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3 Easy Ways to Stay Productive in Stressful Times

Determining what's best for you will require some experimenting.

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The million-dollar question in the past two months has been: How do I stay productive during these hard times? When so much is weighing on our hearts and minds — the developing news, fear of what’s to come, and, let’s be honest, cabin fever — it can be difficult to find our groove and stay productive on a daily basis. Some say we shouldn’t even try to be productive right now, but others (like me) have no choice. We have businesses to run, jobs to complete and still have to find our flow somehow. 

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Related: How to Succeed in Our 'New Normal' as a Remote Workforce

While many have ruminated on best practices for productivity since the onset of the pandemic, the best way to learn what works for your own productivity is simply by trial and error. In my own experience with the stay-at-home decree, I’ve tested techniques that work best for my own productivity and believe they could help you, too. In fact, I’ll be using these techniques even when the world shifts back to its new normal. 

1. Adjust your schedule to the time of day that works best for you

I used to firmly believe that I was a night owl, but that was because my schedule was optimized for late-night jam sessions. Afternoon events, morning meetings and dinners with friends made it difficult for me to use any other time of the day for head-down work. But now that I'm truly in control of my own schedule and have no social distractions or reasons to leave the house, I was able to experiment to find what was best for me.

I began setting my alarm for 7 a.m. — a far cry from the 10 a.m. wakeup I had become accustomed to after late nights working until 2 a.m. I’ve found that this morning shift when the sun is just coming up and my email hasn’t yet started dinging is my new productivity “safe haven.” Experiment for yourself. How can you adjust your schedule to your prime productivity? Depending on circadian rhythm, different times of day may produce your best work. You now have the freedom to determine when that is.

2. Create a master plan for the day

With freedom comes massive responsibility. If you have a to-do list and an empty day ahead of you with nowhere to go except your daily run to the Starbucks drive-through (oh, is that just me?), it can be easy to fall into the black hole of too much time. It's easier than we’d like to admit to waste an hour on TikTok or FaceTime with a friend before starting work. Having nothing but time creates the illusion that we have enough time to relax first then get everything done. But if we don't plan the day ahead of time, we risk losing all that time to distractions. It sounds counterintuitive, but it's true. 

Related: 8 Ways to Train Your Mind to Succeed During Uncertain Times

Instead, be hyper vigilant about what every moment of the day is going to look like. I’ve been creating an hour-by-hour schedule for myself so I know what I’m working on when, and in what order. If I have meetings or calls, I slot those in, as well as times for lunch, pre-planned breaks, pre-planned moments to hug my dog, the list goes on. This detailed schedule keeps me very task-oriented and less likely to procrastinate.

Even if something isn’t high on the priority list, I still hold myself accountable for getting it done by planning my day ahead of time and closely following the schedule. Here’s a key: I create this schedule ahead of time — usually the day before when I’m still feeling energized (from the Starbucks run, of course) — so I won’t make excuses for myself. If I create it in the morning when I’m still waking up, the schedule won’t be as efficient. 

3. Break assignments into step-by-step tasks

I was recently chatting with Mimi Bishop, the co-founder of The Resting Mind, and she noted that during times of hardship, our brain is in constant fight-or-flight mode. “When you’re stressed, it leads to spikes in your cortisol levels, which can make it difficult to focus,” she told me. “So, break assignments into step-by-step tasks.” 

You know the items on the to-do lists that are the big kahunas? I’m talking about those BIG projects that make your heart race with dread when you remember they’re waiting to be completed. They're intimidating under normal circumstances but are particularly daunting when you're already stressed. It’s hard to knock out the big items unless you know what small steps you'll need to take to complete them. By dicing up the big to-do’s into these smaller increments, I’ve stayed focused longer and gotten more done without feeling overwhelmed. It also helps me feel like I’m chugging along on schedule when I’m completing small accomplishments within the big project. 

Related: Now Is a Good Time to Read for Joy, Not Productivity

Being forced to truly evaluate my productivity capabilities through a nationwide shutdown has taught me things I'll continue to use when this is all over. Try out these tips and see if they work for you, too. Happy productivity. 

Haley Hoffman Smith

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Haley Hoffman Smith is the author of the bestselling book "Her Big Idea" and was named by Forbes as one of today's most influential female speakers. She is a graduate of Brown University and the founder of Her Big Lash.