Feeling Exhausted and Unproductive? Here’s How Not to Feel Bad About Yourself

Feeling Exhausted and Unproductive? Here’s How Not to Feel Bad About Yourself

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

As a kid, I never understood why adults were so slow. Surely it would be more natural to run around and bounce and clamber – what was wrong with them? Why were all adults so lazy?!

Now I’m (allegedly) an adult, I get it: We’re not lazy… we’re just exhausted.

That seemingly infinite energy just isn’t there anymore. Inspiration comes and goes as it pleases, and it’s hard to predict whether I’ll wake up and feel like climbing a mountain, or if today I won’t make it out of the house.

Even worse… it turns out adults are supposed to use this highly unpredictable energy supply to actually get things done.

(I can’t help but think that a more sensible design for humans might have made the children lethargic and the adults energetic, so it’d both be easier to look after the kids and adults could be more productive. But I digress…)

For a long time, I saw it as a frustrating fact of life that each day was a lottery. Perhaps I’d be full of motivation and would write 5000 words, or a song, or find a bunch of new clients to code websites for. Or perhaps I’d fritter the day away fruitlessly tapping at a keyboard without achieving very much at all.

But last year I came across an awesome idea by Naomi Dunford which changed the way I relate to these energy fluctuations entirely.

Don’t Fight It…

In Naomi’s original post (which I absolutely recommend reading), she says that high energy days—”flow days”—and low energy days—”ebb days”—are simple facts of life, and we’re better of accepting them than fighting them. She compares attempting creative work on an ebb day to someone insisting on going to the beach on a freezing cold winter’s day.

Her recommendation is incredibly simple: save low-energy tasks for low-energy days, and high-energy tasks for high-energy days.

When I heard this, something clicked into place for me. Previously, I’d treat a low-energy day as if I had personally failed. I’d imagine that everybody else in the world was successfully powering through their to-do list while I failed to dent mine. Naturally, this self-criticism only made it harder to get anything done… which further fed the negative cycle.

It’s freeing to treat ebb days as an inevitable fact of life, like the weather, rather than as an indication that there’s something wrong with me. Even better – working with the ebbs and flows means I can get a lot done no matter which kind of day it is.

Make a List of “Ebb Tasks” and “Flow Tasks”

In practice, this means keeping a list of “ebb tasks” and “flow tasks”. Flow tasks require creativity and energy, while ebb tasks are busywork: replying to emails, data entry, mindless editing, chores, etc.

Most mornings I begin by attempting whichever “flow task” is my current highest priority. If it goes well, great! I make progress on my highest priority.

But if it becomes obvious that I’m struggling, I allow myself to acknowledge that it might just be one of those days when I physically can’t do anything creative. Instead of insisting on sitting on the snowy beach, I immediately switch over to my ebb task list and start on whichever chore feels most doable.

This means I still get something done, no matter how I feel. Occasionally this even triggers a feeling of accomplishment, which gives me the inspiration I need to switch back to the trickier flow task.

If Possible, Save Busywork for Ebb Days

Importantly, implementing this system requires resisting the temptation to spend precious energy on busywork.

On those rare mornings when I wake up brimming with creativity, I’m often tempted to knock out a bunch of little tasks before I start on the major project of the day. It feels like a good idea to clear out my inbox, do some laundry, and clean my office before I get started, but I have to remember that I could do those jobs anytime.

If I can, I’d rather save ebb tasks for a day when I can’t do anything else.

There’s Never a Single Solution

Of course, this technique doesn’t solve every problem, but I’ve found it to be a useful tool. (It’s also worthwhile trying to create better conditions for having more flow days, by doing things like getting enough sleep, eating well and physical activity.)

No matter what we do, we don’t get to live with a boundless supply of infinite energy, and there will always be times when we must delve deep into our reserves. I hope this idea helps you use your reserves more effectively.

Your Turn

How do you handle those days when you can’t get much done? Do you have any tips to share?

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Maryske says:

    Thanks! Great post, I’m going to try this!

  2. One of don Miguel Ruiz’ four agreements in the book “The Four Agreements” is “always do your best” and….recognize that “your best” will be different day to day. Reading that agreement gave me “permission” to accept my low energy days right along with my high ones.

  3. Lindsay says:

    I find I have very few ebb days, for whatever reason. And that is exhausting, and I still don’t get much done. I had food poisoning this weekend, and took the time in bed with my lap top to delete the 996 unread emails from my inbox! That felt so freeing. I’m going to try to find more ebb days, or perhaps listen harder. Maybe I do have them and just ignore them, just push through in a constant state of busyness.

  4. Tracy J Hayes says:

    Thanks, Neil. Great post and timely for me. I appreciate your suggestions.

  5. Christina says:

    I always love your writing, Neil, and this post is no exception!

    I think everyone can relate to this (perhaps besides lucky Lindsay above!) and it can be particularly tricky in the summer to be in ‘flow’ mode all the time every day.

