10 ways to stay productive when you just don’t feel like it

Takeaway: To stay productive when you just don’t feel like it, zoom out to see how a task fits into the bigger picture of your life; be mindful of how aversive a task is to you; be mindful of how negative your self-talk is; give yourself permission to do a bad job; shrink how long you’ll do the task for and set limits; get a change of scenery; totally disconnect from the Internet; bribe yourself; or simply be unproductive for a while.

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes, 51s. It’s skimmable, though.



I think it’s human nature to resist getting things done every once in a while.

Over the course of a week, as your energy levels ebb and flow relative to everything from how much sleep you get, to how much caffeine you consume, to how much time you spend with people, there will inevitably be some periods of time when you’re simply not feeling it—despite doing everything right—and when you have to fight the urge to waste time to get work done. Just this morning, after getting a solid eight hours of sleep, I hit the gym early, planned out my entire day, and ate a healthy breakfast, but despite doing all I could to cultivate my energy levels, I simply didn’t have enough energy in the tank to do good work.

Thankfully, over the last few years (and especially over the course of my Year of Productivity project) I’ve honed my strategy for battling this resistance. When you have to get stuff done but don’t have enough energy in the tank, I think these 10 tactics will help you out more than anything else. I hope you find them as helpful as I have!

1. Zoom out

When you zoom out from a task you’re working on and think about how it fits into the bigger picture of your life, you can see at a higher vantage point why it’s important that you get it done.

Studying for a boring school midterm? Acing that exam will help you get your degree, graduate with better grades, and get that job you want. Writing a tedious work report? That report will help you grow your business and get you one step closer to world domination. Writing an article for your productivity blog? That article will hopefully help your readers become more productive so they can free up time for their most meaningful tasks.

Zooming out to see how a task fits into the bigger picture of your life will help you understand its purpose and see how important the task actually is. (And if it turns out a task has no purpose or doesn’t make an impact in your life, you should probably eliminate, delegate, or shrink it instead.)


133427908_1ae3030033_oPhoto source: Scott Robinson.

2. Look out for the seven procrastination triggers

According to Tim Pychyl, who has been researching procrastination for more than 20 years, there are seven characteristics ugly tasks have that make you more likely to procrastinate with them. They include whether a task is:

  • Boring
  • Frustrating
  • Difficult
  • Ambiguous
  • Unstructured
  • Lacking in personal meaning or intrinsic rewards

When you zoom out from a task you’re struggling with and ask yourself which of these attributes the task has, you can then make a plan to flip these characteristics (e.g., make the task more fun, clear, or easy) to warm up to completing it.

3. Mind your self-talk

If most people talked to their friends the way they talk to themselves, they wouldn’t have a lot of friends left.

Unfortunately, when you put pressure on yourself to get stuff done when you’re just not feeling it, your negative self-talk can go through the roof. It does for me, at least.

As an experiment, the next time you find yourself putting off work, pay attention to what you say to yourself in your head. If you find yourself saying a lot of things like, “I can’t do this,” “I’m no good at this,” and “Why can’t I just stop wasting time,” you’re probably only making things worse.

Some studies have shown that upwards of 80% of your self-talk is negative, and when that number only goes up as you put pressure on yourself to get more done, it’s important to be mindful of how kind you’re being to yourself in the process.

4. Give yourself permission to do a bad job

Whenever I feel stuck with an article, idea, or project, I simply give myself permission to do the worst job imaginable. Since I’m the only person who will ever see the original version of whatever I’m working on, after I give myself permission to create crap, I always come up with better ideas than if I had waited for a good idea to come along. After ideas inevitably begin to flow, I remove the bad ones I had at the beginning.

Everyone’s work is different, but if you’re responsible for completing a lot of challenging solo tasks, try giving yourself permission to do a terrible job. If you don’t believe this will work, trust me, you should have seen the first draft of this article.

5. Shrink your work

Trying to work too hard or too much when you’re not feeling it will only serve to discourage you further. To combat this, shrink how long you’ll work on something until you feel more comfortable with how much time you’ll spend on it.

For example, if you need to work on a report but you’re simply not feeling it, shrink how long you’ll work on the report until you no longer feel resistance to it.

