How to Save an Unproductive Day in 25 Minutes

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cubicleBy Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

How often have you had a work day when, as mid-afternoon races toward late-afternoon, you realize that you haven’t really gotten anything done?

Painfully often, if you’re like many of the professionals we talked to for a recent study on everyday work life through Harvard Business School.

Not only do unproductive days like this detract from the success of your projects, your team and your organization; they can endanger your own well-being.

We discovered that nothing makes people feel happier and more engaged at work than making meaningful progress on something they care about. We call that the progress principle. But this progress principle has a serious downside: Nothing makes people feel worse than being stalled in their work – and this negative effect is much stronger.

Most often, the cause of an unproductive day is fragmentation – trying to juggle many competing, and usually unexpected, demands on your time. It’s what happens when you’ve worked like crazy all day, and still you have the sense that you haven’t been productive. Sound familiar?

Work-life management experts Tony Schwartz, David Allen, and others have useful techniques for setting up routines to get more done. But how can you save a day where you simply haven’t been able to get to the work that matters most?

1. Carve out a time-oasis. (20 minutes) If possible, move something off your schedule for the remainder of the day, protecting just 20 minutes to focus – uninterrupted – on that meaningful project. More time is better if you can manage it, but 20 minutes can still make a difference.

If you have to, leave a non-essential meeting 20 minutes early, or stay at the office 20 minutes later. (You would use tactics like this if you had an urgent business call, right? Well, getting to your most important work is an urgent business issue.) Turn off your email and phone. Find an unoccupied conference room or cubicle where no one can find you.

2. Note your progress for the day. (Two minutes) Use a work diary to keep track of the progress you made that day.

It’s natural to focus on what you didn’t get done and what tasks remain; but, to get the boost of happiness and engagement, you should spend a minute taking stock of what you did accomplish. Even if you simply outlined next steps on that creative project, make note. And, if you weren’t able to carve out that 20-minute time-oasis, then make note of any achievement you had during the day, however small. It may not have been work you planned, and it may have been solving someone else’s problem, but – if you got anywhere on anything useful, that really is meaningful progress, so write it down.

Allow yourself to savor the sense of accomplishment, and recognize that you made a difference.

3. Set up for progress tomorrow. (Three minutes) Use a trick that Ernest Hemingwayand other writers have relied on: Leave off in the middle. When you have to stop work for the day on your most important project, end in mid-paragraph, mid-sentence, mid-routine, whatever – as long as you have a pretty good sense of how you will finish that paragraph. That way, you’ll be able to just slide back into the task the next day – even if all you get tomorrow is your 20-minute oasis.

{The Wall Street Journal/ Newscenter}



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