The saying “Starting is the hardest thing” exists for good reason. Beginning any task can require a great deal more motivation than continuing the task once you have momentum and focus.
If you also happen to be stressed or struggling mentally that day, even the simplest of things, like returning an email or scheduling an appointment, can feel downright impossible.
Fortunately, there are little things and hacks you can do to feel more on top of your tasks, even when you’re not at a peak mental state.
Next time you’re having trouble getting through your to-do list or daily responsibilities at work or home, try one of these techniques to get motivated again.
1. Plan out your entire day
When tasks are staring you down without any structure to them, it can feel overwhelming and only add to your struggle. Time management is key in these situations.
“Take an hour, a day, whatever your job allows, and write out a daily routine. An example could be exercise during the early morning, respond to emails for 10 minutes, make follow-up calls to clients later that morning, take a walk around your building to get a change of scenery, etc.
Structure it how you like, but designate specific hours of the day to specific tasks,” Nick Bryant, a mental health counselor, tells Healthline.
Creating a guide for your day makes the tasks feel much more manageable. You can plan it out using the calendar on your phone, with alerts to remind you when you stop and move on to a new task, or use a special app for organizing.
2. Make lists — and stick to them
When it comes to lists, the old adage “Fake it till you make it” couldn’t be more appropriate. Just the simple act of writing down what you need to do can spark motivation and make you feel better and more productive.
If you’re feeling stressed or down, just getting some of those thoughts swirling around in your head onto paper can make them seem a lot less overwhelming.
“Creating lists that encourage productivity or reducing distractions can help you to focus even when your mind doesn’t feel like it. Start with the tasks that you enjoy or are good at to help you stay motivated and maximize the time you’re spending at work,” Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health expert and family care professional, tells Healthline.
3. Break everything into small steps
When making lists, divide each task into small, seemingly more doable tasks.
“As you cross each one off the list, you’ll get a dopamine boost every time,” Christina Beck, the community lead for Supportiv, tells Healthline. “So a series of short bursts of it will get you through a series of short tasks. This effect won’t last very long, but it’s enough of a boost to get you through when you’re unmotivated.”
When you have quick, little things you can accomplish, it’s easier to motivate, no matter how little you may think you’re able to.
4. Check in with yourself and be honest
Are you feeling burnt out, hungry, or thirsty? Maybe you’re stressed about something at home or coming down with a cold. These uncomfortable states can make tasks feel much harder to accomplish.
“During those times, an individual needs to identify what is getting in their way. Only then can they move ahead,” Lynn Berger, a licensed mental health and career counselor, tells Healthline.
While treating a legitimate case of burnout requires longer, more thought out changes, others like hunger can be quickly taken care of. Don’t be afraid to really analyze how you’re feeling and what can be done to help.
5. Do a review of your progress
“When I am feeling overwhelmed by how much I have to do in my workplace, my best strategy is to perform a weekly review. By making time to sit down, audit outstanding tasks, and acknowledge completion of other tasks, I gain a sense of accomplishment for what I have achieved and clarity about what I still need to do. This is a great way to reduce the sense of overwhelm we can often feel,” Dr. Mark Lavercombe, a specialist physician, medical educator, and writer at The Productive Physician, tells Healthline.
It’s easy to overlook how much you’ve accomplished. Taking the time to go over all the things you’ve already finished that day or week can give you a big sense of relief and even — dare I say it — motivation.
Knowing how capable you are provides sense that you can take on things which may have appeared daunting or impossible before.
6. Take five
Whether you take a quick walk around the block, do some stretches at your desk, or get a drink of water, give yourself five minutes free from the pressure to work.
“Even just a five-minute pause from what you’re doing can help you to refocus when you’re struggling mentally at work. Set aside breaks in your day to indulge in your emotions. This allows you to come back to your task at hand refreshed and productive,” Mahalli says.
She acknowledges that some people will need more breaks than others. So, as always, comparing yourself to your co-workers isn’t a good idea.
7. Create a motivating work playlist
Many people have a certain playlist they listen to every time they need to push through a task or get a hard job done (I’m listening to my own writing playlist right now!). By having a consistent backdrop to your work, it can help you get in the right mindset and even help you feel more relaxed when you’re feeling off, unmotivated, or just plain anxious.
Whether it’s a generic playlist you download on Spotify or find on YouTube or a curated list of songs you like, stick to it. Add a few new songs every once in a while to keep your attention.
8. Look at what you’re eating (and drinking)
While you may turn to caffeine as a way to keep going throughout the day, too much caffeine may not be the best thing for staying focused.
“In the end, overcaffeination will exaggerate the feeling of being mentally cloudy and unfocused. It can even make you nervous and jittery — the last thing you need when you’re trying to be more productive,” Dr. John Chuback, author of “Make Your Own Damn Cheese,” tells Healthline.
Also, you should probably try to cut back on foods and drinks that are high in simple sugars. This includes things like soda, candy, and other sweet treats. These are OK in moderation, but too much added sugar can lead to a blood sugar spike and crash, which will leave you feeling irritable and foggy.
“Eat a well-balanced diet centered around lean sources of protein, fresh vegetables (preferably steamed), and small amounts of high-quality complex carbohydrates like quinoa, whole grains, and brown rice,” Chuback says.
9. Wear your favorite outfit
When you’re stressed or anxious, or just far from the put-together person you’d like to be, clothes and accessories can make a big difference. Whether it’s a shirt you absolutely love or a dress you feel super confident in, that little burst of visible positivity may give you the nudge you need.
Plus, making the effort to get dressed and do your hair or makeup in the morning can help you feel a little more organized, which can help when you feel like the rest of your life is a mess.
Try keeping a fun accessory, like a watch, scarf, or bracelet, at work to put on when you start to feel bad in the middle of the day so you can get a little burst of confidence and creativity.
Who knows. With a boost, maybe getting started won’t be the hardest thing after all.
Sarah Fielding is a New York City–based writer. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Insider, Men’s Health, HuffPost, Nylon, and OZY where she covers social justice, mental health, health, travel, relationships, entertainment, fashion and food.