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How to get stuff done when you feel lousy

Person in a hoodie lying on a couch wrapped in a blanket feeling sick.

We’ve all had those days when we feel lousy. When we can barely get out of bed. When the basic chores of everyday life feel overwhelming. When we feel like we're about 42% functional. When all we can do is take care of out basic needs for today. When thinking about big projects or the future seems impossible.

We’ve all had those days. It’s totally normal. We do what we have to do and leave the rest for another day.

For some people, though, feeling lousy is more than just a single day. It might be a month, a year, or a decade of trying to get through each day.

There’s many reasons why feeling lousy could be your basic mode of operation for a while. Here’s are some reasons you might be feeling lousy for long periods of time:

  • Grief

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Illness

  • Injury

  • Burnout

  • Trauma

  • Major life change/upheaval

You can add your own items to the list. There are many legit reasons to feel lousy.

My personal experience was a combination of food sensitivities (causing physical illness) and anxiety (over trying to figure out why I had food sensitivities) that were compounded by serious burnout my last year of teaching. Let’s just say that I spent most of the last decade and a half feeling lousy. Because of this, I learned some really great techniques to maximize my time and energy so I could get stuff done.

Even though I’m feeling better these days, I still use these techniques all the time to minimize my time spent on chores and make big, dreaded tasks more manageable. So whether you feel lousy today or not, you can apply them in some way to your life and maximize the time and energy you spend doing things that matter to you.

Today I’m going to teach you just one of the tools, because it really is the best one to apply to all kinds of projects. Before I tell you about it, I need you to realize that this tool does not work if you are trying to get something done at the last minute. It only works if you are looking sufficiently ahead to not have to rush the process. So if you live your life doing everything at the very last second, you’ll have to stop and do some forward planning to make this one work.

So here’s my best technique for getting stuff (particularly big stuff) done no matter how lousy you feel.

Make a list of every single microstep needed to complete your task and then do the tiny steps on your list one at a time.

Seems simple, right?

(Whisper: That’s because it is!)

Bathroom vanity, mirror, toilet, and tub.

So here’s how this plays out. One of the tasks that seems overwhelming to a lot of people even when they aren’t feeling lousy is cleaning the bathroom. So let’s say that you have to clean the bathroom this week and you’re feeling completely exhausted. You’re pretty sure that feeding yourself is going to use up all your energy, but the bathroom really needs to be done. You might make a to-do list that looks like this:

  • Clean the tub

  • Clean the vanity

  • Clean the floor

  • Clean the mirror

  • Take out the trash

Looks reasonable, right? Except if you are feeling totally lousy, then it looks completely overwhelming.

But this is not the list I want you to make. I want to make a list that includes every single MICROSTEP needed to complete the job of cleaning the bathroom.

My microstep list might look like this:

  • Get out cleaning supplies

  • Get out cleaning rags

  • Get out vacuum

  • Get out mop

  • Get out bucket

  • Get out new trash bag

  • Remove all rugs and trash can from the bathroom

  • Remove everything from the top of the vanity and toilet

  • Spray and wipe the mirror

  • Spray and wipe out the sink

  • Spray and wipe off the vanity top

  • Spray and wipe the walls of the tub

  • Put cleaner in the tub and let it sit

  • Scrub out the tub

  • Wipe the outside of the tub

  • Spray and wipe the outside toilet top

  • Spray and wipe the outside toilet bottom

  • Put cleaner in the toilet bowl to soak

  • Scrub the toilet bowl and flush

  • Vacuum the floor

  • Mop the floor

  • Vacuum the rugs

  • Replace the rugs in bathroom

  • Remove trash bag from trash can and replace with new bag

  • Put trash can back in bathroom

  • Replace anything on top of vanity or toilet

  • Put away vacuum

  • Put away mop

  • Dump out bucket and put away

  • Put away cleaning supplies (before you do, note if you need to replace anything)

  • Throw cleaning rags in laundry pile

  • Take out trash bag

So the length of the list itself may seem overwhelming, but don’t look at the whole thing. Focus on one item at a time. Think of you at your most exhausted. Even feeling that lousy, could you get the cleaning supplies out and set them by the bathroom door? Of course you can! You could even use the bathroom while you are by the door and then eliminate the need to drag yourself out of bed again later.

