We all have those days when we’d much rather go back to sleep. We may feel tired, exhausted, worn out, fatigued, and no amount of coffee seems to help. But work needs to get done, so how do you increase your productivity when you’re running on an empty tank?

If you’re tired, you should rest first and work later, but we all know that sometimes that’s just not an option. Fortunately, you can beat the exhaustion. From power naps to office yoga, there are dozens of simple tips that help you boost your concentration and productivity even when you’re feeling low on energy.

So if you’re looking for some hacks to get through a day at work or school when you’d much rather go to sleep, read on. In this article I’ll be taking a look at how tiredness affects your performance and how to be productive when you’re tired.

The different types of tiredness

As you probably know, not all tiredness is the same. It’s useful to understand the differences between tiredness and fatigue, because they need different approaches when it comes to increasing productivity.

Lack of sleep

The first type of tiredness is the kind that comes from a sleepless night. Whether you were pulling an all-nighter to cram for an exam or trying to get your baby to sleep, you’re going to be paying for it with the loss of productivity the next day.

Research shows that sleep deprivation lowers your cognitive performance, for example:

These changes in performance already happen after one sleepless night and you probably know what it feels like. Most of us have experienced a sleepless night or two at some point in our lives.

I used to pull all-nighters all the time in high school and university, and I don’t understand how I got anything done. Anything less than 6 hours of sleep now, and I know that my productivity drops drastically. While coffee helps, I never feel at the top of my game after sleepless nights.

Fortunately, sleep deprivation induced tiredness is pretty easy to cure — just make sure you get enough sleep the next night and you should be fine.


The other kind of tiredness is fatigue, and it’s much harder to deal with. By “fatigue”, I mean exhaustion from a prolonged period of excessive stress or activity. For example, the tiredness you might feel after an especially grueling exam session or work week (or month).

The main reason behind this kind of exhaustion is prolonged stress which can lead to burnout. Fatigue can also be caused by physical stressors in the workplace, like noise or temperature that is too hot or too cold.

The effects of fatigue on performance are largely the same as those of sleep deprivation: impaired memory, difficulty with concentration, etc. However, fatigue is also related to mental health problems like depression, which can lead to further loss of productivity.

Other symptoms and effects of fatigue may include:

  • chronic tiredness;
  • irritability and moodiness;
  • impulsivity;
  • physical symptoms like headaches, sore muscles and dizziness;
  • impaired immune system functioning;
  • low motivation.

Unlike an episode of sleep deprivation, fatigue can’t be cured by a good night’s sleep. It requires making some fundamental changes in your lifestyle, like removing a stressor or taking a sick leave to get back on track.

If you are experiencing the symptoms listed above, or if you feel that you’ve been tired for a long time and no amount of sleep is helping, I recommend seeking counseling or therapy to prevent burnout.

How to be productive when tired

If you can’t or don’t want to take a longer break or change up your working habits, or if you just need to get through one workday on a minimal amount of sleep, there are still some things you can do. While they require you to still make some changes, the tricks are surprisingly easy and effective.

1. Accept that you’re human.

You cannot expect peak performance from yourself if your basic needs are unmet. This means that if you haven’t eaten or slept, you won’t be able to put in your best work because you have no energy to fuel you.

By beating yourself up for feeling tired and disoriented, you will lower your productivity even further, because you’re wasting precious cognitive resources on being angry at yourself. If you’re running on 2 hours of sleep, accept that you simply don’t have the energy to do your best work ever— but focus on doing your best with what you’ve got.

2. Eliminate distractions

When we’re tired, our attention span decreases. It’s harder to resist temptations and distractions and focus. This means that you have to make your environment as distraction-free as possible:

  • if you work in an open office where concentration is tricky on the best of days, try working from home or at a library (whichever has fewer distractions);
  • if your work is tied to a certain place, try using noise-cancelling earphones and playing music that keeps you in the zone;
  • pause your inbox and put your phone out of sight if constant notifications keep grabbing your attention;
  • place a “do not disturb” sign on your door or desk to stop co-workers from striking up conversations;
  • clean your desk or workspace and only leave out the items you need to complete your work.

3. Get physical

I know it sounds a little counterproductive — why should you expend precious energy on exercise when work needs to get done? While you’re definitely spending some energy on moving, it also has an invigorating effect.

You don’t have to fit in an entire gym session, just a little stretching or walking will do. The main thing is to stand up and move a little bit. A trip to the watercooler and back every 30 minutes may be enough, but if you have a little more time and space, you can try out some office yoga if you feel like trying something new.

4. Take a power nap

The perfect power nap is an elusive thing. You either end up sleeping too little or too long, neither of which will help you. Here’s how to take the perfect nap.

According to a 2010 study, a super short nap of 5-15 minutes will leave you feeling invigorated immediately, but the effects will only last for about 1-3 hours. A nap of 30 minutes and over will leave you feeling a little disoriented at first but the effects will last longer.

In order to fall asleep quickly, try making the room as dark as you can or using a sleep mask.

A 2003 study found that while a 20-minute nap alone is effective, you can reap even more benefits by combining your nap with either washing your face immediately after waking up; exposure to bright light 1 minute after waking; or drinking coffee right before the nap.

The coffee nap was found to be the most effective in increasing the subjects’ performance level and the logic behind it is very simple. When we drink coffee, the caffeine level in our blood peaks about 30 minutes after consuming it. If you take a 20- to 30-minute nap right after drinking coffee, you will wake up just in time for the caffeine to kick in alongside with the effects of sleep.

5. Schedule your breaks

Adults can concentrate for about 20 minutes at a time, and when you’re tired, you can take a couple of minutes off of that estimate. Taking scheduled breaks is important whenever you’re working, but it’s essential to make most of your limited energy when tired.

A great way to schedule your breaks is to use the Pomodoro technique. The classic Pomodoro calls for 25-minute periods of concentration with 5-minute breaks, but you can shorten the time to 20-minutes if you need to. It’s not important how long the periods of work and pauses are, as long as they are regular.

Make sure to set a timer for yourself and try to move during your break. Just standing up and stretching for two minutes is enough to restart your brain and concentration. But make sure that you don’t let your break stretch on for too long!

Wrapping up

We all get tired sometimes. Whether it’s from a sleepless night or a longer period of stress, tiredness will affect your performance, and it’s not fair to expect yourself to be at the top of your game with less energy. You can still try your best while working with what you have, you just have to divide your brain power a little differently. But these tips will only take you so far — if tiredness persists, it’s better to take a break and recover before getting back to work.