To stay productive despite being tired is an often-recurring challenge. We’ve all been there. For whatever reason, we feel tired yet we have to work. Having to deal with the consequences of not getting enough sleep is one thing. Add to this feeling exhausted, anxious or burned out. Sometimes it is work pressure that does it.
Without reservation, prolonged wakefulness is today’s second-hand smoking. Yes, this has much to do with sleep deprivation. Prolonged wakefulness means that we are not getting enough sleep. In fact, most people sleep far less than they should. And this can have significant impacts on cognitive performance. We also overindulge on coffee, and spend far too many hours sitting on a chair. We procrastinate, misuse breaks, don’t breathe right and have all sorts of productivity issue. Despite all of this, we often find ourselves in an odd situation. We need to stay productive while tired.
And there are some things that can help you. Be it that you are a student cramming before final exams, or a CEO facing some sort of double merger. You can learn to hone your focus, avoid distractions, and prioritize. And you can learn how to deal with limited resources, such as your own energy. From making a great cup of coffee to learning how to breathe right. Here’s how to stay productive while tired.
#1 Use focus management
Your ability to concentrate is limited. To stay productive, you need to be able to focus. Most people, however, can’t focus for too long.
In fact, the average healthy adult can focus for about 20 minutes. Anything past this mark is strenuous. To be sure, professionals can focus for a bit longer. At least when their area of expertise is in focus.
Training your concentration is possible. There are numerous ways you can do so, and plenty of them are easily accessible nowadays (e.g. meditation).
But focus is not what you’re trying to solve right now. What you hope to achieve is to get things done despite being tired. To be able to stay productive and concentrate despite tiredness.
While training focus can take some time, a quick solution is to do focus management. If you fall within the 20-30 minute average for focus intervals, group your work in bits this size. Essentially, take a break every 20-30 minutes.
Taking short and repeated breaks can help you stay productive, in general. And it works even when you are tired. Here’s what you can do to make these breaks effective:
- Ensure they are short. You don’t need to waste too much time on breaks to reap the benefits.
- Change the context. For example, a 2-minute walk away from your desk beats a 10 minute break while at the desk.
- Use the breaks to do something positive. Like getting a cup of something, or have a quick chat with a colleague. Your ability to focus will regenerate. This is similar to the Pomodoro technique.
There is an entire strategy of using breaks to your advantage. Read more about smart breaks here.
#2 Tackle priorities
There are two typical strategies to getting work done. Make a list of all your tasks and start working. Either start with the toughest, or the easiest. This way, you get things going. But when you are already tired, your priorities shift.
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The reason why you would normally start with the easiest task is to register a small triumph. In essence, you are gamifying your work. And to gamify, you need positive rewards to match key actions. That is what the easy task does to you. It boosts your self-esteem. It motivates you for the rest of the day, as famously explained in this video about making your bed in the morning.
However, sometimes you don’t even get to touch the bed. After all, it is not such an infrequent occurrence, to go one night without sleep. This is when you need to consider other options.
To stay productive while tired, start with the toughest task first. When tired, you are cognitively progressing from bad to worse. Which is to say that taking care of what’s most important makes the most of your state of tiredness.
For example, you have a presentation to deliver. You identify that your hardest task is the presentation content and structure. The visual props come second in terms of difficulty. Your easiest task is designing the slides. Perfect.
You start with the most difficult task. By the time you are done, you will feel a lot more tired. Just in time for the second task. It’s only natural, being awake is enough to make you tired. By the time you reach the easiest task, you discover you have two things to celebrate. The first is that you are nearly done with everything. The second is that you pulled through and it worked out.
#3 Avoid distractions
You know what they are. Time and energy drainers. Those 10+ social media accounts. Notifications from everyone doing everything, all the time. It’s impossible to focus with such a stream of disruptions. And how are you to stay productive when you get interrupted every couple of minutes?
It is not just that you are distracted and interrupted. It is also that you need some time to recover and get back to the task you were on. But there’s more to this issue. Distractions make you waste precious energy. Being tired, you already don’t have enough energy.
When tired, we struggle with a strong tendency to procrastinate. To be fair, we always struggle with our tendency to procrastinate. However, when tired, this tendency is harder to control. After all, we are limited in resources. Secondly, we still feel the need to engage in something. Why? Our anxiety makes us prefer to be active doing nothing rather than resting.
Distractions are most costly when you are tired. They don’t allow us to stay productive. Worse even, they don’t even allow us to rest properly. Hence, disband all distractions.
Put your phone away, or turn it off all together. Close or block all apps that might distract you. There are several solutions you can use to stay productive. Hack away at anything you don’t need to get the job done.
