[Originally published in 2017]

There are two types of days in the life of every ittybiz owner. You have your “good days”, where you stay productive, get a lot of cool shit done and it seems like everything is going great. You can’t be stopped. You’re on fire with how much you’re doing, and how easy it feels.

Then there are your “bad days”, when you just can’t even. Your energy is low, you can’t seem to think straight, and no matter how many items were on your to-do list, they all seem to still be there – undone – when the day is over.

(And somehow, you’re still feeling tired. Que?)

Were I to be your Fairy Godmother, I would wave my wand so that all of your days would fall into the first camp, and precisely zero would fall into the second.

Alas, I do not have such a wand.

But I do have something that will do the same job.

Let me share my personal strategy for turning “bad days” into “surprisingly productive days that move my business forward.”

It’s deliciously easy to put into practice, and you can start doing it today.

A Behind-The-Scenes Look At Why Bad Days Happen

Play an imagination game with me:

Imagine that it’s autumn, and it's raining. Like, really-coming-down-raining, with and pretty damn cold on top of that. Now, imagine that you got it into your head that you were going to go into the backyard and rake the leaves that have piled up for a few weeks. You grab your coat, pull out the rake, and get to work.

Now you’re outside, getting ready to rake some leaves. That doesn’t seem to be working, since they're all in a clumpy pile, so it's more like shoveling leaves. With a rake. And the wind is eroding every bit of progress you make.

It's getting demoralizing. So you decide to start picking up the leaves with your hands – chilly, wet hands – and carry them to the big paper lawn bag you have sitting out.

Finally, you get the bag halfway full and decide to move it to another part of the backyard. But it's already soaked. And it rips open when you try and pick it up. All the leaves are back on the ground.

So you admit defeat, pack it all in, and head inside, where you change into dry clothes and call your mother.

“How was your day?”, she asks.

“It sucked,” you say, shivering.

Now, play another imagination game with me.

Same rainy, windy, oh-my-god-its-cold day. You take one look outside and decide to stay indoors, where you make a coffee or a tea and settle in with a good book you’ve been meaning to read for a while now. You’re feeling a bit ambitious, so you put some laundry on in the background, too.

After a while, you decide to go outside – for just a little bit – and clean up some of the debris that's blown into your yard, just so you don't have to look at random bits of trash that blew in from the street. You head back inside, take a nice hot bath or shower, and make some kind of comfort food for dinner.

The night is ahead of you and you’re feeling pretty good. Lazy, but good. So you put on some music and curl up for a while, answering a handful of emails to get your inbox whittled down until you’ve had enough of it. And you fold that one load of laundry you washed. And you actually put it away, too.

When you’re done with that, you call your mother to say hi. “How was your day?”, she asks.

“It was nice,” you say, and you mean it.

The moral of the story:

Bad weather doesn’t make a bad day.

Doing things that don’t work in bad weather makes a bad day.

Now, let's discuss how this applies to you making more “good” days.

But first, a kitten.

Cozy kitten is cozy

Ahh, that's the ticket.

Ebb Time & Flow Time: How To Stay Productive In Both

Your life and your business start to get a lot better when you shift from thinking about “good” and “bad” days and instead see them as two separate parts of a cycle.

There’s the “flow” part of the cycle, when your energy is high, your brain is working at its best, and you can easily do things that require creativity or focus. You could call this a high energy day.

Then there’s the “ebb” part of the cycle, when your energy drops, your brain checks out, and it seems hard to do anything. You could call this a low energy day.

There’s nothing wrong with this cycle. Ebb isn’t “bad”. It’s just ebb. You can’t be high-energy all the time just like you can’t be awake all the time. Ebb times are where your brain and body recharge so that flow can come later.

Here’s where it all comes crashing down: If you make yourself engage in “flow” activities during ebb times, everything is going to be hard, painful, and depressing. You’re basically making yourself go to the beach in winter. There’s no good end to it.

There’s also no good end to bailing entirely in the ebb times. You’re going to feel guilty that you’re not “doing more”, and you’re going to start thinking you suck, and you’re going to start feeling behind because of all the things you “should” have been able to do that day.

