At one point, I was a person who thought I could run on very little sleep. Not anymore. I don’t know exactly when it changed, but these days, when my body is done for the day, it’s done, and I’m out for the night. I still don’t get quite enough sleep (who does?), but I get much more than I once did, and I’m a much happier and more functional person for it. What’s annoying about this, though, is that I’ve forgotten how to not prioritize sleep over a pressing late-night task when I have one in front of me. When I sit down at my desk after work, or go to the kitchen to cook something, or stand in the middle of the room debating whether to do some cleaning, it’s all too easy to make the excuse of “needing my rest” and either lay on the couch in front of Netflix or conk out to avoid dealing with it. Everybody has stuff they need to get done in their off-hours or side projects they’d like to pursue, but everybody also faces the regular temptation to turn into a zombie as soon as we walk through the door after a long day. I would say that the solution to this is just to get more sleep, but who the hell has time for that? Life is not going to slow down just because we want it to, so we just have to find a way to make it work. Through lots of trial and error, I’ve found that short of actually getting more sleep, energizing ourselves mostly has to do with getting in the right frame of mind. Try these steps to make the most out of your time. Different tips work for different people, so report back on how these ideas do for you or if you have any tips of your own to share!
1. Work with your mind instead of against it.
Exhaustion has tangible effects on the way our brains function, and that will be true no matter you what kind of “positive thinking” you practice or what you tell yourself about getting shit done. Still, it’s helped me to get into the practice of tricking my own brain into being on my side when it’s more tempting to curl up into a ball instead of do chores. What we frequently forget in our ultra-busy culture is that we have a limited set of mental energy each day that doesn’t keep going for twelve hours straight. We only have so much in our energy reserve for the mental heavy lifting of life — creative thinking, logical problem-solving, willpower to do stuff we hate, any form of decision-making — so we have to carefully prioritize what we’ll use our best mental power on. We need to acknowledge our brain power as the rare resource that it is and treat our body with the respect it needs to get shit done for us.
It’s up to each of us individually to find out when and how our minds work best and to schedule tasks around those strengths, which in turn allows us to get shit done strategically — faster and in shorter bursts. My mind works best in the early morning, which I’d venture is true for most people because everything is fresh then, but lots of us don’t have the time to get up early to accomplish things or would just rather do so in the evenings after work.
2. Prepare ahead of time.
When you’re fried from a long day at work, as we’ve learned, our decision-making power goes down the tube, and so does our ability to concentrate. This is why it makes all the difference to plan what you want to get done on a work day beforehand so all you have to do when the time comes is show up and get cracking. It’s important to consider the goals that inspire you to get shit done in the first place. This could be as simple as having a clean and healthy home if you struggle with getting cooking and chores done, or it could be some grand vocation that you hope will stem from whatever after-hours side project you want to get done — so long as you have a reason for making yourself put forth extra effort after a long day at work. Otherwise, why bother?
Once you’ve got that in place, schedule the day’s tasks ahead of time. This of course assumes you even have the energy or time to sit down and plan out the next few days in advance, but if it’s at all possible, do it — especially on your day off just before starting a big week, when you’re more well-rested and clear-eyed. If you plan to cook dinner during the week, decide what you’ll make ahead of time so you’re less likely to cave to the almighty Seamless. I don’t like being told to lay out outfits or pack up my bag the night before a big day because I’m way too beat to bother with that by that point in the night, but if this works for you, do it!
Keep your expectations of yourself simple — remember, you’re putting in a full day of effort at work too — and list just a few core priorities for each day instead of imagining you’ll plow through a week’s worth of chores on one work night (LOL, you won’t). If the list looks small, your tired mind will be less likely to put it off out of intimidation. If you want to accomplish something that requires major mind power, you may want to reserve it for a day off when you’re more well-rested. Having a good personal organization system make this a lot easier (something I’m still majorly working out the kinks on myself), because a major stressor for tired brains is random “to-do’s” for later wafting through your mind and essentially clogging up your mental machinery. Write these tasks down as soon as you think of them so you don’t tax your limited energy trying to ensure you won’t forget them.
