How To Stay Productive At Work (Even When You’re Exhausted)



I don’t know about you, but I’ve been really tired lately. And this feeling has really had huge impact on my productivity, which is why today, I want to talk about productivity on a different level – how to stay productive even when exhausted.

I love what I do, I really do, but my work has been highly impacted by COVID-19 and it is busier than ever. And I’ve been feeling lately in the last 2 weeks more than ever.
I’m grateful for my job and life but, I think a big reason I think I feel this is because the adrenaline high has passed at both my job and in MLA.

When COVID-19 hit, I was running on so much adrenaline at work. If you don’t know, my job is a part of the government response to COVID-19, and it was like a high. Everything went so fast and everyone in my team and work were working as fast as possible because we had to. And it was really, really stressful, but I could take it. Lately, I’ve been running out of steam because realistically, it’s not a pace anyone can keep up with. I couldn’t keep sprinting forever, eventually, I would have to slow down. However, it hasn’t slowed down. I’ve had to come to the realization that the increase in my workload isn’t going to be temporary, this is going to be a marathon. Even after the dust settles, the effects of the pandemic are going to be around for a while.

And lately, I’ve been feeling really exhausted. It’s been tiring to keep up, but also coming to the realization that the light at the end of the tunnel is a lot farther than I initially thought. I love what I do, but not being able to keep up has made me feel a bit guilty. My managers are great, my team is great, so it’s not something anyone can actually do for me, it’s something I have to learn to be okay with – not being perfect at work. I’m so used to being on top of things, being super responsive, being a great worker, and I feel inadequate that I can’t do everything perfectly every day anymore. Even when I shut down my computer, I still have a list of tasks to do, and the next day, I’m only adding more. Do you ever feel that way too?

This isn’t just for my 9-5 either. I’ve been feeling this way about MLA and my personal life as well. After I launched the podcast, I was on such a high, I loved putting up content twice a week because having the podcast was almost freeing to me. I used to have so much trouble keeping a consistent blogging schedule because I didn’t know what to focus on, but that’s why I love having the podcast. However, after I decided to take a pause for BLM as I discussed in Episode 8, the break lasted a little longer than I expected. I’ve also been mentally exhausted with so much life admin stuff going on in my personal life right now. That’s why I wanted to talk about how to stay productive even when exhausted.

I don’t know about you, but the last couple of weeks have been a lot of information out there and I have some strata, tax and tenant property – the bureaucratic joys of adulthood, all at once.
And I started to feel the struggle with my productivity. I’ve been exhausted on all fronts, and today I wanted to share how to be productive even when exhausted you don’t feel like it. Not only at work, but also if you are also working on a side hustle and being more productive in everyday life. This is how I’m staying productive even when exhausted, even when I’m SO TIRED.


1. Schedule your breaks and take them….effectively.

I used to tell myself that I could catch up on my breaks and that I didn’t really need them. But the truth is, it’s the opposite. If I’m overwhelmed at work, I really shouldn’t be working through lunch at my desk.

Truthfully, that hour isn’t really going to make that much of a big difference, if I’m just trying to work, even though I’m drained. It’s better to take a break and come back refreshed instead of trying to slowly push through like a sloth.

So now, I schedule and take my breaks, and it makes such a difference. I don’t know if this is too TMI but I also schedule my bathroom breaks because sometimes I forget to take them.

However, the trick to taking your break is to use it effectively. Eating, of course, is always great and super important, but I find that what I do on my breaks also has a big impact on my productivity and overall mental health. That’s why on my breaks, I like to go for a run with my favourite playlist, or a walk and listen to an audiobook or podcast. I actually try to refrain from checking social media on my breaks for too long. Sometimes I might go on there to post something, but I try not to scroll social media. This might just be me, but it can be easy to get into a social media spiral that can either make me feel overwhelmed, not good enough, and it didn’t make me feel good about myself. So even though I was taking my “breaks,” I wasn’t coming back to work more refreshed. I now focus on feeling good after my breaks instead of just taking them for the sake of being able to scroll social media.

