Five Ways to Be Productive When You're Exhausted (Backed by Research)

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being busy

The hustle can be exhausting.

Many of us are lucky to get seven sweet hours of sleep each night. As such, most of us are not always running on a full night’s sleep.

Who am I kidding? I don’t remember the last time I got more than six hours in a row. I’m a night owl and most of the time I have a handful of projects on the go, a portfolio of clients, a couple companies to manage and, as of recent, I’m planning a wedding.

Most days I’m exhausted. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do, I live for the hustle and that’s why I fill my day to full capacity and challenge be a better and more productive person than the day before.

It took years of experimenting, a few burnouts, and a lot of adjustments before I figured out how to stay productive and produce, even when I felt like I was dying inside. Through all of these struggles and studying the science of optimizing productivity, I’ve been able to master my brain and to-do list.

I don’t rely solely on the latest time management app to stay on the ball. I combine my past experience with science backed studies to demonstrate how to be more productive even when you’re feeling exhausted. In this post, you’ll learn some of the secrets I’ve used time and time again to be productive and work late into the night while executing at 100%.

Here are five ways (backed by research) to ensure that you’re staying productive even when you don’t feel as if you can keep moving forward: 

1. Spend non-peak time on creative tasks

Do your most analytical work when you’re at your peak and save your most creative work for when your energy levels begin to fall. Studies reveal that for innovators, ingenious ideas come to us when we aren’t operating at our finest. It’s at these non-peak times that we excel at insight problems.

This study by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks suggested that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best or during our most intense moments.

When we are operating at our optimal time of day we are able to effectively filter out distractions and focus on complex problem that require analytical thinking. But these distractions aren’t all bad. In times of fatigue when we are not operating at our optimal time, these distractions encourage us to open our minds to alternative approaches to problems, generate new ideas, and think outside the box. There’s a reason why so many people feel as if they get their best ideas when in the shower.

This is where creativity thrives and spectacular new things happen.

So if you’re running full-steam and anticipate long hours ahead, plan for your challenging, attention-demanding tasks to be completed during your peak time and save the creative work for ther hours of the day when you’re about to wind down and relax.

2. Slow down and focus on one thing at a time

young african businessman working

It is literally impossible for our brains to multitask. When we multitask, we feel good. We feel like we are accomplishing more and spreading our attention across all of our tasks equally. This is wrong.

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London studied 1,100 workers and found that multitasking with electronic media caused a greater decrease in IQ than losing a night’s sleep.

The problem with multitasking is that in order to do it, we need to split up our brain’s resources and constantly shift from one context to another. We can’t possibly do more than one task at the same time so instead we are switching back and forth between tasks. This is not more efficient and does more harm to productivity than it does good.

When we are in a state of exhaustion, we must use our brain’s resources wisely.

When you’re working through fatigue, rather than switching between a couple tasks I suggest focusing on one single task and giving it all of your attention. This way, your resources are being spent wisely and you’re able to work through a task until completion. This means closing your browsers, switching off your phones, ignoring email, and turning off notifications that steal your attention away from the task at hand.

This sense of accomplishment is far more meaningful than making small incremental advancements on a variety of tasks.

Bonus: It will also help you rest your mind when your head finally hits the pillow. Why? Because the last thing you need to do before falling asleep is struggle to get some shut eye because you’re thinking about the four tasks you didn’t complete.

3. Take a walk

If you want more energy and more hours in the day, get up and move.

Ideally, you’re getting enough exercise daily to give you the energy you need to get through your day. If you’re balancing a full plate and then some, you want to be proactive and plan ahead for long days ensuring that you’re getting enough exercise (and coffee) to fuel your life.

I try to get in some exercise every day, whether a full hour at the gym or a 30 minute cardio blast. It’s the days that I do this that I have the most energy. While it may seem counter-intuitive, exercise is key to improved energy.

According to Robert Pozen, author of Extreme Productivity and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, exercise can make you more productive. Exercise not only gives you more energy for physical activity but it also means more energy for your brain, increasing your mental output.

But if it’s the end of the day and you’re staring at your to-do list through foggy eyes and an itch to procrastinate, get up and take a walk. Walk to the store, to the nearest coffee shop for a fresh cup of Joe, or just around the neighbourhood. This small amount of movement can give you the burst of energy you need to finish the day strong.

4. Have a snooze!

Businessman sleeping in his computer

The benefits of sleep are not unknown to us. Benefits like better overall health, better sex, less chronic pain, improved mood, effective weight management, and improved cognitive function are some of the desirable effects of sleep. Not just “sleep” but eight hours of uninterrupted good sleep. But for many of us this is simply unattainable. That’s where naps take a leading role.

According to new research, a 10-minute power nap is all we need to boost our focus and productivity.

Researchers tested four nap time spans: five, 10, 20 and 30 minutes (and a control group that didn’t nap).  They tested participants for three hours post nap. The results were promising.

The five minute nap produced few benefits in comparison with the no-nap control. However, the 10 minute nap resulted in immediate improvements in all outcome measures (including sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigor, and cognitive performance), with some of these benefits lasting as long as 155 minutes.

The real winners were the 20 and 30 minute naps. The 20 minute power nap resulted in improvements developing 35 minutes after napping and lasting up to 125 minutes post nap. The 30 minute nap produced a period of “impaired alertness and performance” immediately after napping with improvements lasting up to 155 minutes after the nap.

If you’re looking for a burst of energy and improved cognitive performance to get you through the day, make time for naps. The 20 or 30 minute investment will pay in dividends when you’re burning the midnight oil.

5. Listen to unfamiliar music

Research tells us that music has the power to improve our mood by releasing dopamine in our brain. The simple truth is that happy people are more productive.

Furthermore, this study, published in the December edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, describes five separate experiments that explore how noise level influences productivity and creative cognition. The results suggest that modest background noise creates enough of a distraction to encourage people to think more imaginatively.

The results show that compared to a relatively quiet environment (50 decibels), a moderate level of ambient noise (70 dB) enhanced subjects’ performance on the creativity tasks, while a high level of noise (85 dB) hurt it.

Choosing unfamiliar music can maximize the positive effect that music has on productivity, prolonging your concentration time and enhancing your creative output.

I often turn to programs like Spotify or Rdio to find playlists that have been created to help improve concentration and focus. In fact, I’ve created a Hustle Playlist that I’m sure any wantrepreneur or entrepreneur can listen to and get pumped up to tackle their tasks.

Conclusion

 

Ok, if we’re being really honest; coffee fuels my hustle.

For the last few years, it’s been coffee helping me boost my productivity and keep the hustle alive when I’m grasping for straws. One of my many personal mantras, death before decaf, is so prominent in my success that we decided to put it on a mug. That’s right. 

So it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t close this post with a tribute to the grind I consume multiple times a day, every single day. Want one of our special mugs? Sign up for a Subscription and we’ll ship you the mug, a 12oz bag of our Dark Roast, The Hustle Blend along with a few other surprise items to help you take your hustle to the next level.

These are just a few productivity hacks that keep me going day in and day out. What are some of your strategies for keeping the productivity flowing when your eyelids are heavy and tomorrow’s sun is rising?

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