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How to Stay Productive and Get Things Done When Tired

It’s nice to look back on a day and think how productive we’ve been.  But all too often our natural ups and downs take us to a point where we’re too tired to get things done.  The best advice I was ever given wasn’t about “taking a break,” or “getting some coffee.”  But those do help sometimes.  Really, the advice boils down to “prepare to be tired.”

What does it matter if I’m not productive?

Think about your bathroom at home.  If you’re like me, you don’t have a maid to come in and clean it.  You have to clean it yourself.  You really have one choice about it:  clean it yourself or don’t.  No amount of preventative care is going to keep grime from coating every surface.  If you’re productive enough to keep it clean, you’ll enjoy a higher standard of living than someone who isn’t and who doesn’t.

The same applies to your work.  The same applies to everyone’s work.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the data to make this graph, which shows relative non-farm productivity per hour since 1947.


This gives some value to how much higher our standard of living is now than in 1947.  We enjoy at least four times the standard of living.  Three examples:  quick healthy food options, Internet data sources, and cars that start reliably in zero degree weather.  I’d say those three are at least 10x improvements.

So you can sit back and relax, or you can do something to work towards that car you’ve always wanted.  (It’s not a mid-life crisis, it’s about standard of living!)

So how do you get things done when tired?

Don’t do easy stuff when you’re full of beans.

Let me reiterate that:  being productive when you’re tired is more about not doing than doing.

Here’s the example that drove it home for me.  I used to grade papers and write problem set solutions for a technical class.  The professor running the class looked at the dark circles under my eyes and said, in effect, “I can see you’re not coping.”  (He likes to cut to the chase, and I appreciate that.)

“Grading is easy, right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“These problem set solutions are not very good, are they.”


“Do your problem set solutions when you’re fresh.  Knowing you, I’d say that’s in the morning.  Grade papers late at night.  All you’re doing is pattern-matching against the solution anyway.  You can do that in your sleep.”

And he was right.  Very, very right.  It’s been a while, but maybe I can still grade thermodynamics in my sleep.

You can stay productive and get things done when tired

The Getting Things Done Implementation

To prepare for being tired, you need to resist the temptation to do easy things when you’re fully alert.  But you don’t want to forget the easy things that still need to get done.  Enter David Allen’s seminal book, “Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity.”

Allen advises a “collection habit.”  That means when you think of something that needs doing, you write it someplace you’ll check later.

For me, that’s an Excel spreadsheet.

Whatever format you use for your task list, it should indicate the context in which you’ll do the task.  Some tasks require a phone.  Others require a specific person.  Any task can be put in the context of your energy state.  Here’s a screenshot of my actual task list:

Sample "to do" list allowing for being productive when tired

The column headers are

  • Which project does this task support?
  • In what context can the task be done?
  • What is the task?  (Really specific, so I don’t have to think too hard about it)
  • Status. (blank = not done, “waiting for” means we’ll filter it out until the tickler comes up. “maybe someday” is a parking lot)
  • When do I want to be reminded about this task?

You can see down the “context” column that all these tasks require a network connection (most do nowadays), and

  • The “high energy” tasks are things I do when I’m energized.  They’re often long tasks.
  • The “scattered” tasks are the things I do when I’m over-caffeinated, likely to be interrupted soon, or tired.  They’re all short little things or things that don’t need much concentration or willpower to do.
  • The “leisure” tasks are things I do when I have some fun time.

The natural implementation

If you’re too tired to filter a spreadsheet down to “tired” tasks, just look around your desk.  Something can be filed.  Something else can be shredded.  That collection of receipts can be entered into QuickBooks.  That coffee mug can be washed out.

That is, as long as you didn’t do those this morning when you were operating at 100%.  If you did, you’ll be staring at a clean desk with an egregiously difficult cover sheet to write for that TPS report.  Not good.

Saving these light-weight tasks amounts to planning a productive little break.  While your tired brain is resting, you’ll still be doing productive things that need to get done.

Try it and see for yourself.