I feel like crap.

My head is splitting, I’ve had a cold for 2 weeks straight, and I’m very behind on my sleep. Doing great work at a time like this can seem like a ridiculous request of myself.

Yet, I continue to drive growth at work, I’ve put pen to paper consistently for the first time in months, and I’m doing it without sabotaging my fitness or family.

How?

Even when I’m feeling at my worst, I stick to 3 things that ensure my work doesn’t suffer.

Systems

Systems are the framework that tell our minds it’s time to complete a specific task. They’re the scaffolding that remove distractions so we can zero in on the single thing we’re trying to accomplish. For a writer this may be a routine they do before sitting down to the computer. For a sales rep this may be putting on a certain playlist, pulling up their prospect list, and giving themselves a small goal to accomplish.

Whatever the system is, it needs to be consistent every time we approach the task. This consistency is what turns it into habit and triggers our minds to know what it’s about to do.

At points in my life I’ve been obsessive about this, time blocking every 30 minutes with specific systems and tasks. And at other times in my life, like now, I simply have systems for the 2 or 3 most important things in my life and focus on those each day.

Wherever you’re at in your own work and life, if there are things that are critical to your success each day, build systems around protecting that time and making it routine. Because it’s the systems that will allow you to accomplish things even if your body or mind don’t want to.

Sprints

Just like the body, the mind gets lethargic. Focus is like a gas tank, and once that tank is empty it has to be refilled. This is where sprints come in. Sprints are working for a set amount of time, followed by a shorter break to recharge. We should have several of these breaks throughout the day if we want our brain to be able to accomplish deep work.

For myself, this means I’m singly focused on a task for 60-90 minutes, and then I’m taking a 10 or 15 minute break to read, walk, or just checkout. This break resets things for me mentally and allows me to continue doing great work upon my return.

The mindset of burning through a bunch of work for hours on end is a wasteful approach. We may eventually accomplish our task, but it will take us longer and the work will be lower quality, because we’re bringing a fraction of our brain power to the table every time. It’s better to work less, as long as that less is more focused.

State

Some days we wake up on top of the world, and the work seems easy. But some days we wake up like I did today, and accomplishing anything seems like a monumental task.

This is where changing our state can be the difference in a productive day and a waste of a day. Changing our state simply means doing something to intentionally change our current energy levels.

For me, my most common methods for changing state are

  • cold showers
  • working out
  • taking a walk

Cold showers are perfect for days when we’re simply lethargic. Maybe we tossed and turned or we had one too many drinks the night before, but we have meetings, calls, and work that we need to perform at today. Taking a cold shower for 2 minutes will completely rejuvenate us and kick whatever lethargy we have. On top of that, cold showers are tied to numerous health benefits including strengthening our immune system. So while they’re unpleasant at the time, the upside is more than worth it.

Working out is the obvious of the 3. If you’ve ever worked out, you know the positive benefits it has to your mood and energy. We can oftentimes be one person before a workout, and a totally different person after the workout. This is one of the reasons so many high achievers workout first thing in the morning. It changes their state for the rest of the day. And it doesn’t have to be much. Taking 10 minutes to do push-ups, sit-ups, burpees, or kettlebell swings can be more than enough to change our state.

And finally, the most basic of bipedal functions – walking. Today I needed to take a walk, even in the bitter cold, to get some much needed sun on my face. When I left for the walk I felt miserable, and when I returned I felt refreshed and ready to tackle this essay, which I’m not sure I would have been able to do prior. Walks not only get our blood flowing, but they also expose us to the sun’s rays (even if hidden behind clouds), which is the origin of our energy. Without consistent exposure to sun, we can become lethargic and even depressed. But reverse that course and we can reverse our state in a hurry.

Some days the work comes easy, and some days it comes kicking and screaming. When we’re faced with the latter, it’s our systems, sprints, and state that ensure our work doesn’t suffer. And it’s this consistency in great work that compounds over time into great careers and achievements.

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