3. Set the stage.
If you plan to accomplish stuff in the evening after work, you may want to give yourself some decompression time (about 30 minutes to an hour) before getting started. Your commute can be a good time to reset from your job and get yourself ready to tackle a new set of tasks at home. Listen to music you like, read a book, take a walk around the neighborhood, or just sit and stare into space on the subway if that’s your thing. The key is to give your mind a quick refresh and to keep your momentum going once you get home without getting so relaxed that you’re done for the day. If you’re working on a personal project instead of some kind of home-related chore, you may want to work at a coffee shop instead of your own house so you’re not tempted to just veg in front of the TV. To keep your mind alert and in get-shit-done mode, try staying on your feet when you get home, avoiding comfy seats until you’re done with your tasks, surrounding yourself with bright light, turning up the AC to keep the air chilly, or try quick awakening exercises.
Naps don’t work for me unless someone is around to physically drag me out of bed because I’ll just want to sleep through the rest of the night, but power naps can do wonders for some people. Try drinking a cup of coffee before taking a 20-minute nap as the caffeine starts to take effect, and you should wake up energized. If your living space allows for it, try to avoid doing any type of sit-down desk work in your bedroom — your cozy comforter will try to pull you in like a tentacled monster. If you find yourself exhausted after meals during the day, try eating several smaller, cleaner meals throughout the day instead of three big ones to avoid crashing in the evenings.
4. Just do your damn work.
When I sit down to accomplish something while I’m burned out, my inner monologue is a stream of whine. The longer I spend heavily focusing on my exhaustion or procrastinating, the more time I’m wasting that could be used getting that junk done so I can actually relax. Everything in life seems harder when you’re tired — which is a reason you should also avoid major discussions or tense situations when you’re exhausted — so try telling yourself that you only have to work on something for ten minutes. If you only do those ten minutes, then yay, you got something done (back to those low expectations I mentioned), go enjoy relaxing! If you end up working on something beyond those ten minutes (which tends to be how this goes), even better. Stop whining to yourself and just start doing it, and often the high of accomplishing something will make you want to keep going. If the task is a chore like cleaning up your space, consider tackling these ten-minute chunks in the morning so you come home to a tidy space and the mental permission to gloriously veg out.
5. Be kind to yourself.
I tend to describe the exhausted version of ourselves as if they’re different people than our normal selves, and that’s because when we’re tired we really are more…simple. We’re more impulsive, more emotional, and terrible at seeing the big picture of anything. It’s frustrating, but it’s the reality, and expecting ourselves to work at full-speed ultimately just makes a bigger mess of things. Treating our minds like coddled little kids when we’re tired is the fastest way to be productive. Taking care of yourself is the most important thing, and some days that means putting your goals over your whiny desire to watch Netflix, while other days it means prioritizing your need to relax. Only you can tell the difference, but the key is pushing yourself when you’re tired without running yourself into the ground, because then you’re just prone to getting sick and unable to function at work.
When you need a break but have a deadline, tackle a very low-effort task and then tell yourself what a good job you did, even if that feels totally stupid. If you associate trying to get things done after work with feeling like a failure, it’s a straight ticket to the couch every night, so it’s important to keep it light. Crazy as it sounds, it really is all about reasoning with yourself! Remember that most things really can wait until tomorrow, and if you’re a wreck, leave them be. Don’t skip basic tasks like washing your face or brushing your teeth because you’re burned out, though. Making those tiny things a priority means you’re making yourself a priority, and accomplishing even those small bits of effort helps build your willpower muscle for greater tasks in the future.
6. Remember that this is about more than just getting stuff done.
Productivity is great, but this is about more than just squeezing in extra hours to check things off your to-do list. In the grand scheme of life, getting more stuff done isn’t too important, but making sure you won’t have regrets with how you used your time on earth is. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives! If you want to make the most of your time, you need to periodically take stock of what you want out of your life and assess whether you’re finding time for that in your current schedule. If you’re not, “the right time” is never going to magically appear on its own, so you need to find a way to work around your current reality or change it altogether – both of which involve getting creative about how to cooperate with your own mental energy patterns and how you use your time when you’re not at work or school. We deserve to get as much fulfillment as possible out of life, but the modern world isn’t set up to help us do that — it’s mostly set up to keep us in a cycle of laziness, complacency and mindless consuming just to get through the day. If relaxing in our free time makes us happy, then dammit, we deserve to have as much fulfilling chilltime as we want; but if we also want to accomplish more than just getting to work and back each day, we have to carve that path out for ourselves.
Original by: Claire Hannum