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Things I learned about staying productive in challenging times

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

After almost a year of lockdown, I found myself buried in projects and spreadsheets, tired and overwhelmed. I was grateful for all the work I had, knowing many people weren’t as lucky, but I was feeling unproductive and, frankly, pretty unhappy.

So I started looking for a way out of that funk. I realized that what had been working for me before wasn’t helping anymore because my context had changed. I was in the middle of a pandemic, facing some tough, unpredictable times. I needed a new perspective and that’s when I decided I’d love some external help.

I reached out to a productivity coach I was following for a while and, six sessions later, I realized I was looking at productivity the wrong way. Instead of ticking things off a to-do list, I started designing my ideal day, every day.

This new view on productivity made a tremendous difference in how I organize my work and my free time. I am now happier in my work. I read twice as many books as last year. I started learning a new language and enrolled in a nutritionist course to work on my passion for food. All while keeping productive at my full-time job and without feeling overwhelmed.

I learned so much from this experience that I finally decided to write about it and share five of the biggest paradigm-changing lessons I learned through my process.

Eat fewer frogs

You’ve probably heard and often used this productivity hack called “eat the frog”. The idea is to start your day by doing the work that you dread the most; the hardest tasks. Then you have the rest of the day for the things you love.

I was such a big believer in this theory that I used to start my day gorging on “frogs”.

But here’s the catch: the last thing you need on a tough day is another full plate of “frogs”. Tackling tasks that don’t bring you joy can be quite manageable during “normal times” (can’t really say I remember how those feel), but during tough, unpredictable times it feels worse if you don’t enjoy your work.

Say you didn’t get a goodnight’s sleep the night before. Or you heard some news that’s dragging you down. You already start your day not feeling 100%. So how are you going to get through the day if all of your to-do list is full of things you dislike? The reality is you won’t do much and probably end up feeling unproductive and bad about yourself.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, my solution to productivity during tough times has been to “eat more cake” (both metaphorically and practically, if that’s what your heart desires). In other words: doing more of what I love. I know it sounds like a cliche, but if you think about it, it’s even more absurd to try to be more productive at doing things you don’t like doing in the first place/“eating frogs”.

As Peter Drucker once said, “there’s nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”

I also don’t think it’s a coincidence I came to this conclusion during the pandemic. Many friends have told me they reevaluated their priorities in some way during this time. They seemed to take a more YOLO approach to their professional life as well.

According to the New York Times, many millennials are quitting their stable, but boring jobs to pursue more meaningful careers. And I get it. No one wants to eat frogs for a living…no matter how well that job is paid.

This is by no means a plea for quitting your job or finding a different career (unless you’re completely miserable, of course). If you’re still finding some meaning and joy in what you do, maybe all you need is a bunch of small tweaks and changes in mindset.

If you want to eat fewer frogs, start by clearly articulating what activities don’t bring you joy. Then decide whether you can ditch those, delegate them or transform them. Ask yourself: is there another way I can get to the same goal?

There will always be tasks you like more than others. It’s unrealistic to think you won’t have on your agenda tasks that are essential, but less enjoyable — taxes, reporting, grocery lists, you name it! The realistic goal is to make them part of your day, not let them take over your schedule.

Results: There are many benefits that came out of this lesson, but the biggest one for me is that I’m simply happier in my work. I’m more excited about my current and future projects. Plus, I stopped doing some of the things I thought I had to do. Plus, I started a 10 months Nutritionist course that I’m just thrilled about.

Fix your sleep

​If you’re anything like me, you probably had trouble sleeping during the lockdown.

At my worst, I used to go to bed at midnight and wake up at 3 AM and couldn’t go back to sleep, no matter what I tried. I’d try sleeping tea, not eating before bed, meditation.. — you name it. Nothing worked.

Months passed and I got to sleep until 6 AM, which was already a big win. But I still got out of bed at 8 AM, wrecked and dreading the day.

My 6 hours of sleep per night made me very worried about my health. Every article out there says you need 8 hours of sleep per night or you’re practically doomed.

That’s until my coach recommended I do this online sleeping test. The idea was that I could get specific advice on how to organize my day (and night), based on my chronotype.

It turns out I’m a “dolphin” which is a rare chronotype that only needs about 6-6 and a half hours of sleep per night. So all I needed to do was just get out of bed at 6 AM or whenever I woke up naturally and just start my day.

I can’t state enough what a big change this has made to my productivity.

Results: I’ve now improved my sleep and I wake up naturally around 7 AM. Instead of trying to fall back asleep, I read or work almost until 9 AM. That’s how I read twice as many books this year as I did last year.

Design your ideal day

Then I learned from my coach that the ultimate goal of productivity is to design your ideal day. Not the perfect day, where you’re at the beach, enjoying a cocktail. But a day that ends with a feeling that I’ve done something productive that counts towards my ultimate goals. A day that’s mostly filled with tasks I enjoy because they matter to me.

So I started asking myself:

  • What stops me now from having ideal days?

  • What do I want to stop doing so my days look more ideal?

  • What would I like to do more of?

To me, this was one of those light-bulb moments that produced that 1% change that made everything better. So I started by looking at the big projects in my life.

You don’t actually need to have a full schedule for the next month to be productive in your life, as long as you have clear big goals. For me, a big goal might be “learn Portuguese” or get this “X result by end of Q2”. There’s an English saying: take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. I feel like when it comes to productivity, it’s actually the opposite. Take care of the “pounds”, the big projects, and the daily tasks will take care of themselves.

Results: I have three to five big projects, both personal and professional, that make up my weekly schedule. The rest are routines and leisure time when I do whatever I feel on that day. It’s been great for my mental health to just have this time that’s not designed for anything other than “whatever feels that day”.

work hoursafter all


Let go and adapt

Trying to have a predictable schedule in unpredictable times is like trying to get 10 puppies to sit at the same time. Would be damn impressive, but hardly doable for the average human (or puppy).

So you need to be realistic. During unpredictable times things will change. Sometimes not for the better. Sometimes not in the direction you want. In my experience, some days might feel like smooth sailing under the sun, others like a day of whitewater rafting without a paddle.

How to successfully navigate these times? Frankly, I don’t think I have the full answer to this one.

Part of the reason I left this lesson last is that it’s still my “work-in-progress” area. What I’ve learned so far is that as long as I can find the power in myself to let go of some of the outcomes I envisioned and adapt to the new context, I’ll be alright.

Sometimes that’s easy, like letting go of a beach day plan because it’s pouring rain. Other times, I’m more invested in the plan and it takes more to let go and adapt. But that’s OK too.

Context is key

I’m particularly grateful for the moment I am in and the people around me who made this journey possible. It wouldn’t have been possible to thrive without having the right context. My partner plays a big role here, his support matters a lot. Also working in a company that encourages me to think more about my mental health and wellbeing in the context of work has also made it possible for me to think about growth, instead of survival.

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