The Antidote to Feeling Unproductive

You’re probably familiar with the sinking feeling that you didn’t get enough done during the day.

While to-do lists are useful, they’re certainly not the magical solution to all our productivity problems. Otherwise why do we so often feel discouraged about how much we’re getting done? It’s such a common reaction that even many successful people don’t escape it. When your day is a blur of activity, it’s hard to even remember a single thing you did.

The danger of not recognizing how much you actually accomplish is that it becomes easy to lose perspective and succumb to exhaustion and feelings of failure and guilt.

That all changes when you take a breather from the perpetually on-the-go approach, always looking at the next thing to tackle, and pay more attention to what you’ve achieved. One effective way to do this is by keeping a done list. The simple act of writing down and keeping track of what you accomplish is motivating and illuminating.

Here’s why:

Acknowledging Progress Provides Critical Fuel

Recognizing what you get done is actually critical to your motivation.

In fact, as Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer were surprised to find out, making progress — even small wins — on meaningful work is actually the most powerful motivator.

In order to take advantage of that source of energy, you have to be able to know when you’ve made progress. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavior economics at Duke University, did a study that showed the cost of ignoring your efforts. He discovered that people whose work went acknowledged led them to outperform others, even when the work itself wasn’t particularly meaningful.

In the experiment, participants had to finish a trivial task on a sheet of paper for a payment of 55 cents. After each page, they had the option to complete another for 5 cents less or stop. People in the Acknowledged group wrote their name on each sheet before submitting it to an experimenter who would look at it, nod, and place the page in a folder. Those in the Ignored group didn’t write their names on their completed pages, which the experimenter placed in a large stack of papers without any reaction. Those in the Shredded group also didn’t include their names and their completed pages were fed straight into the shredder.

What happened? The Acknowledged group earned more and completed more pages than the two other groups. The startling result, though, was that the performance of the Ignored group closely resembled that of the Shredded group, suggesting that failing to acknowledge how much you get done is dangerously close to actively destroying the fruits of your labor.

If you let that act of appreciation pass you by, you risk losing valuable boosts of motivation.

Getting Started With Your Done List

To gain motivation and performance improvements more like that of the Acknowledged group in Ariely’s study — take a minute to reflect and record what you got done at the end of the day. Or if your memory’s as bad as mine, write things down as you do them, but don’t forget to take a look at how much your list has grown. Remember the power of small wins, too, even if you don’t finish a whole project or hit a major milestone.

Figuring out what to write down takes time and experimentation. You might want to start slow with smaller, routine tasks like “went through my inbox” or “vacuumed”, or lean toward writing as much as you can in the beginning, to kickstart feeling productive. But as you get going and build some momentum, you may start to realize that you’re spending too much time on chores rather than getting to the more important and impactful stuff. Eventually you’ll be able to see whether you’re spending time and energy on what really matters to you, ways you might be confusing busywork for actual progress, and how you’re actually prioritizing.

Think about what stood out in your day. Did your co-worker compliment you or did your kid say something hilarious? Was a task particularly frustrating or difficult to get through? Reflecting on what you get done is a great opportunity for learning and appreciation, to consider both the good and the bad.

To-do lists are still key for keeping organized. Meanwhile, a done list reflects what you spent your time doing, capturing more than what’s preordained by your task list. One doesn’t stand in for the other. As you go, you may find that your to-do list and done list start working in concert, so that you gain encouragement, improve your planning based on what you learn about yourself, and start to know what’s more realistic and important to tackle the next day.

Small wins happen almost every day, and it would be a pity to let them go by uncelebrated. They pave the way to accomplishing great things, so consider taking stock and thinking more consciously about what you get done. You’ll gain an important source of motivation, accountability, and direction.

About the Author

Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, the easiest progress management tool around. She writes about productivity, management, and the way people work on the iDoneThis blog. Say hi on Twitter @lethargarian or Google+.

Photo Credit: 55Laney69 via Compfight cc