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How to Save an Unproductive Work Day


We've all had those days: A failure to launch. Hit a wall. Too many interruptions. Got distracted. Whatever the reason, an unproductive day is maddening.

Nick Dolding | Digital Vision | Getty Images

“People get caught up in the tyranny of urgent,” explained Michael Crom, the chief learning officer at the , a corporate training organization. “Texting. People popping into our office. Phone ringing … cellphone ringing … personal stuff … it can all lead to some pretty bad work habits.”

That’s right, like your overflowing inbox, or easy-to-steal password, the first step of an unproductive day is to admit that you — and your work habits — are a big part of the problem.

First question: Do you make a to-do list every day?

Next question: What do you do first?

“The tendency is to do the things I like to do first,” Crom explained. “We all have time to jump on Facebook!” he quipped.

If you just start ticking off the things you like to do, instead of the important ones, guess what happens? You run out of time and you find yourself at the end of the day declaring it an unproductive work day because you didn’t get the things accomplished that you NEEDED to get accomplished.

It’s called procrastination.

“It robs you of vitality. Almost numbs you,” Crom said. “If you accomplish those important things, it generates more energy. Keeps you more positive. Your productivity goes up,” he said.

“In essence, we’re talking about creating a proper work environment for being productive.”

So what happens when you hit that wall and you can’t focus, can’t work on anything big or small — do you throw in the towel and belly up to the bar?

Hang on there, Cliffy. Not so fast.

Crom suggests taking a break — take a walk outside for some fresh air, call someone who’s positive, have a cold glass of water — or play a particular song that pumps you up or gets your focused.

Crom says he writes best to Mozart, uses James Bluntto get the positive energy flowing and likes Chris Brown’s “Forever” to pump him up before a public speech.

Of course, everyone’s taste is different — so find what works for you.

You might find just giving yourself a little pep talk works. Or, keeping an inspiration or a kudos file to rev you up and help you get back in the game.

“I think you can always get things back under control,” he said. “Even a half-hour break.”

He also cautions against spending too much time with negative people.

Crom recalls an old boss who preached SNIOP — being susceptible to the negative influence of other people. “The moment someone around you is negative or complaining, say ‘SNIOP!’ and take two steps backwards,” Crom said. “You have to treat them like a vampire!”

It’s like saying “Beetlejuice” three times fast!

Crom recommends getting in early — before everyone else to make your to-do list for the day and set up what the priorities are.

If you prioritize and you don’t get through the whole list, then guess what? What didn’t get done wasn’t that important. By contrast, if you do the things you like first, or the things that are easy, then that’s all you’ve accomplished — not the priority items.

If you have too many important items on that list, check in with your boss to help you prioritize and, if necessary, redistribute some of the important stuff to other people to make sure the team hits all the deadlines.

The importance of communicating with the boss cannot be overstated.

Crom recalls a survey of CEOs and their direct reports. They asked nearly 300 CEOs what they thought their direct reports' priorities were, then asked the direct reports the same question. Guess what? The results showed a 20 to 70 percent variance between what the CEOs thought the jobs of their direct reports were and what the direct reports thought their job was.

“Imagine as you move down the organization how wide that variance must become!” Crom said.

Of course, you have to be agile. If things change course midday, you have to be ready to drop everything and then re-prioritize.

“The worst thing is if you take on an assignment that’s due tomorrow, give no feedback and don’t accomplish it,” Crom said. “Then you look like a poor member of the team. And, you make the organization look bad.”

And, while you might think that guy who stays until 9pm or later every day has it all together – think again. He’s also part of the problem.

Working long hours too much can cause a person to miss personal or family priorities which can build internal stress.

“Then they struggle through,” Crom explained. “There are consequences to that.”

Not only should you be making a daily to-do list but also a list of yearly priorities that you discuss with your boss periodically. Then, break that down into what you can accomplish in each area on a monthly and weekly basis.

“Keep the focus tight so you really understand — this is what I need to be doing this month, this week, this day,” Crom said. “When you’re focused, you perform at a much higher level.”

And, if you ever feel like you’re the only one who suffers from an unproductive day — think again.

“I think it’s an increasing issue,” Crom said. “I’ve seen some rare individuals who just seem so self-motivated and very organized — but it’s very rare.”

He recalls a time-management workshop he did with about 200 executives in the room. He asked, “Raise your hand if you think you waste an hour a day.”

Every hand went up in the room except for one. So he challenged that guy — to see if he was, indeed, this rare species of man who doesn’t waste time.

The man replied, “Oh, I misunderstood. I waste more than an hour a day — I was waiting for that option to raise my hand!”

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