    I find that scheduling my day around my own ebb & flow times really helps my productivity, but it’s hard not to feel guilty AF when I have a full on ebb day. I guess it’s time to work on my self-compassion and making ebb/flow task lists. :)

  6. Chris says:

    I just had an “ebb day” yesterday, and feeling bad about my motivation led me to type “I’m 38 and don’t know what I want to do with my life” into my favorite search engine, which led me to this post on Quora (https://www.quora.com/Im-38-Im-still-not-sure-what-my-passion-is-I-feel-like-Im-stuck-which-leads-to-a-job-change-every-few-years-What-do-I-do), which led me to this site.

    In college, I was fascinated with the concept of the Renaissance polymath (Giordano Cardano was my favorite, though he didn’t come to a great end), and have struggled for years with getting bored after learning enough about something to feel like I “had” it. Today I’m trying to apply some of the insights I’ve learned from a furious bout of reacquaintance with the concept of multipotentialites, and already feeling a “flow day” coming on. Thanks for the article!

  7. I try to plan activity (like going to the gym, or running errands for my low-energy time of day ~2 pm -3 pm. Everyone says don’t open email first thing, but that’s death to a freelancer. Life also throws us big, hairy challenges that are unpredictable- we have to bend or we snap. Learning to get less done, to accept that is hard. But is caring for your family “less”? I don’t think so.

    Change a few habits, change perspective.

    Watch Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix for a really great sheke you up perspective!

    Rock on! Or not.

    Put your own mask on first…


  8. S. says:

    What a fantastic post. I realise this is what I instinctively do, but never had a “name” for it or way to describe it. Sometimes , you just know it’s going to be one of ‘those’ days and all u can manage is mundane tasks. Have never made a separate list for it.. useful idea for such moments. Thanks! . and great twitter handle!!:)) Cheers

  9. Dave says:

    The issue is simple – Adults have “responsibilities” that eat into play time. Hence, they have less of their energy left over to jump around, play, socialise and have “fun”, like kids. The solution – change your perception. Change the way you look at your to-do-list. Don’t view it as a never ending list of chores. Look upon it as a dream list of opportunities. Inspire yourself to take action by finding an alternative way to attack the list and create more enjoyment in your life.

    • Karen says:

      Reframing your “chores” is really helpful. I’ve found that thinking of housework as ways to have a lovely environment which allows me to rest makes it easier to think about – what 1-3 things can I do that will make my home more restful and lovely to look at? What 1-3 things can I do with LITTLE effort?
      * Move the pile of water-damaged cookbooks off the dining table and back onto the bookshelf, and make a note in my projects book to go through my cookbooks (1 a week?) to see what recipes I love before I donate them to charity
      * Put away the dry crockery on my kitchen drainer
      * Set the robot vacuum cleaner off on its rounds

      Another trick is to put stuff on your to-do list that you know you’re going to do anyway with absolutely no effort and tick them off delightedly before you even hit your tasks. Having a few small things ticked off the list really does make you feel accomplished, even when you wouldn’t normally think that you are. And you can gamify your list: You can create an Achievements Unlocked area where everything that gets done gets noticed, and you give yourself a reward (I know people who adore getting gold stars, others give themselves a celebratory night out when they’ve accrued a certain number); you can create a points system where the goal is to achieve at least 50% of your goals. SuperBetter.com is a free “gamify your life” resource originally conceived as a way to recover from traumatic head injury, but which people can easily adapt to their own circumstances – you get “power up” tasks (basic self-care), “quests” (things that you aim to get done), and you “vanquish bad guys” (such as the apathy abyss, or the sticky chair) for points and levelling up.

      Also, identifying where you’re MAKING work for yourself. Does X really need to get done? Does it really need to get done the way you imagine, or is there a way to do it that’s less exhausting? Can any of its components be delegated or batched or done using a different, more efficient method? Having realised that Doing Things The Way I Was Taught isn’t always the best plan – I have ME, amongst other chronic illnesses, and my energy levels, pain levels, and cognitive functions fluctuate wildly on any given day. My husband pushed for a robot vacuum cleaner, and it was pricey, but it was worth it for us because just running it every day is not only keeping our house at a reasonable level of Not Filthy, but is damned amusing when I’m in a low mood because everything hurts and I can’t think straight. I recently purchased an electric scrubbing doo-dad because the thought of scrubbing surfaces is often enough to reduce me to tears and paralysis. I still have to do it, but it minimises the effort. For those who are healthy and employed, those same things might seem like faffy little things that aren’t really important, and yet I submit that not only are they helpful to anyone and everyone, but that the basic strategy is really sound. Where can effort be ditched altogether, delegated, or minimised?

      And this article from Captain Awkward’s site is brilliant at how to subvert your own low moods by doing small positive things to get a boost: https://captainawkward.com/2014/06/29/guest-post/

      And that’s my mental capacity reached. I’m off to take 3 things off the table and put them away before I go to crash out.

      • Maryske says:

        Wow, that was like a blog post in itself!

        Love the idea of putting some small, easily accomplished tasks on the top of the list to make you feel good.

