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Young man reading and studying in a libraryIt happens to all of us. (Some of us more often than others.) I have a repeatable history of it, a clear pattern: several weeks, or even a couple of months, of go-go-go productivity power. Then a crash, and a long, slow burn. At some point, I raise my face from the charred ground and realize I have a long way to go to get back up there: back to the glorious skies of real motivation, high energy, solid habits, and consistent productivity.

Eventually, I can’t stand being down anymore, and I crawl out of the ditch and stumble back toward higher ground.

But it’s no easy process.

When you’re that low, burned up and burned out, getting back to consistent output feels like a superhuman task. Everything tastes like ash, including all the stuff that used to inspire and motivate you. The smallest steps back to a solid routine feel monumental.

It’s no easy process, but it’s not impossible. Since I have a little–okay, a lot–of experience with this cycle, I’ve accumulated some pointers. Nothing magical, just a few tips that can help ease your journey back to the clear skies of soaring productivity.

Let Go of the Guilt

Woman inside computer room sleepingThe first and most important thing you can do, when feeling far from productive, is to quit feeling bad about it.

It doesn’t matter why you crashed. Maybe you have some perfectly valid reasons, like a family crisis or a major life change or illness. Maybe you just got overwhelmed and overworked, and your body and brain necessitated a shutdown for survival’s sake. It doesn’t matter; the point is that guilt is not your friend in these situations, and guilt is not a voice that will motivate you.

Guilt comes from a skewed perspective, one which sees only your failures and shortcomings and does not acknowledge your efforts or your successes. Guilt is all about comparing, demeaning, criticizing, and accusing. None of that is helpful or healthy.

It’s easy to understand, theoretically, that guilt isn’t helpful. It’s more difficult to quit listening to it. Try writing down the stuff you feel guilty about or saying it aloud to someone. Most of the time it’s so ridiculous that when you hear it or see it, you can’t take it seriously anymore. Realize that feeling guilt, and allowing guilt to control you, doesn’t help you achieve anything or become any better.

Guilt is, in short, a useless emotion and deserves nothing but your rejection. Write it down, say it aloud, talk it out with a friend, send it packing in as many ways as you can.

Prioritize Your Productive Life

Trying to exert enough willpower to raise yourself back up to a productive life will quickly drain you. Instead, think about how you’ve been productive in different areas and in different ways. These might include exercising, getting to bed on time, showing up at work a little early, finishing a personal project, calling a friend or family member, writing a blog, keeping a journal, going to therapy, keeping your office clean, getting up on time, prepping meals, or reading a book.

Pick one of those, and go for it. Don’t pick all of them. Work on one, and put the little energy you have into it. Make some progress on one part of being productive. Pursue one little goal at a time to help build up your confidence and energy again.

Focus on Small Changes

RunnerMaybe you want to get back into your morning routine, your daily writing habit, or your exercise regimen.


Start with a less-intense version of your maximum productive level, and achieve that level first. So, for example, if your most productive days involve writing 1500 words or more, set a goal of writing 300 words a day.

Achieve it consistently for a while, and then up the quota. You’ll move back into your higher levels of productivity by making these small changes and achieving them. It keeps you from maxing out your internal resources and feeling drained and overwhelmed again.

Visualize a Productive [Fill in the Blank]

One of the hardest things about getting out of crash-and-burn mode is finding your motivation again. It’s like the fall from productivity just reduces your confidence and inspiration to zero. And until you get it back, it’s really hard to push yourself out of sheer willpower. That only goes so far.

Pick one aspect of being productive that you’d like to achieve again. Spend some quiet time just thinking through each step, or element, of that area. If it’s a process or routine, visualize yourself going through each step. Think it through as thoroughly as you can. Imagine the details. If it’s an activity or task, visualize each part, each tool, each encounter, each stage.

Some people find that writing it out is easier than imagining it. Write it out in first-person, present tense: “I am awake at 6 in the morning, tying my shoes for my morning jog…”

Spend ten minutes or so visualizing this productive area. If you can visualize two or three times a day, even better. Visualize the process every day, and you’ll notice your desire, your energy, and your motivation growing. Basically, you’re bringing your confidence levels back up. You’re showing yourself, mentally, who you are and who you can be again. Don’t rush it. Just be consistent with visualizing until you can’t stand it anymore; then start taking action and do those steps you’ve been visualizing.

Plan the Next Thing

Pencil WritingHere’s a gentle approach that’s ideal if the thought of tackling a whole routine, or an entire area, is still overwhelming. Get a small notepad, an index card, or, really, any piece of paper. Think of one thing you could do that would be productive, a single task that can be completed in 15 minutes or less. If you think of a bigger task, break it down into smaller parts that take less time.

Write it down as if you have already done it. Like this:

  • “I just finished writing two paragraphs of a blog post.”
  • “I just did the dishes.”
  • “I just paid the bills.”
  • “I just took a short walk.”
  • “I just answered two emails.”

Next, set your timer for 15 minutes and work on the task you’ve written down. When the timer rings, stop; you can complete the task, if you’re not done yet, or you can leave it as is. Partial accomplishment is still an accomplishment. The key here is to notice that you did what you wrote down. You planned to do a thing, you designated time to do it, and you did it.

If you simply write down the next thing, one at a time, and do it, you can get a lot done. You don’t have to push yourself hard or ask for the same energy levels you used to have; you’ll build back to those. Simply choose one task, set a time, and work on that task. Then move on to the next task. You’re slowly retraining yourself to plan and to accomplish what you plan.

Find a Group, a Friend, or a Mentor

Hand HoldingOr find all three. There’s no such thing as too much support when you’re climbing back to productivity. I try to think about my life (my productive life) in broad areas, then find some measure of support for each of those areas.

For example, you could find a friend who would work out with you a few times a week. Find an online friend who will nag/email/text or digitally call you out on a goal. Online groups (like the AE Dojo) can give you a place to ask questions, get tips, and just hang out with people who are striving to be productive, too. Meet-ups and community groups can provide the same interaction and support.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help, either. A coach, mentor, therapist, personal trainer, or consultant can help you formulate reasonable plans, get a better insight into your needs, stay accountable, and overcome obstacles that have stopped you before. Classes, seminars, and courses can help you gain knowledge and techniques, improve your methods, and improve your productivity in specific ways.

If you’re going to work hard to get back to being productive, you might as well raise your levels and capabilities while you’re at it.

Don’t Give Up

Getting back up to speed can take some time. Expect that you’ll make some progress and that you’ll also hit some obstacles. That’s okay; the important thing is to keep at it.

If you know that your life is better when you live it productively, it’s worth the struggle. And every step of progress you make will ease the next. In fact, the most difficult part is going to be the first few steps out of that ditch. So make them small and as easy as possible; you’ll gain your energy, strength, and motivation as you go and find your groove again.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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