a few) of the (hundreds of) articles I’ve saved on Pocket that I’ve forgotten about.

It might sound lame but if you find the right things over time, this would be helpful. You’ll also realise that there’s tons of things you could do beside distracting yourself with mindless scrolling.

(*Feel Good folder — A folder I keep of things that… makes me feel good, obviously. Includes screenshots of positive feedbacks, funny conversations, photos of cute animals, friends, travel, quotes or paragraphs of text that’s encouraging, etc.)

Start Small — Break It Down

Pomodoro Method

A couple years ago I came across this productivity planner from Intelligent Change and I love the concept of incorporating the Pomodoro method into planning.

Basically the book advocates breaking a task down into 25 minute chunks as 1 unit, and predicting how many unit is needed to complete the task. Each task should take a maximum of 5 units (what Intelligent Change suggests).

But if anything, just think of your task as 25 minute chunks and it will seem less daunting.

Tasks and Sub-Tasks

I like to do this on my most unproductive days — writing a top task and having many small tiny sub-tasks. Checking things off feels good. Science said so. Not gonna lie, this feels like cheating sometimes but whatever works is a good way to go.

5–4–3–2–1. Just Do It.

Sometimes, after all these “tips and tricks”, all you need to do is to just get in action and do it, as I did. I started writing this article without any solid plan on the content and didn’t think I’ll get this much out. Hopefully it’s been useful in the tiniest bit for you!

And finally,

If all else fails, give yourself the permission to take a day off. Think of it as a holiday. Do all the things you would love to do but locally, or even at home.

Don’t get stuck between not-doing-anything and self-blaming — go all out!




Life, by designers.

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Esther Teo

Esther Teo

Human. Designer. Feels a lot. Thinks a lot. Writes sometime. https://esthertch.com

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