I was tired. It was the peak of the pandemic, and everyone was working from home. Even the kids were attending school online.
My day was spent in meetings, getting kids on and off Zoom calls, quick snacks and multiple cups of coffee.
It felt like the number of meetings had exploded. Every 5-minute conversation at the water cooler/coffee machine had now turned into a 30-minute meeting on my calendar.
By the end of the day, I still had emails to reply to and had barely started on the presentation, which was due in three days. I sat down for another hour and made some progress by researching and creating the agenda slide.
At midnight, I hit the bed, physically exhausted. But my mind was still racing with the nagging feeling that the day wasn’t very productive. I berated myself for not making better to-do lists, or maybe I could have tried the Pomodoro technique. Perhaps I needed to set stricter boundaries with my kids regarding interruptions.
What Is Productivity Shame?
Modern knowledge workers don’t have an assembly line to work on, and neither do they have targets of making 50 calls a day. Deadlines are usually in weeks or months, and workers are often on their own for managing their daily schedules.
Also, teamwork, mentoring, learning, reporting, are all part of the job. Such a myriad of activities leads to frequent context switching. We may be getting into the zone for programming, only to be interrupted a few minutes later by the next meeting. Or someone wants to ask a quick question on Slack/Teams.
By the end of the day, we have barely made progress on our important project. Instead, we have spent the most time on collaboration. With everyone working from home during the last year, family interruptions have been added to the mix, creating even more disruptions.
When we finally end up in bed and try to sleep, our brain reminds us of all the things we didn’t achieve. We blame ourselves for bad time management, bad prioritising, not joining the 5 am club, not using a journal, not using a personal kanban board or whatever latest productivity hacks we’ve heard of.
This nagging feeling of not doing enough and the guilt of ineffective time management leads to productivity shame.
“Productivity Shame: the act of regularly setting unrealistic expectations for what you can accomplish, and then beating yourself when you fall short.”
— Jocelyn K. Glei (learn more)
When Do We Feel Productivity Shame?
There are two parts to the problem — planning and execution.
Unrealistic and Ad-hoc Plan
We start our day with lofty ideas of what we will accomplish. We have our big project on the top of the list, and we are sure we will make good progress. We are overly optimistic and underestimate the effort. We also neglect to account for lack of focus and frequent interruptions.
We often have calendar entries for meetings, kids schedules etc. but we rarely add our solo working time to the calendar. We sometimes write down our to-do lists, or it is in our head, but it is seldom scheduled in our calendar.
The underestimated effort, coupled with ad-hoc planning sets us on a collision course with failure.
The day rarely hits us with a cannonball. It instead pokes us with hundreds of needles.
If our day had a significant event such as a car breakdown or sick family member, we wouldn’t feel productivity shame.
The minor mishaps are the ones to send us on our guilt trip at bedtime. The few extra minutes it took to find the proper Zoom meeting for kids or answer a quick question for a stuck colleague or a short call from mum.
Worst of all, we kick ourselves for self-indulgence such as the extra episode on Netflix, which we couldn’t resist, or falling into the trap of watching too many cat videos on YouTube.
Getting more planning tools or learning new time management techniques would multiply the feeling of guilt. Instead, we need a method to ensure success.
How Can We Avoid Productivity Shame?
We need to set ourselves up for productivity satisfaction.
Process Goals vs Outcome Goals
An outcome-based goal, such as getting a presentation done or writing a report, is likely to take more than one sitting over multiple days. We cannot derive satisfaction until it is complete.
Outcome goals are also easy to procrastinate. We often choose busy work over important work. It is tempting to go through emails or social media, just for a few minutes before diving into the big hairy project. The few minutes turns into an hour, and we stop only when we absolutely need to get up from our desks.
Process goals, on the other hand, require us to take action without worrying about the outcome. If you set up a process of reading emails 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes after lunch, it is easy to run a timer and leave the rest of the unread emails for the next slot.
A process gives us a structure to break down our day, and we can derive satisfaction from following the process rather than depend on the uncertainty of the outcome.
It is also easier to form habits around processes. We can even create habit stacks. I try reading emails only while drinking coffee. I may allocate additional time to respond, but reading the emails gets tied to my coffee break twice a day and doesn’t spill over other activities.
Now that we have discussed the problem at length let’s dive into the 5x5 process.
5x5 Process for Productivity Satisfaction
Here is a process that I find very useful for deriving satisfaction with my productivity at the end of the day:
1. Five Minute Planning
Set aside 5 minutes in the morning for planning, which consists of Steps 1 and 2 below.
2. Five Little Wins
“5 small wins a day leads to 1,850 wins in 12 months. Consistency breeds mastery. “
— Robin Sharma
Use your favourite note-taking tool to create a list of 5 items based on the following criteria:
- Each item takes less than 30 minutes to do (be conservative in your estimation)
- Items don’t have any dependencies — on other people or other tasks
- Completing the item will lead to progress on your important projects
3. Five Focus Time Slots
Schedule five 30-minute slots in your calendar throughout the day. Add these between meetings or other existing commitments. These slots are your solo working time, where you can focus without interruptions.
Next, mark these slots with specific items from your Five Little Wins in your preferred order. DO NOT use these slots for emails, chats or other collaboration activities.
Your total focus time will add up to 2 and 1/2 hours. You will still have plenty of time to deal with emails, attend meetings etc.
If you work alone, you may define recurring slots. Otherwise, it is better to schedule these slots during your Five Minute Planning as it allows other people to set up meetings with you until the morning of the day.
During the focus time, set a 25 minutes timer on your phone, put it on ‘do not disturb’ and get to work. Avoid all temptations to pick up your phone or look at emails or respond to chat.
Don’t beat yourself up if you could not finish the planned item in 25 minutes. You will get better at estimating as you practice the 5x5 process.
Why 25 minutes? Because it will give you a 5-minute buffer between tasks or before the next meeting. You can use this time to save your work, jot down any bubbling thoughts, get a drink, do a few jumping jacks or whatever gets you ready for the next item on your calendar.
4. Five Check-Ins
You need to review your five wins list throughout the day. Leaving this assessment for the end of the day is a sure way to dissatisfaction.
Check-ins give you a chance to course-correct if needed. Check off the completed wins, and take note of the next one on the list. If needed, reprioritize or update your plan.
You can schedule your check-ins in your calendar, or you can piggyback them on your focus time slots (remember the 5-minute buffer?).
Schedule your last check-in at least an hour before bedtime. If there is something super important you’ve missed, you still have an hour to strike it off.
5. Five Minute Celebration
After the last check-in, reward yourself with a pat on your back. You may celebrate with a glass of wine, a piece of dark chocolate, or whatever healthy way you celebrate your wins.
Remember, you are rewarding yourself for following the process and not for the output you produced. If you messed up, write down a few improvements for tomorrow.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. You are starting on a new journey of productivity satisfaction. Give yourself time to hone your skills and establish new habits.
We all have competing demands on our time, and it is hard to balance everything. It is easy to get sucked into a stressful race to juggle activities through the day, which only leads to exhaustion and dissatisfaction as we hit the bed.
Further, the work environment is competitive. We always feel that our colleagues are getting more done. Or other writers on Medium are publishing more articles or writing better ones.
Setting up a process-based target for the day and deriving satisfaction from following it gives us a much better chance of achieving productivity satisfaction.