I have “off” days. Days where I can’t find the motivation to go through the daily slog, days where my to-do list has reached such a scary volume that I stay in bed with the sheets clutched tightly around me, too overwhelmed by what’s ahead to make any attempt at progress.
Days like this are natural, but when I reached out to a few friends to talk through my lack of motivation and drive to be productive, I didn’t find a clear path forward. Instead, my friends were convinced that it was simply a matter of applying myself.
I don’t outright disagree with their advice. Applying myself differently might bring about many positives, but I was looking for more concrete advice around a way forward, a way out of feeling off and unmotivated.
Asking the wrong questions
I spent weeks feeling ruled by my calendar and to-do list, consistently feeling unproductive and dissatisfied with how I was spending my time. It was during this slump that I discovered I had been asking the wrong questions and misdiagnosing my problem.
Instead of asking why I wasn’t motivated, I should have been asking in what ways can I find motivation?
Finding motivation is sometimes nearly impossible — at least in my experience. But I realized that even on the days when I don’t feel driven, if I stick to a set routine, I’m able to push aside those slumpy feelings of poor productivity. As long as my body feels like it’s in the game, then my mind shortly follows. The answer to the question seemed pretty simple: set a routine and stick to it.
Of course, I can practically hear the criticism already — suggesting someone start a routine is slightly more actionable than “apply yourself better.” That’s why my routine is so easy to start. I simply can’t say no.
My daily routine
I start with a shower to get ready for the day (baby steps). Then, I head to my living room and pick up, getting rid of trash and collecting any dirty plates or cups so I can start my daily morning ritual of…doing the dishes.
Some might shake their heads, but doing the dishes first thing in the morning is probably the most important part of my routine, just as I know it’s an important nighttime ritual for others. It’s a mindless task that definitely needs to be completed, and by crossing it off my list early in the morning, I already feel like I’ve accomplished something. After that, it becomes much easier to put my focus on more nuanced tasks.
Lists, lists, lists, lists
And the first of these nuanced tasks? Preparing a detailed to-do list, complete with steps and bullet points behind each requirement, as well as an estimated time of completion. If I organized my list before doing the dishes, I would have quit on the spot, doomed to another day of poor productivity. Doing the dishes empowers me enough to believe I can accomplish at least part of my list. We all have our things, right?
After establishing my tasks for the day, I try to optimize my list. Small, easy tasks go first, freeing up time and headspace for bigger projects later. Small tasks can at times feel like unworthy distractions of big projects; getting them out of the way keeps me focused on high-priority items later in the day.
Have you picked up the theme yet?
Use a routine to trick yourself
My routine is much more about slowly empowering myself and tricking my brain into thinking I have been productive before I have even taken the first steps on a large assignment. I trade feeling overwhelmed for a can-do attitude, and find myself more prepared to knock off tasks when I’m not 100% on my game.
The power of the routine lies in its ease of starting. If you can get yourself going without putting much thought into it, you’re a half-step away from making progress on the things weighing you down. As you ramp up what you’re accomplishing, your brain should be gradually fooled into being ready to knock off the next big task.
Implement your own routine slowly and experiment with different styles to see what works best for you. Some find it beneficial to exercise in the morning, others make an hour to read. Do what you feel comfortable doing, but make sure you don’t start your day by saying “I can’t.”