For me, the most effective way to take my break is to go for a run. I love running, not actually for the exercise benefits, but it’s away for me to not look at my phone and be alone with my thoughts.


2. Someone else’s emergency is not your emergency.

Normally, I would not put that much pressure on myself at work. When I first started working, I used to take everything in my job SO SERIOUSLY, like it was the end of the world if I didn’t do something right. But slowly, I started to get more perspective in my job, and this took years. Because I started working in an office when I was 19, I wanted to be taken seriously, and that meant taking my work seriously. Which of course I still do, but now I have some context of life.

I work hard, but to relieve some of that pressure on myself, I always remind myself “no one is going to die if this doesn’t get done.” Because let’s face it, I’ve never been a doctor or anything like that before, my work isn’t life or death. However, that’s changed a bit with COVID-19, because often times people’s safety is involved. So I have to kind of rephrase that saying in my head to “is anyone going to get hurt if I don’t finish this task?” And sometimes the answer is yes, so I do have to prioritize my work in those terms.

However, there are also many people that don’t have this kind of perspective and think that their projects are the most important and the only thing that needs to move forward. And as I natural people pleaser, I want everyone to be happy and like me. But I’ve learned to let go of that narrative. And I remind myself, “someone else’s emergency is not my emergency.” If someone else needs something right away, that doesn’t mean I need to do it right away, because I have to prioritize my work in a greater context. Now I let people know that I can’t do everything straight away, and the majority of people are very understanding because we all have the same constraints.

It’s so important to manage the expectations of others so that you can be productive at the tasks that matter and not walk around with the guilt, that ultimately makes you less productive.

When you are trying to stay productive even when exhausted, it’s so important to choose your focus your energy on the right things.


3. Figure out the needle movers.

Not every task is important. Similar to the last point, prioritizing tasks is important, but it goes beyond managing other expectations. I’ve learned throughout the years to limit my “procrasti-work” which is work that seems like work productive, but it’s not really – such as colour coding your email labels or organizing your paperwork or making pretty notes/plans. I’m guilty of all this.

And most of the time it’s okay to do this type of work, but when you’re really tired, you need to choose how to spend your energy. So I’ve learned to focus my time on the tasks that move things forward. This is especially important for work that comes from my manager or supervisor, which is why it’s important to manage the expectations of others.
Personally, I have created subfolders in my email to help me prioritize tasks and concentrate on the needle movers instead of focusing my energy on non-urgent tasks. My system is: everything urgent is kept in my main inbox folder, and those are the tasks I have to complete everyday, not negotiable. Then I have 3 email folders to help me prioritize my work. I have a folder labelled “INBOX – END OF DAY” for tasks that are not urgent, but should be finished that day, “INBOX – ACTION NON EMERGENCY’ for tasks that can wait, and “INBOX – WHEN THERE’S TIME” for tasks that have no deadline and are not urgent to anyone, they just need to be completed eventually.

Prioritizing your work allows you to finish the things you actually need to get done and be more productive at the important tasks.


4. Determine your most productive time and create your schedule around it.

One of the most game-changing things I did to increase my productivity is to figure out what tasks I do at which times and learn when I’m most productive. This has really helped me stay productive even when exhausted.

I’m a morning person. So I do all my most important tasks in the morning and learned how I can I’ve also adopted a semi-intermittent fasting schedule when it comes to breakfast because I’ve learned I work best when I’m not full. Lunch tends to make me feel a little heavy and sluggish so I take a late, light lunch and I snack throughout the day. I have a rule that I don’t eat anything before lunch that’s not fruits or vegetables because if I’m hungry, I will eat something healthy because I find it makes me productive.

I’m least productive at the end of the day, after lunch. So I literally “save” all the tasks that are really easy and quick for the end of the day so I can finish them without having to use a large amount of energy. I also put off some of my favourite (but not urgent) tasks for the end of the day so I can be more motivated to complete them.

