4 Ways to Wade Through Low Motivation and Stay Productive

When you have a long to-do list and low motivation, how do you stay productive? A coaching client posed this question to me on Thursday. I knew exactly what he was struggling with. It’s been a hot September week here in California. My body wants to kick back and stay relaxed like it’s still summer. My mind knows that it’s fall, and the typical crush of 4th quarter work is barreling down on us. Now is the time to get in gear, not fall behind. But getting myself to be productive feels like wading through mud.

Here are four things that keep me productive even when my motivation is low:

  1. Board game. Do you have a typical way that you track your to-do items? Switch it up. My client keeps his to-do items in a spreadsheet. I find mixing it up helps on a low energy, low motivation day. I post my to-do lists on the wall in front of me and make a game out of trying to clear the wall. The visual of things disappearing from the wall gives me incentive to keep going.
  2. Random encounters. Sometimes the best plan is no plan. On a low motivation day, give yourself room for spontaneity instead of forcing yourself to keep to a plan. I let myself wander around my office or house and play the game “whatever I see next, I’ll do.” A surprising amount gets done this way, with the side benefit that a lot of visual clutter disappears. (I’m an “out of sight, out of mind” person. The visual reminders I leave out for myself create piles and clutter if I fall behind on my to-do list.)
  3. Most annoying. This is a to-do list game to release and reclaim energy. Find the item on your list that irritates you the most every time you see it there. Channel your irritation into a determination to get it done, today. You “leak” a little energy every time you see that item and give it attention without doing it. You’ll be amazed how much energy is gained by the relief of getting it done and saved by no longer having to think about it. This weekend I blended the perfect cocktail of low motivation with annoyance and got several house chores done that I’d put off all summer. As cooler weather and rain clouds moved in today, I feel extra pleased with myself that these tasks are finally done.
  4. Remain in motion. Above all, just keep moving, even if it’s slow. Think of building a fire: start with small twigs (the easy mindless chores), build up to the larger sticks and logs (tasks that take more energy or concentration). This weekend was my last free weekend before a long stretch of busy work weeks and weekend commitments. Regardless of my motivation and energy levels, I had to get things done. I let myself have brief breaks to power nap or zone in front of the tv–part of my low motivation was also being tired–but if I lingered more than 20-30 minutes, it took even more energy to get going again. Looking back on the weekend, 1) I can’t believe how hard it was to keep going and 2) I can’t believe how much I actually got done. “Remain in motion” was an essential strategy for me.

About Jane: Jane Cavanaugh is an internationally acclaimed business leadership and career coach who has helped more than 6,000 professionals develop their career and leadership skills. Jane is creator of The Passionate Professional: How to Make Your Ordinary Career Extraordinary, a guided career transition program, and a co-author of Breakthrough! Inspirational Strategies for an Audaciously Authentic Life. Contact or visit Jane at

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