Once you’ve cleared your space, you can finally focus. Sure, you could also deactivate email and other work-related notifications. Or you could use an intelligent communication solution that filters what is urgent from what is not.
#4 Stretch a little
When you are tired, your body starts to ache. Maybe it is all because of not getting enough sleep. After all, while you sleep, your body gets repaired, all prepped for the next day. Cutting down on sleep or under-sleeping will make your body feel stiff, painful even. And if you think you can’t focus while being tired, just wait until your back starts to hurt.
Besides, not having enough sleep can have some severe effects on your ability to function or concentrate. Enter stretching. There are countless stretching exercises and by now you’ve clearly practiced some of them already. Be it at the gym or while doing team sports “back in the day”. Either way, you should give them a try. Perhaps in one of those many smart breaks. Why? Because stretching reduces physical fatigue and improves concentration. Moreover, stretching has clear effects on improving your cognitive functions. This last study shows that stretching can boost your cognitive flexibility by up to 27%. Meanwhile, it can increase processing speeds by 10%. Moreover, stretching can increase your executive function by 10%.
To be fair, let us ignore the percentages. Instead, let us accept that stretching helps us stay productive. It affects our ability to think, make decisions, relax, accept new ideas and communicate better. Most interesting, it acts as an energizer, it increases the rate at which you process information. This is fundamentally good news, as not getting enough sleep has the opposite effect.
While it may be true that stretching is beneficial, not all workplaces can accommodate a comprehensive stretching routine. Some things, however, can be practiced without requiring too much space. Just make a selection and see what works for you. Ideally, you should at least stretch your arms after typing for too long. This could prevent the carpal tunnel syndrome.
#5 Listen to the right tunes
This should not be in any way surprising. People use music to train or go for a jog. Gyms all over the world select tunes that best help you work out. Besides, one of the most inspirational montages ever (think Rocky) is music-driven.
Music has an amazing effect on how we feel. Moreover, it has an incredible effect on our cognition. To be sure, we are not referring to the often-disputed Mozart effect.
Rather, we are referring to a series of studies on how music affects cognition while performing other tasks. For example, research says processing speed improves with upbeat music in older adults. Or how, this study finds, music can improve scores on a variety of cognitive tests, in both children and adults.
Another study concludes that background music decreases anxiety and improves satisfaction with conversations. In fact, work performance is also improved. In particular, work quality increases while time-on-task decreases, according to this study on software developers.
There is a wealth of information on the benefits of listening to music. And most professions allow workers, at least in part, to benefit from listening to music. Music affects everything from creative work enhancement to increased productivity in repetitive work. In fact, music even improves the overall performance of introverts. So, it’s abundantly clear that you can get a boost in productivity from music.
The best music to listen to while trying to stay productive is anything without lyrics. Why? Because lyrics distract you and make you stray from your task. Classical music is typically the one being tested in most studies.
One of the most powerful things to listen to while trying to stay productive is up-beat rhythmic music. It has physiological effects on brain chemistry. Anything from techno to DNB, from breakcore and darkstep to neurofunk and funkstep.
#6 Stay hydrated
There is no rule about how much water you need to drink every day. Contrarily to popular myths about drinking 8 (or more) glasses every day. The best way to know that you need to stay hydrated is thirst. Are you thirsty? Have a drink. Not thirsty? Don’t drink. Either way, try and stay productive.
Thirst, however, is not as good an indicator as it used to be. Synthetic additives in modern diets affect how we feel. We might feel thirsty without needing hydration. Or we might not feel thirsty, yet need water. And when you’re tired and need to stay productive, hydration is not something you focus on.
While it’s clear that not staying hydrated can have severe consequences (renal failure after a few days), even short-term dehydration can influence mood and cognition. It makes sense, after all. When you drink alcohol, the drunkenness is actually a result of dehydration. To clarify, your brain needs water. Having a balanced intake of water improves your memory and focus, both of which help you stay productive.
In fact, when you drop 2 percent in body water, you may suffer from various symptoms. You won’t be able to remember things well and have trouble focusing. Basic math will be a lot more difficult. This is serious. You need to stay hydrated to stay productive.
And the easy way to do it is by using a marked water bottle. One that shows how much you had to drink. You don’t need to buy one for this purpose. You can simply take your favorite water bottle and use a common marker.
There’s also drinking too much water (no, not drowning). Sure, it sounds like a fail-proof to stay hydrated. However, it washes away precious minerals and electrolytes. So beware and prepare.
#7 Breathe properly
When you are tired and plan to stay productive, energy is important. Having enough energy is key to your success. After all, you are struggling to meet a deadline. Or prepare yourself for whichever challenge you need to.