So you can cross that item off the list. If you are feeling ambitious, maybe move on to microstep 2. If not, stop here and come back to it later. Maybe in an hour you get up for a drink and think, “I have just enough energy to get out the cleaning rags before I collapse again.” So do it and then you can cross another thing off the list.

Believe it or not, doing things one tiny step at a time gets it done faster than you might think. Once in a while you might get a rush of energy and do 4-5 of those steps at once and then you can feel awesome by crossing them all off! Believe it or not, you might be able to clean the WHOLE toilet at one go and cross four things off the list! Or maybe you can’t do it all at once and that’s OK too!

If you are rolling your eyes at me right now, then you’ve never really felt so lousy that this to make sense (lucky you!). If you totally get why these microsteps sound doable, then go ahead and give it a try! You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish with this process.

I just want to mention here that I also spent time over the years streamlining my life to make some of these steps much easier. So my cleaning supplies, rags, and trash bags were all stored in the bathroom which essentially eliminated those steps. My vacuum was in the closet next to the bathroom along with my bucket and mop, which made that easy. When I lived in a 2 floor apartment, the vacuum lived on the first floor. So when it was time to clean the second floor bathroom one of the microsteps was simply to take the vacuum upstairs. If I managed that, I felt pretty darn good about myself. So once you have your microstep list, you can start to create hacks to make that list easier.

Which brings me to another point: If you have made the microstep list, make a copy before you start crossing things out so you can use it again. Add/delete/edit items as you get better at it. Then always have a copy to save yourself the time of having to recreate it.

Person doing taxes on paper.

As I said, I still use this process now even though I have more good days than lousy days (Read this blog post to hear how I healed my food sensitivities). Here’s a great task to microstep: Taxes! (Cue feelings of dread.)

Like most people, I hate doing my taxes. It seems so overwhelming and irritating. I’ve slowly created year-long systems that help me file and record what I need that will make tax time easier. However, once that new year rolls around it’s still hard to face the monumental task of actually filing those taxes once again. So I take this dreaded task and create micro-steps for it. Here’s what it actually look like:


  • Get out new folder

  • Label “Taxes (year)”

  • Get out last year’s tax folder

  • Make a list of documents I am waiting to get in the mail (based on last year’s documents)

  • As documents come in, place in folder and cross off list

  • Find website for filing taxes, make sure I can log in

When all documents are in folder for this year, move on:

  • Log in to start new return

  • Check personal information

  • Enter W-2s

  • (At this point I just go through the tax input screens one by one. Some days I do several screens at a time, some days I just do one)

  • Etc.

I’m stopping here just because I think you get the idea. Honestly, if I start in January and the only thing I do one day is get out a new folder and walk away, I still have plenty of time to get everything done. Actually, using this method I’m usually finished by the end of February. (Taxes are due in April, if anyone other than Americans care.)

There’s a little bit of mental manipulation going on here, but IT WORKS! I can’t face doing all my taxes when I feel lousy (or even if I don’t feel lousy) but I can log in to the tax website one day and make sure my login works. That’s easy.

I’ve gotten so good at this technique that sometimes I don’t have to make the physical list. Sometimes I just think of the first thing I need to do to get started. I might fill the watering can with water and leave it on the step. I then say, “Great job Katie! I’m proud of you!” and walk away. Later I walk by and use it to water the plants on the first floor. (Bravo!) Then I might fill it again and take it to the second floor. (Way to go! You did TWO things!) Then I might water the plants on the second floor. (You’re half way there!) And so on.

I built my entire business website using this method. I’ve made several quilts using microsteps. I clean all the windows in my house once a year this way (even back when I was feeling lousy). I really believe you can do just about anything this way. Just do it one tiny step at a time.

If you try it and find it doesn’t work for you, contact me and tell me why. My guess is that we can tweak it to make it a tool you can use. I don’t see any reason for it to fail you.

So if you are someone who feels chronically lousy, don’t fall into the lie that you aren’t able to get anything done. YOU CAN! Your pace will just look very different than it did before your lousy feelings set in. What constitutes success will be different. How much you can tackle overall will be different. But you don’t have to feel like a failure or a mooch. You can do any size project with this process (as long as you leave enough time for it, of course).

So pick one thing you’ve been avoiding this week, make a microstep list and get started. Do ONE tiny step every day and you WILL finish it!

I’ll be writing more on this topic, so keep your eyes on the blog for more updates. If you want to be notified every time a new post comes out (about once a week), then subscribe below!

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#feelinglousy #getitdone #noexcuses


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