        Reminds me of a column by Nathaniel Benchley I once read and loved. Following the idea that anyone can do any amount of work, provided it’s NOT the work he’s SUPPOSED to be doing at that very moment, he puts the most urgent task at the bottom of his to-do list, and the least important task in red at number one. I’ve heard people scoffing at the idea, but I totally relate to it LOL

        I found the article again:


  10. Vanessa says:

    I have more ebb days lately not having a steady job/source of income and am seeing I don’t do too well mentally/emotionally not having a lot to do routinely. I will try this list to be more effective for when my flow days actually occur to make sure I’m taking advantage of when I do have the high energy. There’s always a lot to do, it’s just overcoming the overwhelming feelings and negative self talk to get out of my head to actually get things done. THANK YOU FOR THE POST!

  11. Chris says:

    It feels like I have flow and ebb seasons. Right now I feel stuck in an ebb one. soooooo much time has passed since doing much creative but it has been nice to find a stead job and pay the bills. I’m even saving for the first time in my life which is a strange feeling. I just hope the flow comes soon. I think it will. I feel it in the near distance.

  12. Morgan C Siem says:

    OMG this is so helpful! I’m about to make my ebb and flow list right now. I find this idea to be crazy supportive of the way my life tends to flow – THANK YOU!

  13. Katrina Hedderwick says:

    Thank you so much for this. Very timely.I am in low ebb right now and it is exhausting – to the point where I question and doubt my ability and motivation to do anything well. Its great to validate those feelings and know its part of normal….just like it was learning ‘my condition’ of being a multipotentialite had a name.

  14. DEBI COISH says:

    I really like calling these low-energy days “ebb days”. I have these more often than not. Maybe I should change my name from Debi to Ebbi. When I have a flow day, I hardly know what to do with myself! But it passes quickly, and it takes a few weeks to recover!

  15. Dan says:

    I’ve been stuck with more ebb days than flow days as of late. After reading this, I realize that I do waste time on flow days with ebb tasks, and I will try to avoid that going forward. I need to make sure I’m not pointlessly trying flow tasks on ebb days either. Case and point: I’ve literally spent the past six days (all ebb) trying to do the same flow task and it has been pure hell. I only finished it tonight because I was facing a midnight deadline. Maybe if I had spent the first few days on ebb tasks, I would’ve felt better and had a flow day in there instead of being so helplessly stuck in ebb days and feeling absolutely exhausted, unproductive, and disappointed in myself.

  16. Mauro says:

    Being exhausted and unproductive is like being locked in a room. The sense of claustrophobia can drive us crazy. It is necessary to understand. You can not do anything about it, just wait for the change of events on the door. Soon a window will open again and the light will illuminate every corner all around.

  17. Susan says:

    You just meet me at an ebb day. I was fighting with getting anything done. Well, Reading my mail at least brought me your post and now i am pretty happy. I sort the folder that ist lying on my desk and that is quite boring but perfekt for today. Thank you for cheering me up.

  18. Tracey Anne Baylis says:

    This seems like a very interesting strategy and one I will try out. A side note, I find that if I am low on energy and need to get stuff done, doing light excercise will sometimes boost my energy.

  19. Zola says:

    I always used to feel like I wasn’t doing enough, and that goes double now that I’ve had a few years of moderately serious ME/cfs. On my ebb days having a shower feels like an achievement. Thinking about ebb and flow, and prioritising my most important tasks for flow days is definitely something that’s going to hel me.

  20. Richard says:

    Perhaps persistent ebb days is a sign you have too much on you’re plate and are overworked. The lack of motivation is just a symptom of it.
    We have an bad habit of thinking we need to keep pushing in order to tell ourselves we’re using the time wisely.
    What we need to do is learn how to pace ourselves better and remember that doing nothing can be an important use of time, relaxing and rest is not a flaw.

  21. Danni says:

    Hi! I have a question.. what if the ebb days are for a very very long period (say, almost a year) and you are just not able to have any flow days with respect to your work anymore. Does that mean you need to change/quit? Does that mean you’re not putting in enough effort in it?

  22. Doug Walker says:

    Great article, Neil! There must be something in the water these days. Mike Vardy was just talking about this same concept on the “Beyond the To Do List” podcast.


    The really crazy part is that he mentioned multipotentialites in the same episode!

  23. Anna Manning says:

    Good reminder! I have tasks at work for ebb days (slow days as I call them!) and Friday afternoons. I store them on a list in my Trello board and get to them on those days if I need to. I also now accept that sometimes I am on fire and sometimes I am just embers! On my embers days I make use of the 10-4pm core working hours and flex in order to use the time more effectively on the ‘on fire’ days. It works well.

    Best wishes to all the multiP crew!

  24. Margaux says:

    I love the idea, I will try to divide my TO DO at work, but why not do it in my daily routine too.

    On my side, sometimes the too “boring” tasks at work turns my day into an ebb day.
    To avoid it, I try to keep a few tasks I really enjoy performing, and just working on it brings the flow again. It feels like a wake-up call for my brain.
    The hard part for me is go back on the less exciting tasks afterwards !

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