Energy is key and human physiology requires oxygen for energy. That’s right. More than anything, you need to breathe. To illustrate, think of it this way. You can survive for more than a month without food. You can make it for several days without water. Without air you can make it to a few minutes at best. Sure, people such as Aleix Segura Vendrell are world-record holders (24 minutes).
How well do you fare? Try it right now. Congrats, you just changed your cerebral blood flow. Intermittent hypoxia may boost the “default mode network”. One that is responsible with self-consciousness, mind-wandering, creativity and introspection.
There is a clear connection between how well you breathe and how well you perform. In fact, rhythm of breathing affects memory and anxiety. It enhances emotional judgement and memory recall. These effects depend on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or the mouth. To clarify, if you want to remember something, do it on an inhale.
Most meditation practices dwell on the topic of breathing. Precisely because it so accurately reflects the mind-brain-body connection. In fact, deep and slow inhalation through the nose harmonizes brain oscillations.
There are several breathing exercises you can try to do while you work. Some are easier to internalize than others. For example, the complete breathing. Provided that you practice it for 10-20 minutes every day, you will soon do it “by default”. Alternatively, try this tutorial on deep breathing.
To stay productive, you need to operate at maximum efficiency. And breathing plays an essential role.
#8 Coffee helps you stay productive
Coffee today is a great pretext to relax and enjoy conversations. From pumpkin-spiced lattes to expertly extracted espresso shots. People treat coffee like it’s a social event.
People have coffee in so many ways, it’s becoming a personality typology. According to pop culture, your coffee says a few things about you.
Few, however, remember the great solitude in friendship that coffee can extend. You know, the guilty cup of coffee that yanks you out of sleep in the morning.
If you’re tired and need to stay productive, you’re likely up for instant coffee. Boil some water, pour it over, there you go. And if you have access to a proper machine, do play the barista.
After all, it’s not just the caffeine you’re after. Sure, drinking caffeine improves your attention, problem solving and delayed recall. But the whole experience is actually better. Not only are you about to drink coffee, you are also engaging in self-care.
Taking care of yourself, even in this minute way, can properly soothe your anxiety. Undoubtedly, there is something therapeutic about the ritualization of coffee making. What’s more, you are taking a break from work, and giving your brain time to restore.
Moving past your coffee ceremony, let’s talk science. Caffeine suppresses adenosine. It sticks to receptors in the brain so that adenosine cannot affect the brain.
Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that affects attention and alertness. It also affects the need for sleep, but not in a restorative way. The more adenosine you have, the more your brain advocates it’s time to sleep. Blocking adenosine makes your brain lie to itself: we can keep going, let’s stay productive.
Meanwhile, enjoy caffeine. It makes your brain work better. It boosts your cognition by up to 10% overall. And it’s therapeutic, especially when shared.
#9 Stand up, stand down and bounce around
Excessive sitting doesn’t help you stay productive. It has all sorts of negative effects, ranging from physical to cognitive. Yet, standing up while working does not necessarily provide a lot more benefits. It all started with a study by Texas A&M University, which found that standing desks help you stay productive.
Granted, standing up is better for your health. You get to burn a few more calories. Your hip ligaments don’t shorten irremediably. At the same time you have more room to breathe. Meanwhile, you get to keep a straight back. Over time, these benefits add to several physical changes. Consider that a 130 pound person burns an extra of 22 calories per hour standing (versus sitting). That averages at about 12 pounds in weight loss every year.
The psychological effects are also clear. Your interest, enthusiasm and alertness increase, providing greater task engagement. While standing, you are less likely to procrastinate. Performance-wise however, there is no change in reading comprehension or other key metrics.
When you are tired and you try to stay productive, however, a standing desk keeps you awake. The better solution, however, is to alternate between standing and sitting. One amazing way to do so is to move all your work to the standing desk. Meanwhile, leave all repetitive tasks and procrastination to the sitting desk.
The best possible solution would be to actually use a bouncing ball to sit on. One of those exercise balls you can find at a gym. It helps with most problems associated with sitting. It also adds a fun component to doing your work. Moreover, it gives you a positive context to fidget. And fidgeting boosts focus. In effect, focus boosts productivity.
Overall, prepare this assortment to be able to stay productive while tired. Stand up, sit down and bounce around.
#10 Engage with your co-workers
Conversations at work are typically perceived as a time waster. Usually, people expect you to do you work and leave the chit chat for latter. This typically happens in most organizations.
To be fair, meetings are an exception to this rule. In meetings, most people expect you to contribute even though you might rather be silent.
Here’s the issue, however. Conversations boost productivity. To be fair, talking to team members is often the right thing to do. You can stay productive and help others stay productive with the right words. Clearly there are many benefits to conversations at work. They boost self esteem while contributing to networking and team cohesion. However, any sort of human interaction or engagement can boost your productivity.
