How do you know if you’ve had a productive day?

I had lunch with a friend recently and he asked a really good question: “How do you know when you’ve had a productive day?” In the past I would have dismissed that question with the obvious answer: “When I’ve knocked off a lot of things on my to-do list.” You see, I keep a rather vibrant and healthy to do list and it feels great to end the day with a good number of those items checked off the list.

But that day, my answer was different. And I knew why. “I know I’ve had a productive day,” I told him, “when I’ve tackled something I’ve been avoiding.”

Lately, I’ve noticed my emotional disposition of being overwhelmed has less to do with the volume of work and more to do with the few things I’ve been avoiding. No matter how many things I knocked off my to-do list, if one of those items I had been avoiding is not among them, I’d feel that I hadn’t gotten anything done. And each day they weren’t done made them loom larger and appear more daunting the next.

Clearly, if I wanted to regain a sense of accomplishment, I needed to confront the things I’ve been avoiding. These weren’t arbitrary get-around-to-it-someday ideas. No, they were important, high priority items. That’s why they created such stress when they weren’t done. I needed a strategy to motivate myself to do them.

After reviewing my to-dos, I noticed that the ones I tend to avoid can be classified into three categories each calling for a different approach to get going on it:

  1. Daunting tasks. These are the big “how do you eat an elephant” tasks. And, of course, the answer is, “One bite at a time.” Presently, I have a few of these and, from experience, I’ve found the best tool to get going on these tasks is my stopwatch (er, iPhone). I set a twenty minutes alarm and turn off all other distractions (phone, email) so that I can race the clock to see how much I can get done before the alarm goes off. Often, those first twenty minutes can establish enough momentum to make even more significant progress on that elephant.
  2. Stinking tasks. Unlike daunting tasks which are large, stinking tasks are usually small, but not something I enjoy doing. Like accounting. Taxes. Insurance audit reviews. You get the picture. When they’re also daunting (like the time I had to reconcile 10 months of bank statements), they can create a double avoidance whammy. The key here is find help, even if just to keep you on track. It’s best if you can find someone to just do it for you; second-best to enlist an accountability partner. My admin assistant has been a God-send to me, relieving me of a lot of these stinking tasks. Fortunately for me, they aren’t stinking to her.
  3. Disrupting tasks. These are the tasks that you avoid because they’re uncomfortable. They usually involve a confrontation about an issue. A project needs to be scraped; an employee needs to be terminated; a friend needs to be confronted about a behavior. These crucial conversations are easy to defer, but the longer they linger the more something must be done. And if you’re the one to do it, you feel the stress mount the longer it’s avoided. There are many strategies for dealing with such conversations (see Crucial Conversations by Patterson, et al), but I’ve found one question that motivates me to action: “If the tables were turned, would I want to be similarly confronted as soon as possible?”

The things you do make a difference in people’s lives. And the things you’ve been avoiding could be some of your most important work yet. Take a small step toward that thing you’ve been avoiding today and see if you don’t end your day feeling a little more productive.

Are there other categories of tasks that you avoid? And what strategies have you found to engage in them?

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2 thoughts on “How do you know if you’ve had a productive day?

  1. Terrific again. For me it is when I have “Eaten the Frog.” Meaning when I can say that I completed or accomplished the most important thing I could have/should have done that day to move closer to my mission.

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