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How To Be Productive Without Taking Stimulants

Productivity allows us to succeed at work, at school, and at home. It’s the trait we can rely on to help us tackle any task, no matter how tedious it might be or how long it might take to complete it. When we are productive, we get things done.

For some people, productivity comes exclusively in pill form. These people pop stimulant pills to complete their tasks. With Ritalin or another similar stimulant on board, they feel capable of doing what needs to be done.

But are stimulants really the answer to poor productivity? Experts don’t think so.

In fact, there are plenty of other steps you can take to increase your productivity. And if you’ve been using stimulants as a crutch, there are some things you need to know about how to recover. 

Plan Ahead to Manage Deadlines 

There is a clear connection between stimulant abuse and poor time management, says an expert interviewed by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. People who procrastinate can feel as though their deadlines sneak up on them suddenly, prompting them to use stimulants to stay up in the few hours before the deadline arises.

For students, this can mean loading up on stimulants the night before a major paper is due, hoping to stay awake all night to finish the work. For adults in hectic jobs, it can mean taking stimulants in the morning to get more done during a key time at work.

Brushing up on time management skills can help you to avoid major deadline crunches. You can place all your major tasks in your electronic calendar, and then break those larger tasks into smaller pieces with separate deadlines. That could help ensure that you take all of the small steps required before a major task is due.

If an electronic calendar is too complicated to keep up with, paper copies work just as well. You’ll just need to remember to bring the calendar with you when you move from work to home, so you don’t forget to update it regularly.

Control Stress Naturally 

During a productive period, you’re exclusively focused on finishing one particular set of tasks. If you’re under immense pressure and stress, part of your brain can focus on something other than your task, and that can lead to distractions and lowered productivity.

In research about students who abuse stimulants, cited in the journal Brain and Behavior, researchers found that students who take stimulants face sources of stress such as the need to succeed academically, financial worries caused by tuition, and additional pressure from their social circles.

All of this stress can leave you feeling frazzled and worried, and that can make focusing on your work that much harder.

Short sessions of meditation have the proven ability to lower stress levels. According to research from the University of California, Los Angeles, even meditation sessions as short as 12 minutes can lead to an enhanced sense of control.

On a biological level, these meditation sessions can also decrease inflammation. When put together, that leads to both a healthier body and a healthier mind.

Meditation sessions don’t need to be fancy for them to work. You can:

  • Find a quiet space.
  • Sit in a comfortable position.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Focus on your breath moving in and out.
  • Acknowledge distracting thoughts when they arise and then return to focusing on your breath.

There are subscription meditation programs you can use to stay focused during meditation, but even simple breath work can be enough to feel calm and in control. Using meditation to break up long periods of focused work could help you be more productive.

Enhance Focus With Exercise

Many daily activities require that we learn something new and retain that information for another day. The faster we can learn that new concept, the more quickly we can move on to something else. In a way, the ability to learn new concepts quickly is a key part of remaining productive on a regular basis.

Research cited by Harvard Medical School suggests that regular aerobic exercise helps to increase the size of the part of the brain known as the hippocampus. This is the portion of the brain that is used in learning. Bigger size, in theory, means a faster ability to learn something new.

Exercise can also tire the muscles, and that can result in fewer twitches and tingles that prompt you to fidget. If you exercise often, your muscles might be thankful for the rest that focused work provides.

Aerobic exercise should be vigorous enough to get your heart beating quickly. You should be sweating at the end of the workout. Running, playing basketball, using an elliptical trainer, or riding a bike could all be considered forms of aerobic exercise. 

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Take Control of Your Environment 

To be productive is to stay on task, and that can be a difficult accomplishment in our distracting, modern environment. Social media sites play a special role in keeping us distracted.

According to the Pew Research Center, 65 percent of American adults use social media sites, and that use crosses almost all ages, income levels, and locations. We can now tap into social media sites on our phones and stay connected with news and more around the clock. Our phones ping and buzz to remind us when something new has happened.

