Shimon Littman, Psy.D. | Staff Psychologist:

Every day I find myself trying to avoid “the pile.” That’s what I call the ever growing and changing mountain of responsibilities, chores, reading, projects, bills, and errands that I’m supposed to work on getting done each day. The truth is, I don’t always avoid it. I actually spend some time each day trying to organize, plan, and prioritize how I’m going to get through the pile. Sometimes I make a dent, but a lot of evenings I find myself wondering when time started moving so fast, and how I didn’t get through even a tiny bit of what I wanted. At that point, I usually feel kind of ashamed of my lack of productivity- that is before I start distracting myself with some more TV (Re-watching The Office now and it’s SO much more appealing than tackling that pile).

If this sounds at all familiar, then you’re definitely not alone! I find that this whole process has gotten even WORSE since quarantine started. Since I’m saving a ton of time that I used to spend commuting, meeting up with friends, eating out, etc. I thought I’d be able to be much more productive than usual. It turns out though, that the opposite is actually true.

That’s the paradox of free time. On the one hand, we have less constraints, fewer demands and less pressure to do, well, anything. But on the other hand, without that structure and pressure to get things done, the push to take advantage of the small spaces of free time that we used to have, the motivation to be productive tends to nose dive as well.

The problem though, is that while the motivation may have dropped off, your expectations for yourself and your emotional reactions still stay the same. This combination means that you’re doing less when you think you should be doing more, so you end up feeling guilty, like you’ve fallen short.

Here are a couple of helpful strategies and things to keep in mind that can make it easier to be productive and feeling okay about being less productive than you’d like.

1. Don’t beat yourself up

I can’t emphasize how important this one is. If you take away only one thing from this post, make sure this is the one! There are a couple reasons why it’s important to not be too hard on yourself, regardless of how much or how little you get done. First, plain and simple, is that especially at a time like this, when we are all trying to cope with global change and uncertainty, it’s even more important to be kind, compassionate, and gentle towards ourselves. If you don’t get much done, that’s totally OK. You’re doing the best you can.

But there’s an even more important benefit to forgiving yourself, one that you might not expect. Have you ever tried to do well at something and failed? Maybe you were on a team and lost, or studied hard for a test and failed anyway. Ever think about how that impacts you the next time you try? If your last attempt ended badly, you’re probably less motivated to try again. We tend to carry our experiences with us and they can be unwanted baggage when we head into our next experience.The same thing happens when we feel unproductive and beat ourselves up for it. It makes it much harder to try again. So, this don’t beat yourself up! Not only because you deserve better, but because it makes the process of being productive much harder.

2. Set small goals

While it’s important to pump the breaks and be okay with being less productive, if you do want to get more done, start small. If you want to train for a marathon and your plan is to run 10 miles every day for a week, you aren’t going to get very far. The first time you miss a goal (10 miles?! I mean, who can do that?!), you’re going to feel like you have to give the whole thing up. Instead, set goals that are small, manageable, and measurable. That way you can recognize when you’re accomplishing them and build on that momentum.

3. Pick goals that are effort oriented, not product oriented

This is another way to stack the deck in favor of success. Try setting goals that will allow for you to be productive, while making it hard to fail. If your goal is to “write five pages in an hour,” sometimes things will flow and you’ll get there, but a lot of times you won't. On the other hand, if your goal is to “write for an hour” so then as long as you’re trying, you’re also succeeding. And at the end of the day, if you keep trying and you feel successful, you’re going to be a lot more productive.

4. Stick to a schedule

Pick a time when you think you will be free to get some work done and set that time aside every day for work. Make that time sacred! Don’t let anything else pop up and get in the way. To do this, it can be important to actively plan other times for when you are going to do your other activities, responsibilities, and goals. The other key here is to stick to the schedule. You pick a time that works for you and you spend that time trying to be productive, regardless of whether you feel like it or not. In other words, for that hour, you take the emotion or motivation out of the equation. That’s your hour (half-hour, five minutes, whatever) that you’ve set aside to work. That means that you’re going to work during that time no matter how enthusiastic you are or how unmotivated you feel.

No matter who you are, no matter how productive or effective, there are going to be times when you just don’t want to do it. And that’s totally OK. But if you want to be productive, try to stick to the schedule anyway. It many not feel great while you’re doing the work, but you will feel much better about yourself afterwards.

5. Play it through

Imagine a guitarist is playing a solo and misses a cord or two. You think they should take a deep breath and start the song from the beginning? NO! If you’re that guitarist, you would play through and just move on. Similar to what we said about not beating yourself up, play it through! If you have a day that feels unproductive, don’t worry about it. Just keep going and try again tomorrow. It doesn’t need to be a big deal. Keep playing through and you’ll get there.

6. Reward your efforts!

Who says rewards and prizes are just for kids?! If you aren’t going to reward yourself then what’s the point of all that productivity? Sure, there’s the inherent reward and sense of accomplishment you get after a hard day’s work, but why not throw in some ice cream, a glass of wine, some video game time, whatever works for you! Pick something to set aside as a reward, something that you will only indulge in if you feel that you’ve given it your best effort. It might give you that push to get a little more done, even if you don’t feel like it.

7. Be happy, even proud, of whatever you’ve got

If you set manageable goals, tried to stick to a schedule, and did your best you absolutely should be proud of yourself. Whatever you’ve accomplished today, you killed it. If there’s more to do, I’ve got news for you – there’s ALWAYS more to do. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Make sure to take a moment to appreciate your effort and take some satisfaction in what you’ve done. Working in general is HARD, and working during a global pandemic with less structure and accountability is infinitely HARDER. If you’ve gotten any work done, you should take pride in it (not only because you deserve it, but that pride and satisfaction will make it much easier and more appealing to repeat the process tomorrow).


That’s it! I hope these tips help you to both recognize that it’s ok to do a little less right now, but also to make it easier if you want to try to do more. Either way, you’re doing the best that you can and you should be proud of yourself for the effort. Even getting to the end of this post may have taken a lot out of you! If that’s how you feel, be proud of yourself for making it here, reward yourself, and plan how you’re going to implement a couple of these steps tomorrow. You got this!

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