For example: “Can I work on this report for two hours? Nope, too long. Can I work on the report for one hour? A bit better, but still too much—the thought of it puts me off. Can I work on the report for 45 minutes? You know what? That sounds perfect. I’ll work on the report for 45 minutes.”

This is one of my favorite hacks to get started on something I’m not in the mood for. Plus, once you get the ball rolling, you may end up working for longer than you originally intended.

6. Set limits

As I found out the hard way during my productivity experiment to work 90-hour weeks for a month, throwing more time at something you have to get done often makes you less productive than when you set limits. For example, when you schedule just an hour to get a report finished as opposed to working on it throughout the day, you create a sense of urgency for yourself, and push yourself to work harder over that hour to get the report done before the deadline you impose on yourself.

When you set a hard limit for how long you’ll work on a task, you motivate yourself to expend more energy over a shorter period of time to get a task done faster. This tactic also shrinks your work, but in a totally different way than tactic 5.

7. Get a change of scenery

We’re creatures of habit, and as such, we behave differently depending on what environment we’re in.

Often a change of scenery is all you need to get out of a rut and start working again. For example, if you work in an office, try exposing yourself to a change of scenery by arriving at work early when fewer people are in the office, or by working from home or out of a coffee shop if you have that flexibility.

Whenever I find myself in a rut working from home, I almost always leave the house to work at a co-working space or coffee shop to expose myself to a change of scenery. Every time, it makes a huge difference in how much energy and focus I have.

8. Disconnect from the Internet

Disconnecting from the Internet is one of the most underrated ways to become more productive.

According to research, about half of your time on the Internet is spent procrastinating, and when you’re not in the right mindset to work, that number can go through the roof. Disconnecting from the Internet—even for just an hour or two—will help you hunker down, waste less time, and become more productive when you just don’t feel like it. Especially when the switch to turn the Internet off on your computer, phone, and tablet is just a couple of taps or clicks away, do so if you want to waste less time and get more done.

9. Bribe yourself

When all else fails, try bribing yourself to meet your productivity goals by rewarding yourself when you meet them.

A reward can be anything from a coffee, to 15 minutes on Facebook, to a 30-minute break, but as Charles Duhigg (the author of The Power of Habit) made clear in my interview with him, for the reward to be truly motivating it has to be genuinely rewarding to you.

Bribing yourself isn’t my favorite strategy on this list (since it involves tricking yourself), but it serves as a damn good motivator every once in a while. Especially when food is involved.

10. Embrace unproductivity

Productivity is one of the most powerful ideas in the world: the more productive you become and the more you can get done in less time, the more time you free up to do things that are the most important to you. But it’s totally unrealistic to expect yourself to be productive 24/7.

Often “not feeling it” is a great sign that you should step back from your work to recharge and be unproductive for a while. Completely separating yourself from your work may not always feel like the best course of action, but when you’re not in the mood to work, it’s worth asking yourself whether you’re simply procrastinating, or whether you’re genuinely in need of a break.

Breaks help you recharge, reduce your negative self-talk, and warm up to tasks that you’re resistant to completing. Taking a break from productivity every once in a while will help you become much more productive at the end of the day—and when you’re mindful of your energy levels as you detach yourself from work, you can pick the perfect time to end your break and start working again.


  • oyez

    Very timely. I’d like to get a framed a poster of this, please. Or maybe a tattoo.

  • tidWOWs

    Great article, down to the point. Like it. A great job!

  • Paul Grant

    hey Chris- good thoughts on a subject I often think about..

    Your first suggestion 1. Zoom out is actually the opposite of what I normally do – If a `to-do’ isn’t going to get done by lack of energized self motivation _ try to think of a smaller step I can do quickly that will get me closer to my goal. I play pool- billiards (not very well) and a better player told me once after I said ` I can never make that shot’ to at least try to propel my ball closer to the pocket – softly.

    Your suggestion to remind yourself of the big picture is also important in stopping oneself from going astray from one’s main purpose – getting caught up in the small stuff and loosing sight of main objectives.

