Part II: Overcoming Challenges
In my last post, I discussed some of the ways to achieve a positive emotional state to boost your productivity. I often find that if you’re able to find joy or curiosity in the work you do, you’ll do better work and be more productive overall: a win-win. However, in most professions, it’s important to be productive even when things are more difficult. Sometimes personal or professional factors combine to make us particularly high stressed and anxious or low energy and demotivated. Below, we will explore a few tips for still achieving productivity in these low energy days.
This requires a bit of proactivity, but I find it very helpful to carefully document as much of my work as possible. At the end of each day, I write down the most important pieces to be done the next day. When I do a piece of work, especially if it’s new or I need someone’s help to complete it, I document each step and any questions I had in a FAQ document I write for myself. When I complete a project, I’ll write a couple of sentences about what was accomplished in a document I can revisit when I encounter a professional evaluation. By keeping such careful documents, even on my worst days I usually have a sense of what needs to be done and can muddle through the tasks using the steps and checklists I’d created earlier. As I mentioned in a previous post, by treating the future versions of yourself as potentially less competent than you currently are, you build in a bit of a safety buffer for low motivation days.
As humans, we are hard wired to respond to rewards. Indeed there are neural structures specifically connecting components in our brain related to cravings, euphoria, and positive reinforcement. When we’re feeling low, we can try to take advantage of these structures for a bit of a short term boost. To do so, simply think of a simple small reward you would like and set some rules on what you have to accomplish to receive it. Depending on how tough the day is, you can make this game as easy or as hard as you need it to be. For me, on particularly bad days, I might reward myself with a square of chocolate (or a whole bar) for just opening a work document or responding to a few e-mails. As with many things, just getting the energy to get started is the most difficult part, and you might end up surprising yourself by exceeding that initial goal. Although, it’s totally fine if you don’t, just play the game again with another task and another reward. I’m sometimes able to get a fair amount of work done just through this repeated process.
If I’m having a hard day, not due to low energy, but due to stress and anxiety, I can often use distraction as a tactic to make some progress. For me, music works well, a well chosen playlist on Spotify can calm the spiral of negative emotions that I’m fighting against and I can even sometimes achieve something of a flow state. This tactic works particularly well with a bit of proactivity (if you already have a playlist set up) as well as in combination with the first step above about documentation. With the music playing, I can just follow the instructions that my past self left and push a set of projects forward.
Finally, I encourage yourself to treat yourself kindly and to recognize if you might need to simply take a break. Sometimes our work and expectations of ourselves build up to the point that the only way to really escape the low energy state is to take some time off. If you have vacation days (or sick leave), consider using them to give yourself some time to rest. Staycations are underrated as a means to regain the energy we need to progress. And if that’s not possible, at least occasionally allow yourself zero-days. Days where you don’t expect yourself to make progress on anything but just allow yourself to accomplish nothing. As with physical exercise, the rest days are just as important as the days where we push ourselves.