If you are tired and struggling with productivity, take note of your productivity levels throughout the day and create your workload and schedule around it.


5. Strive to get as much done as possible, instead of everything is done.

One of the primary responsibilities at my job is to review the work of others and sometimes, there’s a lot of it. And it can be time-consuming. So instead of trying to get everything done in and stay in this perfectionist “all or nothing” mindset, I aim to get as much work done as possible.

So when I need to review and approve the work of others, I actually block off a chunk of time (usually an hour) and try to get as much of it done as possible instead of getting it all done that day. I used to think that if I went into that part of my portfolio, I would have to get it all done, instead, I just focus on getting as much done as possible and tackling my work, chunk by chunk every day.
I try to apply these other parts of my work as well. I try to reply to as many emails as possible (instead of everyone) and that’s why the email folder system works for me.

Instead of relying on trying to be productive all the time, I’ve been trying to create my mindset to cater to my levels of productivity when exhausted.


6. Keep a distraction journal

I first heard about a distraction journal on the Perfectionist Project Podcast, and it really changed the way I work. I don’t know about you, but I get distracted very easily. My coworker and I even have a term for it, we call it “squirrelling” when you drop a task to go chase a shiny new one. I originally started a distraction journal for school, but it has also helped with my work and when I work on MLA. A distraction journal is basically a table I keep in my notebook to monitor how distracted I get from each area of the outside world. At the top of the table, I write down all the things that could be distracting to me. For me, it’s social media, emails/texts, personal finance/blogging, and fidgeting. Then I put my phone away and whenever I feel the need to reach for it, instead of actually picking up my phone, I put a tally in the column of why I wanted to reach for my phone. This has really taught me to understand why I struggle with productivity and concentrating on that instead of just deleting apps or deactivating social media.

I’ve learned so much by using a distraction journal and I’ve actually written a whole article on it for The Financial Diet (it’s also a video on YouTube) if you want to hear more about it! But ultimately, using a distraction journal has allowed me to learn how to fight the urges that deter me from being productive instead of blaming the distractions themselves. If anything, it’s just kind of a neat experiment.

If you’re struggling to stay productive when exhausted, I created a free tool to help!  To download my free online distraction journal template, click here!


These past couple of weeks have been really tiring and I’m slowly starting to get out of this exhaustion spiral by using these strategies. I’ve learned how to be productive even when exhausted. To be honest, the one that works best for me is just taking breaks and resting without guilt. So much of our society is “hustle” culture and trust me, I’ve been there. I used to work 2-3 jobs to keep up and I eventually burned out, because it’s inevitable when you try to keep up that kind of speed. I really resisted the idea of days off or breaks because I thought I was above it, but I actually find that when I try to “power through” tasks without taking a break, my productivity levels deteriorate. I take longer to do tasks because I’m so tired, or it’s easier to make a mistake. Sure, I can do it for a while, but eventually, all everyone needs is a break. That’s why employers give paid vacation days and break times. Work-life balance can be hard when you can’t control the external factors at work. Unfortunately, I’ve come to the realization that my work is going to be very busy for a long time and I need to focus on how to create a schedule that is sustainable instead of “perfect.”

The important thing I’m learning is not to focus on productivity strategies when I feel motivated, but to concentrate on creating a schedule that allows me to be productive when exhausted.



  1. Hey Kimberly!

    i found this post on Tailwind Tribes and feel a lot of your same sentiment currently with my job amidst BLM and COVID19. Thanks for these helpful tips – I just created those two folders for my Inbox to file emails as I think that will really help me not get overwhelmed with my Inbox as emails come in throughout the day. Hope you’re hanging in there!

    1. Thanks so much Kelly! I’m so glad you found it helpful and I love the resources you share on Lipstick and Ink! I can’t wait to follow along for more 🙂

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