How to stay sharp when you don’t feel like it

Last week I had…well…one of those weeks. My energy was low, and I just couldn’t seem to summon the productivity...
5 min read

Last week I had…well…one of those weeks. My energy was low, and I just couldn’t seem to summon the productivity gods to help me stay focused. Some of the culprits were the usual suspects – bad sleep, some stress at home, and some big projects that needed clarity. If I’m honest though, some of it was just that I wasn’t feeling all that inspired. I know, it’s hard to believe, but sometimes I’m just not feeling it.

Here’s the issue though – the rest of the world doesn’t really care. Clients still need to be cared for, projects still need to move forward, and I still need to show up strong even when I don’t feel like it. Over the years, I’ve put together an “emergency kit” of strategies and best practices that help me stay sharp when I’m off my game.

Prioritize Self-Care

For me, staying sharp starts with taking care of myself. When I get enough sleep, eat the right things, get some form of exercise, and spend some time meditating/journaling, I have a much better shot at overcoming those days where I’m not at the top of my game. What I’ve learned is that my body and mind need to be in good shape in order to be consistently sharp.

Set Clear Goals

Sometimes my lack of motivation can be traced back to a lack of clarity. When my goals are fuzzy, then I struggle to stay productive and efficient. This can work in two directions. I’ve found that a clear understanding of my goals for the year can help me focus my attention and activity for the month. Clear monthly goals help me plan and organize my weeks. Clear weekly goals help me make progress on a daily basis, even when I don’t feel like it. My best practice here has been a goal review every month (yearly and monthly goals) every Monday (weekly goals) and every morning (daily goals.)

Create a Routine

I’m a big believer in the power of routines. When my motivation is low, my routines allow me to stay on course and stay at my best. There is a lot of research on why this works, but the biggest factor for me is that it reduces my mental effort. On days where I’m lacking motivation, if I have to spend time deciding what to do, I’m going to have a very unproductive day. The key to establishing great routines is consistency. Pick some things that you do at the same time every day, and allow those habits to carry you forward even when you don’t feel like moving.

Break Tasks into Smaller Steps

I’m hoping that I’m not the only one who gets intimidated by large projects or complex tasks. When my motivation is low, these big tasks and projects get blown way out of proportion. On the days when the juices aren’t flowing for me, I have developed the practice of breaking everything down to the smallest possible steps. Yes, it feels a bit silly sometimes to have a task list that starts with, “open a new document.” However, every time I break tasks down this way I slowly develop some momentum and see a boost in my productivity. You might not need to go as simple and small as I do, but if you’re struggling to start then I encourage you to start small.

Eliminate Distractions

When I’m low on motivation, every distraction seems like an incredible opportunity. Of course I should check my instagram! Watching TikTok is the best use of my time right now. I’m going to check my email for the 50th time because maybe that will help. Here’s my little cheesy saying,

“When motivation is low, distractions will grow!”

Ben Redmond

I’ve done myself a big favor by recognizing my low-energy days and removing all of the distractions. There are some days where my only hope of success is to turn off my phone, close all of my extra tabs, take everything off my desk and just do the work.

Use the Pomodoro Technique

There are lots of different time hacks out there, but the pomodoro technique has been helpful for me. If you are unfamiliar with it, here’s the basic idea: work in short bursts with regular breaks. On the days where I’m struggling to focus, I like to work in 25 minute bursts with 5 minutes to stretch my legs or check my phone. I don’t get as much done as I do on the days where I’m locked in for 90 minutes, but it is certainly better than nothing. Remember what I said about motivation earlier? That works here as well. After 2-3 30 minute cycles of work, I normally find that I’m back in the groove and able to work longer.

Find Inspiration

Don’t judge me here – but I’ve got a playlist of about 10 songs that I use almost exclusively on days where I’m low on energy. A dose of inspiration can be just what I need to get myself back on track. For me, it’s some AC/DC while I play air guitar, but for you it might be a podcast or a conversation with a friend.  You know yourself the best – so dial in to what inspires you.

Reward Yourself

Who doesn’t love a good reward? I’ve found rewards to be a very effective (albeit someone childish) way to get a motivational boost. Today I’ve told myself that I get to eat breakfast after I’ve finished this blog post. Some days it’s 15 minutes to watch sports highlights. I’ve got a few rotating things that get me excited, and I use them to gamify the work I need to get done. I know it sounds silly, but sometimes it is exactly the push I need to get going.

So there you have it – my best practices for staying sharp when I don’t feel like it. My list isn’t exhaustive by any stretch, so I’m challenging you to make a list that works for you. Intentionality and thoughtfulness are so important to self-leadership. If we wait until we are struggling to determine our gameplan, we will be perpetually caught off guard. If we develop some tools and practices, then we can be prepared to show up as our best self no matter how we feel.