To avoid this cluster of unhappiness and stay productive, you must interrupt your own pattern. You have to start choosing to do flow activities when you’re in a place of flow, and ebb activities when you’re in a place of ebb.

Ebbs only feel like a problem when you're trying to do things that belong in the flow category.

You can get an amazing amount done in the ebb times, if you simply choose ebb-appropriate activities instead.

(You'll also get back into your flow state sooner, what without all that energy spent trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.)

But first, you have to know the difference between the two.

How to Separate Flow Activities from Ebb Activities

Like summer and winter, both types of activities have a few core characteristics that make them different from each other.

Here’s a simple chart to show the differences:

Flow Activities and Ebb Activities

Everything you do in your business is uniquely suited to one of these two categories.

Which category you put your particular business activities in is a bit of a subjective process – what you consider an ebb activity may be something I would personally save for flow time. It’s custom to your own work style and personality. But it’s very easy to figure out.

The separation process is simple: Look at any given business activity and ask yourself, “Is this almost impossible to do (or do competently) when I’m not feeling at my best?”

  • If the answer is “yes”, then you’re looking at a flow activity.
  • If you can still do it when you’re feeling blah, then it’s an ebb activity.

Here’s an example of what I put into ebb and flow times:

My Flow Activities and Ebb Activities

Keep in mind that the “is this impossible/hard when I’m not in flow?” question also applies to the moving pieces that make up any given activity as well.

When it comes to blog posts, there are only a few pieces that require flow – the rest I can move to ebb times if I want to.

Here’s how the first item on my flow list – “writing blog posts” – breaks down for me:

My Flow Activities and Ebb Activities (continued)

Every part of your business – from answering emails to designing products to posting on social media or doing your paperwork – they can all go through this process.

On a macro level, the activities themselves automatically lend themselves towards ebb time or flow time.

On a micro level, the components of those activities do the same.

Once you truly “get” this, there’s almost no day when you can’t get an amazing amount done. You just have to change WHAT you get done.

The ebb and flow cycle is weird. The ups and downs can last anywhere from a few days to a few hours, and they’re generally unpredictable.

But! They always change up. Your energy level can only stay so high – or so low – for so long.

Once you start getting used to choosing your activities consciously, you can surf the waves of this cycle. You can stay productive and consistently get meaningful progress on the things that are important for your business.

It begins with deciding to surf that wave, though. You have to throw out the notion that you have to do any particular task today because it happens to be on your to-do list. Once the wave changes, you’re working on a new deal now. Sorry, dude.

(Incidentally, this approach is no different than the one that expert stock traders use – they invest differently depending on whether it’s a “bear” market or a “bull” market, and so they can profit no matter what the market is like.)

The same can happen with your day. Separate your activities into ebb and flow categories, and you’ll get more done than you can even imagine right now.

That said, I’ll give you a few bits of advice for putting this into practice.

Also? Kittens.

Ebb Times - 5 Things To Know

Ebb Days: 5 Ways To Stay Productive

1) Embrace it immediately, and don’t fight it.
I don’t care what you put on your to-do list for the day. Your energy level is what it is. You can rail against it and wish it were different. That’s not going to do you any favors. The faster you can accept the reality that you’re in an ebb place, the faster you can start making exceptionally good use of it. (In fact, doing so will often make the ebb period shorter.)

2) Remember that the ebb time is going to turn back into flow.
There will be times when it seems like ebb time is going to last F-O-R-E-V-E-R. This will be even more of an issue if you have ADD (the technical term is “Now” and “Not Now” thinking, where you can’t grasp that the way you’re feeling now will change later). But just like day changes into night, and back to day again, you’re going to shift back into flow soon enough. If you’re feeling low-energy now, remember that it’s temporary. Stay productive in your ebb times, and when you're in flow again you won't feel like you sat around doing nothing.

3) Remind yourself of the value of the things that you're doing.
If you’re in an ebb, you’re not going to be feeling as positive as you would during flow times. The ebb creates a filter that can make any of your activities seem stupid, pointless, or a waste of time. Do not treat ebb activities (or ebb days) like they are inferior. You’re going to have to remind yourself that you put these items on your list for a reason. They may not be the most exciting things to do, but they do have value.

