We know that sometimes even the idea of being productive can feel a little overwhelming—maybe you’re disorganized, distracted by your phone, or just plain not in the mood. Or maybe there’s something else going on that’s making it hard to get through the moment, let alone your to-do list.
That’s the position Rachel Winard, founder and owner of all-natural skincare brand Soapwalla, found herself in during 2009 when she launched a business while dealing with a lupus diagnosis. Sitting on the bench—to recover or take time to manage the emotional powderkeg that is living with a chronic health condition—wasn’t exactly an option.
At the best of times, being productive at work and at home, staying energized, and keeping positive can be a challenge, albeit a manageable and worthy one. But what happens when it’s not the best of times—when obstacles at work or in your personal life make the idea of being productive feel harder than summiting Everest?
Being Productive During Difficulty, According to Experts
You don’t have to be a CEO battling a chronic health condition to know exactly what this feels like. Breakups. Losses. Mental health challenges. All of these can make getting through your usual to-do list feel impossible. So how do you stay productive—or at least get the basics done—while working on your healing? Before we get started, know that it is possible, as long as you’re realistic about your approach and kind to yourself along the way.
We talked to a psychologist who knows best how to be productive when you’re going through a hard time.
1. Prioritize your goals
Here’s the truth: When you’re not operating at 100 percent, you can’t accomplish 100 percent of your goals. At least not right away. “I’ve gotten much better at saying ‘no,’ setting boundaries, and stating my own needs,” Winard says. “Right now, I’m experiencing just this. I needed semi-emergency abdominal surgery to remove several fast-growing benign tumors, and I’m looking at a 6-8 week recovery. This is the perfect time to practice slowing down.”
It seems counterintuitive, but trimming down your to-do list while you’ve got something else on your plate is actually one of the best ways to be more productive in the long run. “This helps me tremendously,” Winard says. “All the peripheral stuff can be set aside so I have the energy to focus on the most important goals of the moment.”
2. Stay in the game
As the head of a multinational company, even when she steps back, Winard can’t go totally off the grid. That’s probably true for most of us. Even when you slow down in the wake of a serious blow, life around you usually doesn’t.
But that can actually be energizing, says Dr. Franklin Porter, a psychologist in New York City, New York.
Re-engaging in your normal routine can help restore normalcy in your life, and the positive reinforcement gained by feeling useful and productive may help attenuate the negative feelings associated with loss.
3. Don’t go it alone
A strong social support network can meaningfully impact your physical and mental health, according to the National Institutes of Health. In other words, your social circle is a tool that can seriously help in the fight to stay productive while you’re working through a hard time, says Porter. “People in your support network are often highly gratified to provide support and empathy,” he says.
One way to do this is by delegating. “In situations when I get a lupus flare or have to deal with something more serious like major surgery, I must rely on my team,” Winard says. Burning out by trying to handle too much isn’t exactly going to help you stay productive. Think about who you can delegate a task to. This might be the perfect opportunity for an office intern or junior member on your team to take on some new responsibilities.
4. Schedule self-care
“Self-care keeps me going,” says Winard. Ironically, we tend to slack on self-care in the times we need it most. “Maintaining your self-care routine is especially important during these periods, as it provides energy to power through and remain productive when the demands of work don’t make allowance for personal issues,” Porter explains.
To keep on being productive in life, up your self-care prescription when you’re dealing with a hard time: Get more sleep, meditate in the morning, prioritize your favorite workout. Winard literally blocks out self-care time in her calendar. “Only a major emergency keeps me from those appointments. Acupuncture, especially, helps me navigate the worst of a lupus flare and gets me back on my feet in a timelier manner,” she says.
“It may feel daunting to dedicate an hour each day to yourself, but it’s so important.”
5. Remember your purpose
Why is being productive important to you? “Assigning purpose to your work can be a powerful motivator,” says Porter. “It can provide gratification that reinforces the activity and makes it easier to get over the hurdle of returning to work in distressing times.”
For example, if you’re struggling to finish a keynote speech, think less about reaching a certain word count and more about how sharing your message will help you plant a stake as a thought leader.
The bottom line? Tough times—divorces, losses, health crises, sadness—happen to all of us. Being productive during them might feel like Everest, but you’re totally capable of the climb.
Your turn: How does your idea of being productive change when you’re struggling in other areas of your life? What’s your best tip for staying at it while healing? Share in the comments.
Now, read how you can up your productivity game in the best of times.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.