How to Stay Productive When Circumstances Get Weird

How to Stay Productive When Circumstances Get Weird

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

I’m not ready to write this article.

Sometimes I write about topics I know well, so I can share wisdom (don’t laugh!) or advice learned from experience. But I also like to write without knowing the outcome, so I can share what I learn as I go.

Unfortunately, the main thing I’ve learned this time around is: I suck at this.

Best Laid Plans…

Let me back up. My plan was to write a simple article about working while traveling, or during other changes of circumstance, while I was traveling myself.

Easy, right? Simply use my acres of responsibility-free traveling time to explain how I managed to remain incredibly productive while the environment changed around me.

Unfortunately, weeks later, I’m already home… and I’m still writing this article. Clearly, whatever I planned to share can’t be that good.

But on the plus side, at least I can share what not to do.

For Minimal Results: Mismanage Your Expectations

Here’s what I forgot: I didn’t have my usual responsibilities… but this didn’t mean I had no responsibilities. I still had to buy food, cook, eat, do laundry, make choices, explore, handle jetlag, socialize in new surroundings, and—most of all—adapt to constant change.

Time often seems to fly by when nothing is changing. One reason for this is that our brains have less to process when we’re in a familiar environment. The thousandth time I sit at my office desk, my brain barely pays attention, leaving plenty of spare capacity for work. But in new circumstances, our brains actively process everything. It’s literally tiring to simply be somewhere new.

And yet I expected to be more productive than usual while I was away. That wouldn’t be a problem, except it led to a spiral of failure: being even slightly less productive than I expected caused me to beat myself up for not meeting expectations… which itself wasted yet more time.

All Change Must Be Managed

If it’s tough to work while traveling—which is an unusual circumstance that we’ve planned—it’s harder still when our lives are disrupted by an unforeseen difficulty, such as an illness in the family.

When we have to schedule hospital visits along with all of our usual responsibilities, we probably won’t have the same sky-high expectations I took on my trip, but the lesson is the same:

When circumstances change, we have to manage our expectations accordingly.

If the circumstances are changing in a predictable manner, such as going on a trip, that means setting time aside to think in advance about what will work for you.

Personally, this will usually involve setting expectations lower. I know from experience that I have a tendency to be over-optimistic about what I can achieve, and that clearing low bars usually motivates me to go higher.

But neither of these are universal truths. Perhaps you tend to be overly pessimistic, and you are motivated more by failure than success. Either way, use your self-knowledge to set expectations that will motivate you whatever happens.

And if the change in circumstance is sudden, or the immediate future remains fairly unpredictable, we have to remind ourselves to take a minute and reassess priorities.

Plus, Try Some of These

Setting expectations was the most important lesson I learnt this time, but this isn’t the whole story. Here are a few other ideas I experimented with during the trip which helped me—slowly—become more productive as it went on:

  • Try sticking as closely as possible to normal routine. Set aside ten minutes to actively plan how your preferred routine could possibly work in these new circumstances.
  • Flip the normal routine. Do you normally work best in the mornings? Try an evening session!
  • Experiment with different lengths of time. At home I often squeeze in a few minutes of work here and there, but I found I needed to set aside longer periods of uninterrupted time while away.
  • Make lists of different types of work. Sometimes new circumstances are great for more creative work—being somewhere new can trigger fresh thinking. Or, if your brain is tired from handling all the change, perhaps this would be a better time for busywork. Try work from each list and see!
  • Ask for help. I’m often so concerned with ‘not being a burden’ that I resist getting help from others—or I never dare to ask in the first place. But when problems arise, most people are very understanding. Perhaps you can ask for a little more leeway, or someone else can step up and take something else off your plate? Is there anybody you could ask to help out with anything? Now might be a good time.

As in so many areas of life, I’m far from an expert at this… but I’m getting better. Next time I’m thrust out of my routine, I’ll be ready. Or, at least, I’ll be more realistic.

Your Turn

How do you manage your expectations when circumstances change? Do you have any tips for staying productive while traveling? Share with the community in the comments.

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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, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Gary Reiman says:

    I plan at the beginning of every work day for a few minutes. I use an Outlook calendar for everything work and personal. I try to do all tasks that require work from others first because I can only control me. I want all tasks in someone else’s basket if possible. This allows me time to deal with/handle any emergencies that come up without throwing my world upside down. I like to schedule fun things, that I want to do, near the end of the day so that I have something to motivated me to keep going to the finish line.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this! I definitely have a tendency to be overly optimistic about what I can achieve, and then I spiral into a ball of self-pity because I couldn’t complete what I wanted to. Managing expectations is so important, especially while traveling, and especially for people who are overly sensitive to their work environment. Thanks again for writing!

  3. Gina says:

    When the need to travel arises, or circumstances change that impact my workflow or day, I have also learned to change (lower) my expectations. Instead of my usual mindset to build Rome in one day I simply tell myself it’s okay if all I can accomplish is playing with the foundation. I find myself actually doing more because setting a low goal challenges me. What else might I be capable of? More importantly though, it keeps me focused on the present instead of worrying too much about what’s already behind me or hasn’t yet come to pass. What can I or should I really be doing right now? It helps define priorities. There is much to observe, learn and absorb during these times and it reminds me that I’m only human too. By allowing myself to be okay with accomplishing less during travel or different circumstances…I actually find myself accomplishing more!

  4. Harald S. says:

    As a creative, it can also be the other way round: How to stay weird when circumstances get productive? How to retain that crazy spark of playfulness when it feels like just completing all the work?

    Thank you for the article, Neil! :-)

  5. Katie says:

    So when I travel it’s often for work and I am usually very productive with it.

    But recently my has been life thrown upside down after an unexpectedly illness after travelling followed by a breakup followed by a a close family member being diagnosed with a terminal illness. A lot of my time and expenses is now shifting to travelling to help family; taking new domestic and caregiving activities; figuring out how to navigate the world with if you have a disability (that is totally new too!); as well as trying to get the most out of the time we all have left together.

    I am definitely still uber productive but on 1001 other things that were never on my radar until now. Rather than seeing them as a substitute for other activities I have been piling them into my day and then wondering why I haven’t done enough hours of work or done some exercise or done personal dev stuff for me. And then I remind myself…I am now one person without the support of a partner having to balance a number of new things.

    Expectations and goals have to shift. But not at the expense of my physical and mental health. It’s about expectation setting but prioritising the right things too.

    It’s also giving not beating yourself up for having to slow down when things are new or out of your control. I can’t possibly focus solely on my new business now. I need to to earn a living but it is not going to expand. I just need to do the minimum to survive and use the benefit of being self-employed to help my family. Accepting this change is the hardest because you have to put a lot on the backburner. But I am trying to look at it as a learning curve too. Growing me personally and professionally. Cultivating patience; gratitude for those you love; empathy for others in difficult situations. All of these are valuable assets.

    Cant say I have figured it all out yet and I’m definitely not yet practicising what I preach. But trying to steer myself there so a timely article for me.

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