    Your suggestions to mind your self talk and change your scenery, I like to combine by going for walks while listening to motivational tapes

    I think/feel that the concept of motivational inspiration has gotten sidelined by business-minded instruction that discourages a `false sense’ that an `artificial positive mind set’ might inspire. I get that – if your boat is sinking, and you only have small buckets to bail the incoming water out- getting into the lifeboats might actually be `what should be done’ despite your best hopes, beliefs and intentions to save the sinking ship ( product, idea, relationship) at the cost of the pragmatic saving of others, money, time, and self.

    Its so true, that I times resist (or have trouble) getting things done – and every so often it’s my subconscious trying to tell me – hey- this is not the best idea.

    BUT if I’m watching my favorite sports team (Chicago Blackhawks) and they are down a couple (or handful of points) with only moments left.. do I want them to give up- head for the lifeboats-avoid any possible injury and just give up because the odds are they are not going to win? The answer is no.

    So- to end a long winded response to your post – in my humble opinion if/when your internal motivation is lacking, seeking outside motivation can help power you forward.

    { Which is why, I and others, subscribe to your post- for the added motivation to be productive. I haven’t ever responded to your post- which I should have, even if to say just thanks.)

    — If anyone reads this … maybe mention motivational speakers you like _ { for me Jim Rohn, Zig Ziggler. Anthony Robbins}

    • Thanks!

      I personally love a combination of both approaches—zooming out to gain perspective, and clarifying the next actions for a task to make it less boring/frustrating/difficult/ambiguous/unstructured (the procrastination triggers) :-)

  • Nathaniel Eliason

    Glad to see you posting again Chris!

    The “procrastination triggers” are especially useful. I haven’t seen those before. I think I run into the most trouble with leaving goals too high level and ambiguous…

    • Hey, thanks my friend! I fall into that same trap sometimes, but as with pretty much everything, I think awareness is the key here. Once you have the awareness to step back and see why you’re procrastinating, you can actually do something to change it.

  • Geanie Marie

    I agree with you about setting limits for yourself. I know it works for me. I work part time, and on days when I have to be in the office, I race around like a crazy person and manage to get a lot accomplished. On my days off I know I have plenty of time . . . so not much happens. Luckily I’ve become aware of this phenomenon and try to compensate.

  • John Roake

    I’m a writer with a couple of books under my belt , and the only way I can get started is to promise myself that no one will ever see my first draft. This way I can allow myself to have fun writing. I can indulge in dumb dialogue, misspell words, and generally make a mess of it. But usually there is a grain or two of genius shining through which I can build on in the rewrite. Thanks for all the good tips for being more productive.

  • Felicia Comrade

    I agree with Geanie. It’s better to set time limits for yourself. I also like the idea of promising yourself to
    only work on something for a limited amount of time. It’s kind of a sneaky trick to get yourself going, because like you said, you often get started and realize it’s not so bad after all and just finish. But sometimes it is bad after all, then you have the option of quitting when your times up.

  • Darlene Unsett

    This is a great post with lots of good ideas for improving productivity. My favorite ploy is to get up and walk around for a minute. I do a lot of writing and sometimes when a word won’t come to me, or a phrase isn’t
    working, if I just get up and move it jogs my brain into action again. I think a change of scenery would also be
    helpful. I like the idea of moving to the local coffee shop, or the library.

  • Jane Smith McCain

    I like this post. Zoom Out is great as #1, and the #2 dealing with Procrastination can’t be a mistake. The other points often fall in line behind these two. Thank you for gathering these thoughts together in an easy to read format. Very helpful.

  • Faisal Wahab Khan

    Great post. It’s all about just getting started and setting your priorities. I manage my priorities using these apps and they really work https://mobiwoz.com/top-ten-apps-to-boost-your-productivity-in-2016/

  • Sathyanand S

    Despite various tricks to getting oneself to act, I found the idea of ‘accepting one’s feeling’ (not to dismiss it) and still continue to work is the key. Called Morita Therapy, from Japanese Psychology it resonates with various ethnic philosophies like Indian, Buddhist, Stoicism and others. Thanks to Oliver Burkeman for introducing me to it. http://sathyawrites.com/getting-things-done-2/

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