The main idea here is that workplace socializing helps you stay productive, this study shows. It does not matter whether socializers talk about work or sports. The more they socialize, the higher their productivity.
Having a brief conversation with someone increases brain activity in areas which then offer an indirect boost to productivity. But this effect is even greater when we’re talking to ourselves. In fact, talking to ourselves can help us set and reach goals and motivate ourselves.
It’s not just rehearsing for a presentation, or revisiting a scripted procedure. In the long run, what we tell ourselves helps us develop intrinsic motivation. It adds to how we deliberate on tough calls. Moreover, it helps us stay productive and focused.
The implications are clear. When you’re tired, and still have a lot of work to do, talk to someone. Give it three, maybe five minutes. Say hi, or maybe make coffee for a colleague. Any sort of exchange will inherently boost your productivity. And if there’s no one to talk to, try talking to yourself.
#11 Use aromatherapy
It might sound bogus, exaggerated or mystical even. Yet, there is a lot of science at work behind smelling fragrances and how they affect you. Don’t believe this to be true?
Think again. You are already experiencing this when you go to the mall. Ambient odors are particularly chosen to make you feel a certain way. More at home, welcome, eager to please. Perhaps more keen on listening to your shopping impulses. Besides, we already know that subliminal smells can guide social preferences.
The sense of smells is one of the more peculiar senses. It directly links to memories and the limbic system. You are actually using specialized “smell-neurons” to detect smells. Almost as if our brains have a direct link to the sense of smell. No wonder it is so evocative. After all, it works by a very complex mechanism that allows us to tell apart thousands of different smells. One trillion smells, to be precise.
To clarify, aromatherapy positively affects mood, alertness and your ability to do math. But doing it the right way is tricky. For example, rosemary and lavender can impact your cognitive performance and mood. In fact, rosemary enhances overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors. Meanwhile, lavender aromas have a detrimental effect on processing speed and cognition in general. In short, lavender calms and relaxes.
When you’re tired and plan to stay productive, consider using the following aromas around. The smell of freshly ground and made coffee. Add to this peppermint, which boosts cognition and improves problem solving. Perhaps even a hint of cinnamon, to boost your memory.
Aromatherapy around the office can be problematic. However, you can still smell your coffee or your peppermint tea or chew cinnamon gum. In any case, you can certainly stay productive with aromatherapy.
#12 Manage your melatonin levels
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone. Most animals produce melatonin. It has a key function in regulating various essential activities. How? Basically, melatonin is a photosensitive hormone. It reacts to the presence (and absence) of ambient light. More light means less melatonin, darkness means more melatonin.
Essentially, melatonin tells the body: “There is this much light out there”. It tells the body how long the days are, and how often the body experiences long days. Hence, animals use it to regulate various behaviors, such as the mating season. If you think about it, it makes sense. This is how the body knows that spring is coming, for example.
In humans, however, melatonin is responsible for regulating sleep cycles. To be sure, melatonin has strong effects on the body. It acts as an antioxidant and contributes to the body repairing itself. Melatonin is the staple hormone for the positive effects of sleeping. Modern humans, however, spend a lot of time starring at a light bulb. Computer monitors, smartphones. Car lights, traffic lights. Everything around us affects our natural sleeping cycle.
There are, however, a few hacks we can use. One is to use melatonin in pill-form right before going to bed. Another one is controlling our exposure to light. This can actually have incredible effects on cognition.
Working by a window, for example, can help you stay productive while tired. It can help you stay alert and awake. To be fair, this works particularly well if you have had little to no sleep the night before. Hence, it won’t have the same results if you’re working late.
Setting your devices to a “dark-mode” also helps you fall asleep sooner. This contributes to you being well rested for the next day. Overall, light exposure controls how long you can stay productive.
Some final thoughts on how to stay productive
Ideally, you can schedule your time and efforts so that you are never in such a situation. Trying to stay productive while tired can take its toll on your body. And it will most certainly affect your work-life balance.
To the brain, it’s a supplementary burden that can lead to burnout. To the body, not enough sleep means far too little healing. Sure, you can manipulate your melatonin. But overall, you need a short-term solution.
Use these 12 tips to stay productive while tired in order to overcome a work crisis. By all means, do not indulge in overusing these methods to fuel a workaholic approach. Granted, most of these methods are sustainable and can be safely used by a majority of people.
Improving your time management and your work-life balance are a better approach to staying productive. The preferred outcome is that you survive the day and can adjust your life accordingly. Ideally, you will seldom be in a situation in which you feel tired at work.
Overall, this guide helps by providing some of the healthiest tips you can use to stay productive while tired. Feel free to share it with those in need. Also, try this series on eliminating work pressure. It’s easier than you would expect.