How To Still Be Productive When You’re Exhausted

Shift your mindset and accomplish your goals, while taking care of yourself.

Shannon Hennig
Jun 18 · 6 min read

With the busy pace so many of us run at day in and day out, feeling drained and completely exhausted is common. A lot of us even use ‘busy’ as a status symbol or badge of honor — the busier I am, the better my work and life are.

The long term implications of this lifestyle are well documented and can lead to depression, anxiety, burn out, high blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease and a host of other conditions.

In other words, ‘busy’ is not a great strategy for maintaining your health or productivity.

Short term the busy approach to getting stuff done often means you’re pulled in a million difference directions, and your attention to detail often slips. You may struggle to relax at the end of the day, and feel that any down time you have should be devoted to productive tasks.

Despite feeling exhausted you continue to push yourself to try and get things done, but it’s just not happening.

Your concentration is not there, you’re making lots of mistakes, and can feel your anxiety building.

By making small changes to how you view and approach productivity, you can still get important work done, move towards accomplishing your goals, while taking care of yourself at the same time.

Shift Your Mindset

Maybe you’re like me and when you hear the term ‘productive’ you automatically think that you need to be actively working on something that has a tangible output.

In other words, you want to have something to show for all the time you’re putting in.

Productivity is often associated with tasks that move big work related projects forward and impact the bottom line.

As a result you may find yourself working on projects long after the kids are asleep, and your partner is in bed. You might work additional time on weekends, just trying to get a few more things done so that you’re upcoming week runs smoother.

The result is that you’re not getting enough sleep, or any downtime and you’re feeling exhausted. You can’t remember the last time you actually relaxed and didn’t have something work related on your mind.

Guilt may creep in when you do try to take time for yourself that isn’t work or business related, so you figure you may as well avoid that unpleasant feeling and be productive.

So what do you do to move past this viscous cycle?

Start by re framing the whole concept of productivity and shifting the term away from strictly work related tasks. Anything that requires time, energy and attention (thank you Charlie Gilkey) is a ‘project’ and as such counts towards your productive output.

The things you do around the house, those all require time, energy and attention.

Going for a walk or heading to the gym — time, energy and attention are needed.

This shifts these activities from being things you might think about doing if you have time, to being meaningful, productive tasks that can be scheduled in the same way you would any other work.

The same thing goes for sleep, eating properly, spending time with friends and family, or dabbling in a favorite hobby.

Doing these activities doesn’t mean you’re being lazy, or unproductive, instead they’re part of a more holistic approach to accomplishing your goals, as you need to be in top shape to make big gains on your projects.

And the only way that you’ll move the needle on important work is by finding balance and taking care of yourself.

Make Time For Self-Care

Self-care is getting a lot of attention right now, and for good reason — most of us are really bad at it.

Whether it’s skimping on sleep, eating fast food at every meal, foregoing exercise to keep working or simply not scheduling in much needed downtime, we’re not taking very good care of ourselves.

While the term ‘self-care’ often brings of visions of trips to the spa and long walks on a secluded beach, practical self-care is a lot more accessible and can be easily integrated into your daily routine.

Consider the activities that you need to feel genuinely balanced — the ones that may be boring and not nearly as enticing as a massage and chocolate dipped strawberries.

These can be things like proper rest and sleep. Taking time to journal and meditate every day, or doing some advanced meal planning and organizing your lunch the night before.

When you’re exhausted, prioritizing self-care activities above others that are work related is important. Without properly managing your physical and mental health, you simply can’t preform at your best.

For me I know that I when I’m exhausted and feeling completely drained, I have to prioritize sleep and meditation. When I’m not getting enough sleep my mood completely deteriorates, and I’m liable to make poor decisions.

Mediation serves as an important part of my morning routine and I devote 15 minutes to it every day. It’s a chance to start my day in the right headspace — mindful and present.

These two activities then allow me to approach my to-do list from a place of calm and intention, as opposed to a crazy mad rush to try and get things done.

Remember that times of stress that are completely unrelated to work and the day to day grind are inevitably going to jump up and add to your load.

You can preemptively prepare for these by having an effective self-care plan in place that you’re already sticking to.

Reevaluate Your To-Do List

When you’re exhausted and stressed with a to-do list that doesn’t seem to get any shorter no matter how many hours you put in, it’s time to reevaluate where you’re spending your time.

Review your to-do list and prioritize it based on deadlines that are actually achievable, as opposed to stretch goals that you feel you should be able to make.

Each week take your top three priorities or projects and break each down into smaller sub-lists of tasks that you need to do to in order to move these items forward.

While this might seem like you’re actually making your list longer, you’re going through an important process that allows you to actually get a handle on what you need to do in order to make real progress.

This can help you better estimate the time you need to spend on a task to move it from doing to done and off your to-do list permanently.

It also creates a visual reminder of your progress and provides your with a plan for how to move forward.

Having a plan in place can take the pressure off you each day as you know what tasks you’re going to take on. Being mindful that other things will come up that will keep you from getting as much done as you’d like — this plan can guide you even when you’re not at your best.

By shifting your mindset and how you approach productivity, you can make activities that aren’t work related as much a part of your productive output for a day as a project or report. Making time for self-care is vital when you’re exhausted as it’s only when we’re feeling well, both physically and mentally, that you can perform at your best. When you’re completely drained it can be difficult to make progress on your to-do list, but through a reevaluation of priorities and creation of a manageable lists of tasks, you can still make progress while taking care of yourself.

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Shannon Hennig

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Writer & entrepreneur. I teach talented professionals to turn their expertise into a successful side hustle. Subscribe for more tips & tools.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.