3d image of a brain

Email can be another source of distraction, particularly in workplace environments. The need to check email constantly and answer immediately can mean that we always have an eye on the inbox, even when we should be working on something else.

Turning off notifications is a smart way to reduce the need to stay in touch around the clock. Building in periods of focused work, punctuated by periods of catching up, can allow you to get work done in blocks without constant interruptions.

If signing out seems difficult, some programs can lock down your access to specific sites during the times you define. That could help you to avoid all temptation, as you’ll need to override the block to get access.

Turning off your phone while at work could also help to reduce distractions. According to research by Udemy, 43 percent of employees turn off their cellphones at work to avoid distractions.

Consider Outside Help 

Most of us know we’re not as productive as we could be. Even if we’re not aware of it on a mental level, our bodies have clues we should listen to.

For example, according to the American Institute of Stress, 62 percent of people routinely end the workday with work-related neck pain, much of which is attributed to stress. When we cannot solve the issue alone, asking for help is wise.

For some, that involves reading a coaching book about productivity. There are many such books available right now, including 10 that were recommended by New York magazine.

group therapy circle

Productivity coaches write some books, and others are written by people who have managed to achieve great productivity in their own lives. Reading a book like this could give you good steps and tools you can use in your own life to make things better.

But reading a book is a productive task, and it’s often time-consuming. In addition, if you’ve been accustomed to taking stimulants, you could find it a little harder to stick to the resolutions you make.

For example, research from the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggests that stimulant abuse can boost your susceptibility to distraction, along with increasing the chances you’ll engage in risky behavior. This kind of damage could entice you to move past roadblocks to distraction you’ve put up while reducing your risk to enhance productivity on your own.

Similarly, research from the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews suggests that stimulant abuse could impair the ability to participate in tasks that involve flexibility and planning. These are just the sorts of tasks you’ll need to participate in to change your habits.

There are time management coaches who specialize in helping people learn how to be more productive on a regular basis. A professional like this might be very useful as you work on building a life that is filled with accomplishment. You might need to work with someone like this only a few times to see a real difference, and there is no shame in asking for help with something this important. 

What About Your Stimulants?

Stimulant medications can, according to research from the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, change the way your brain cells work. In time, those brain cells might seem to need stimulant drugs to function. You can develop symptoms of withdrawal if you attempt to stop taking the drugs quickly once your brain has become accustomed to the presence of these drugs.

Tapering your dose is one way to help your brain heal. This means that each time you take stimulants, you’ll take a smaller dose until you take none at all. But this tapering procedure should be done under the guidance of a medical professional just in case you encounter serious side effects as you attempt to wean off the drug.

If you find you can’t taper your drug dose or the thought of taking a smaller dose makes you feel ill or worried, you might need more significant help to heal. In a rehab program, you can learn more about how stimulant drugs work and how you can heal from an addiction. 


(May 2014). College Takes Innovative Approach to Fighting Prescription Drug Abuse. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Retrieved January 2019 from

(July 2012). Prescription Stimulants in Individuals With and Without Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Misuse, Cognitive Impact, and Adverse Effects. Brain and Behavior. Retrieved January 2019 from

(July 2012). Yoga Reduces Stress; Now It's Known Why. UCLA. Retrieved January 2019 from

(April 2018). Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved January 2019 from

(October 2015). Social Media Usage: 2005 to 2015. Pew Research Center. Retrieved January 2019 from

(2018). Udemy In Depth: 2018 Workplace Distraction Report. Udemy. Retrieved January 2019 from

Workplace Stress. The American Institute of Stress. Retrieved January 2019 from

(October 2018). The 10 Best Books on Productivity, According to People Who Get Things Done. New York. Retrieved January 2019 from

(May 2013). Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Stimulant Medications As Cognitive Enhancers. Frontiers in Neuroscience. Retrieved January 2019 from

(July 2010). What Are the Cognitive Effects of Stimulant Medications? Emphasis on Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. Retrieved January 2019 from

(January 2011). The Dopamine Dilemma—Part II. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience. Retrieved January 2019 from

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