Ask a Therapist: How Can I Stop Feeling Restless and Unproductive?

Feeling restless is a common problem.

Verywell / Catherine Song

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Friday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

Our Reader Asks

"I feel really restless sometimes. I’ll have the TV on, be scrolling through my phone, and starting a million projects or chores without really ever finishing anything. I get mad at myself for wasting so much time but I don’t really know what else to do. What can I do to feel better and be more productive?"

Amy's Answer

I can imagine it’s frustrating to feel like you’re just passing time instead of getting anything done. Fortunately, you can use the following strategies to identify any issues and take charge of your time so you can feel better and be more productive.

Create a Time Diary

The first step to take is to figure out where your time actually goes. For one week, maintain a log of what you’re doing all day, every day.

You can create a simple paper diary that breaks down your day into 30-minute chunks. Write down what you were doing during each time slot, such as eating, watching TV, or scrolling through social media.

At the end of the week, take a look at your log. Add up how many hours you spend doing each activity—like eating, sleeping, running errands, watching TV, working, and looking at your phone.

You might be surprised to learn that you spend a lot more time watching TV than you thought. Or you might discover that you spend hours every day scrolling through social media (even when you only do it for 10 minutes at a time).

You might also discover that you have several free hours every day without anything to do—and that’s why you sort of walk around aimlessly.

Managing your time can help you start to become more mindful of how you spend each precious minute of your day.

Establish an Ideal Schedule

After you become aware of where your time is going, create an ideal schedule for yourself. How much time do you want to spend eating, working out, working, sleeping, watching TV, and scrolling through social media?

Make sure you to build in plenty of time for fun. Do you have a hobby? Do you want to spend time with friends and family? Give yourself permission to do leisure activities and make sure you include downtime in your schedule so you can relax and unwind.

Create a written ideal schedule for yourself. Determine how you’ll spend your day based on 30-minute increments. This can help you introduce more structure into your life.

Of course, you won’t be able to stick to your schedule completely. You might take a call from your friend during the time you expected to be doing chores or you might end up stuck in traffic so errands take longer than you expect.

You’ll likely find that you underestimate how long some activities will take and overestimate how much time other activities require. That’s OK. You can make whatever adjustments you need to and perhaps plan a little differently for next week.

If you keep doing this exercise week after week you’ll get better at estimating how long certain tasks actually take.

Track Your Moods

You can also begin to better understand yourself by taking note of your moods. When you find yourself walking around aimlessly, take a minute to ask yourself how you’re feeling.

Or, when you’re scrolling through social media, what are you feeling?

You might discover when you’re anxious, you turn to social media to distract you. Or you might find that when you’re lonely, you turn on the TV to try and feel better.

While there’s nothing wrong with using social media or TV as a coping skill in general, they may become problematic if they’re interfering with your daily life.

For example, if you’re using social media to escape the distress you feel over your financial situation, scrolling through Instagram might just be helping you avoid the problem—rather than facing your budget crisis head-on.

Understanding your emotional state can help you develop healthier strategies for dealing with distress. You might decide to tackle anxiety-provoking situations head-on or you might decide to try a more proactive strategy for managing boredom, like finding a hobby.

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Anxiety

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki, shares how to cope with anxiety and how you can use it to your advantage. Click below to listen now.

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Get Help if You Need It

Taking control over your schedule may help you overcome boredom, restlessness, anxiety, and frustration over lack of productivity.

If, after trying these strategies, you’re still struggling to take control over your time, consider talking to a mental health professional.

Underlying issues, like depression, anxiety, or even ADHD, may be factors that make it difficult to feel productive. A licensed mental health professional can assess your needs and help you develop a plan that will help you feel better.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.