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How To Get Work Done When You Really Don’t Feel Like It

Lexi shares her strategies for overcoming low motivation days.

Lexi shares her strategies for overcoming low motivation days.

Some days, you wake up and feel like the mud at the bottom of Lyman Lake. Slimy, gooey, and so unproductive. Whether it’s rainy weather affecting your mood or general tiredness, some days it is hard to do work. I know that I am not the only one who has days like this.  

Sometimes you have to push through that feeling to swim like the Canada goslings on the surface. 

After two and a half terms, I’ve collected five strategies to help me overcome the Lyman Lakes mud feeling. While these strategies often help me, we are all unique, and you may find other tips and tricks work better for you!

Break it down into little chunks.

The most important thing I’ve learned about getting work done when I don’t feel like it is the idea of “chunking.” You don’t start eating a large filet mignon without first cutting it into smaller pieces. Why would you approach an essay as it is? Instead, it is important to think about what components make up your “steak.”

For example, a 3-page double-spaced essay is actually about 5 paragraphs. It is a set of research notes, an outline, a first draft, a second draft, and a final draft. Even further, it is about 25 to 30 sentences with about 12 words each.

The smaller pieces you can break your task down into, the more able you are to finish your task. The most important part of “chunking” is making tasks smaller than what they were to begin with. Your bite-sized pieces don’t have to be all the same size or with perfect 90-degree corners to fit in your mouth!

A picture of Lexi's To-Do List
I even “chunk” my blog posts! Here is this blog post’s chunk list.

Take care of your mortal vessel, AKA your body.

In the words of René Descartes, “I am a thinking thing.” In the words of my physician: “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to eat nutritious food, drink enough water, and exercise!”

Not only is it responsible to take care of yourself, it’s also necessary for productivity. Your physical needs affect your mood and your capacity to retain information. When you’re hungry or thirsty, you’re not going to be able to focus on your assignment. 

While I am very good at eating my meals (thanks, Google Calendar, and your handy-dandy reminders!) I’m not always great at ensuring I’ve exercised my mortal vessel. In the wise words of Elle Woods, “Exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people [are able to finish their homework in an efficient manner].”

Endorphins and dopamine, among other feel-good hormones, are essential to concentration. Sometimes if I’m having a really hard time focusing, I like to turn on the Legally Blonde soundtrack and go for a walk. In the winter when it is snowing, I dance around my dorm room! Having that time to get my body moving, no matter what shape it takes, gives me just enough energy to finish my task.

Student lays in the snow
Making a snow angel does in fact count as moving your body.

Enlist a friend’s help.

If you’re struggling to find motivation around 6th week, there is a 100% chance that you are not alone. Your roommate, your friends, and even strangers are feeling the same way. Ask somebody to study with you!

Having an accountability partner will make you more motivated to start working. Sometimes quiet companionship provided enough stimulation to make concentrating easier.

Of course, there can be a problem if both partners would rather talk than work. That is easily solved by promising to be quiet for a certain period of time. I like to keep a sheet of paper next to me so I can write down any interesting thoughts to share with my partner later. I try to schedule a meal after our study session so we can talk freely and decompress after intense study time.

Russian Language Assistant works on her computer
Russian Language Assistant, Darina Kozhakhmetova, and I meet regularly for Russian tutoring. While this isn’t quite the same thing as studying independently, it is motivating to have immediate, in-person feedback.

Schedule a fun study break.

Now, that sounds counterintuitive, right? I promise it will make sense momentarily.

If you have a reward at the end of your study session, you may feel more motivated to complete your tasks. I schedule an ice cream date with one of my close friends in the afternoon so I finish my work before then. I know that my ice cream won’t taste as good if I have the thought of my homework still in the back of my mind.
This is not the same as withholding all joy from your life until you finish your homework. From experience, I do not recommend that approach at all. You’ll never feel like you’ve completed enough to deserve anything good. 

I recommend scheduling something super-duper extra fun after a study session. If you love rock climbing on Saturday afternoons, schedule your studying to end before climbing hours start. If you love to watch Shakespearean plays, schedule a study session before the spring performance of Much Ado About Nothing. The trick is finding something that makes you so excited that you can’t help but want to work hard before it.

Student with a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone
I love ice cream! It is my favorite sweet reward after a long study session.

Remember you are not a machine.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is rest. You know yourself better than anybody else. You know when you need to stop, put your computer away, and recharge. 

Rest takes multiple forms. Rest can be sleeping, talking to a loved one, or making art. Rest can be lying down, listening to music, or baking cupcakes. There’s no wrong way to rest your body, and you need it.
My dad has always told me, “The world will never look level when you’re tired.” As a kid, I thought he meant that the horizon will never be flat when you’re sleepy, so I really took his advice seriously. I take his advice seriously now for a different reason. I realize he means your outlook on life will never be balanced when you’re tired. Tiredness can be more than just needing to sleep. It’s really hard to look at the tasks you have to do with a reasonable viewpoint when you are worn out from a long week.

Take a rest when you need it. You’ll be able to pick up where you left off, I promise.

Student and therapy dog, Maisie
Visiting the therapy dogs in the SWA Office is just one way I rest during the term.


I hope that these strategies I’ve collected will be helpful for you as you transition to college. Remember that there is always tomorrow. College is a marathon, not a sprint: it’s all about persistently putting one foot in front of the other. 

You’ve got this! Now go get that work done!

Lexi (she/her) traded her flip-flops for snow boots when she moved from sunny Orange, California to Carleton College. She is a first-year student who is interested in majoring in Sociology and Anthropology and minoring in Russian. When she is not working in the Rec Center or color-coding her daily agenda, you can find her baking absurd amounts of banana bread with her friends.