10 tips to stay productive when you don’t feel motivated or can’t focus – key is balancing work and rest

  • Struggling with procrastination as you stare at a long list of tasks? Staying up late to work because you couldn’t get anything done all day?
  • You need a mix of concentration and relaxation, especially if you’re working or learning from home – and don’t neglect your emotional or mental health
Kelly Fung |

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Don’t forget to take meaningful breaks from work and to get enough sleep every night. Photo: Shutterstock

Have you ever stayed up late to finish something after an unproductive day? Do you feel trapped in a vicious cycle of procrastination because you lack the motivation to complete a task?

It might even be an assignment you could finish within a few hours if you set your mind to it. But the question is: how do you start?

If you find yourself nodding, we get it – and we’ve got you covered. Here are 10 tools and methods to help you stay productive even when it feels impossible to get anything done.

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1. Start your day with just five minutes of one task

Don’t overwhelm yourself with a long list of unfinished tasks at the beginning of your day. Focus on completing just five minutes of one assignment first. If you find it challenging, break it down into smaller goals. This helps a stressful task feel more achievable.

Use a schedule or to-do list to organise your tasks and your brain. Photo: Shutterstock

2. Avoid multitasking

While multitasking might seem like the best way to get a lot done at once, it is totally fine if you don’t feel comfortable handling several tasks at the same time.

For some of us, it can be helpful to put our energy into one goal at a time to avoid being overwhelmed by the work for multiple tasks. This also helps us to be more careful and avoid mistakes.

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3. Need a game to spice things up?

If gaming and positive reinforcement is something that keeps you going, this productivity app may work for you. Forest is a gamified timer that allows you to track the time you concentrate on a task and schedule breaks for yourself.

If you stay on this app on your phone, you’ll be able to grow a virtual tree – if you earn enough in-game coins, you can use them to plant a real tree, too.

4. Don’t use your phone by using your phone’s focus mode

Notifications can be very distracting. Try turning them off temporarily when you are working by setting your phone on Focus or Do Not Disturb mode. Then, you won’t be tempted to check your phone as often.

If that isn’t enough, you can also flip your phone upside down, so you cannot see what pops up on your screen. Or put your phone in a separate room, so it is out of mind and out of arm’s reach.

Remember that messaging does not have to be instant, and you can tell your friends or family that you’ll respond as you take breaks or when you finish your task.

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5. Set boundaries

When working and studying from home, it is especially important to establish boundaries with family members. Communicate with them that you need to focus to make sure they won’t interrupt you for the amount of time you are working.

6. Find a routine that works for you

Everyone has a particular time when they tend to get an extra boost of focus and creativity. Some are more motivated to get things done in the morning, while others are more comfortable working at night when it might be quieter. You don’t have to force yourself to be a morning person to stay productive – figure out the routine that works best for you.

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7. Reward yourself with something that piques your interest

School suspension and online learning can feel like a time of stagnation. But it can also be an opportunity to work on something you are passionate about or to discover a new interest.

Find one thing that you look forward to – whether it’s crafting, learning a new language, or going on a walk. This can be your reward when you finish your task.

8. Stay active, and make it enjoyable

Staying active is important for mental and physical health, but making it enjoyable and sustainable is the key.

If you struggle to find a sport or exercise you enjoy, just take a walk at a nearby park or trail. Listen to your favourite playlist or podcast as you stroll, or use it as a time to answer messages or phone calls that you missed while you were working. If you are a goal-oriented person, you can use a health app and set a target for the number of steps you want to achieve each week.

Even a stroll around your neighbourhood gives you a break from your work. Photo: Shutterstock

9. Cultivate deep work and deep rest

No matter what tools and methods you have, your mental and physical health matters most. You don’t want to burn out by working too much or feeling anxious because of your procrastination. Remember the golden rule: deep work and deep rest go hand in hand.

Get about eight hours of sleep every night. Besides having breaks throughout the day, make sure you set aside time at night when you put down all your work and relax.

And for those who often overwork themselves, you must learn how to take a proper break. The secret to deep work is getting deep rest.

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10. Step back and reflect – is there anything troubling you?

There may be underlying emotions diverting your attention. Are you stressed, upset or sad about something that makes you incapable of working?

These emotions are more than just fleeting distractions. They might stem from an argument with a friend or anxiety over academics, and it is worth spending time to work through what you’re feeling.

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Take 10 minutes to start a conversation with yourself, and put words to these overwhelming emotions. Are there any steps you can take to fix these problems? Can you talk to someone you trust about it?

Staying home more often can make you feel like you’re alone. But reach out to someone you trust, and share about your worries. Taking care of your emotional health can do wonders for your focus and your heart.

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