4) Decide what your ebb activities will be ahead of time.
Grocery shopping while you’re hungry is hard. So is figuring out your ebb activities when you’re in a low-energy place. You’re not going to be thinking as clearly and as positively as you normally would, and no activities will necessarily sound like a good idea at the time. Having a list of “things I said would be good to do when I’m in the ebb” can save you from having to make decisions from scratch when you’re at a creative and decisive low point.

5) Think of the next thing or two you'll do when you're in flow again.
Eventually the ebb time will end. It may take a day, or it may take two hours. But when it does end, you won’t necessarily get a memo about it. So you may end up continuing to do ebb activities long past when you need to. If you have one or two flow activities in mind as your next actions, you can notice when your mind drifts to thoughts like “You know, I think I can start on (that thing) now.” Then you can jump right in when flow returns, should you want to.

Flow Times - 5 Things To Know

Flow Days: 5 Ways To Stay Productive

1) Avoid ebb activities for as long as possible.
When you’re in flow, everything seems easy, because you’re at your best. That will make ebb activities look particularly appealing – you can take on the world, so why not clean up your home office or do 5 loads of laundry? But those are ebb activities, and you can do those later even if you’re relatively brain dead. Your flow is a precious resource. Don’t use it up on ebb activities.

2) If you start feeling antsy to do ebb activities, use them as short transitions.
Sometimes you’ll need a short break in between flow activities just as a way to create a transition. If you’ve spent 2 hours writing an amazing blog post and you need a breather before working on your new list incentive, then an ebb activity may be just the thing. Keep it limited in scope and time, and you can get your wiggles out and come back to your next flow activity refreshed, renewed, and able to stay productive.

3) Front-end load your most important flow activities.
Your flow state is a finite resource, and it is going to temporarily run out at a time and place you can’t predict. Prioritize what you’re going to do when you’re in flow so you can do the things that are most meaningful to you (or most helpful for your business). Think of it like a sunny summer day – if you want to go outside and take a walk in the park, do that now. You don’t want to kick yourself later when a rain shower comes along and you realized you spent that sunny time doing something you could have done later.

4) When it starts feeling hard, switch to something else to prevent burnout.
If you’re working on something and you feel a shift from “this is easy” to “this is getting hard”, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of flow state. You may have just hit your limit on that one activity. Switch to another flow activity for a while and see if you get your spark back. If no spark arrives, transition into a short ebb activity and then try again (maybe you just needed a break in order to get your second wind).

5) When the ebb hits, don't force yourself to keep going.
Realizing that you’ve hit the ebb place and your flow state has run out, don’t push yourself to keep going just because you don’t want to give up the ghost. It’s going to end up being counterproductive. Like driving when you’re tired, you’re going to be more prone to making mistakes and bad decisions, and that’s not going to help you feel better about anything. Take your wins, embrace the ebb, and make good use of it until flow returns – which it will.

Do this, and every day can become a remarkably good one.

Low energy days can be the best thing that ever happened to your business, if you learn how to use them effectively. They are a perfect time to do catch-up on all of the important business activities that you typically put off when you’re feeling in a state of flow.

You can’t underestimate the effect it will have on your quality of life to make good use of ebb days. The ability to still stay productive when you're not at your best is transformative.

The list of things you feel like you have to “get to” will start becoming shorter and shorter, because you’ll be doing more of them. You know those times you think when life will be easier, when everything “settles down”? This is how to make it start settling down.

Match up your activities with your energy level, and no matter what your day is like, you’ll always get the most out of it.

There’s a season for everything. And when you don’t fight that, you can make amazing things happen.


A few other links that can help you through these times:

  • The Emergency Turnaround Clinic (FREE!) – A re-release of our “how to survive the recession” class from Back In The Day – no sign-up required
  • Naomi’s new blog – it’s about how to take care of yourself and the people you care about
  • The Karma Store – 12 of our products are still on pay-what-you-want, so if you need anything in there, you can still get it.