The power of low-stakes productivity

Not feeling very productive lately?

The coronavirus pandemic has warped our already-warped cultural feelings around productivity — and socially signalling that productivity — convincing us that if we haven’t perfected homemade sourdough, read three new books and written the next great American novel, we have failed quarantine.

Small Wins
The solution isn’t practicing “self-care” or slapping on a chia-pudding mask. It’s shifting our focus to small wins.

“During this extraordinary time, we have to realize that everyone now has an additional part-time job that might be called Citizen of the Covid-19 Pandemic,” said Teresa Amabile, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.”

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This Covid-19 citizenry is all about monitoring and safeguarding our health and safety, reviewing the flood of information about the virus, carefully managing our finances, offering emotional support and social contact, and educating and caring for our children while working full-time, among other responsibilities.

What we’re missing, Ms. Amabile said, is that our daily productivity reflects not just the accomplishments we might share on social media or Slack, but also the sum total of what we get done in a day — chaotic and scary as our Covid-19 workload may seem.
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“At the end of each day, you should recognize your wins — large and small — and celebrate them,” she said.

Understandably, people are generally more excited when they achieve a big breakthrough or solve a difficult problem than when they take an incremental step forward.

“But,” Ms. Amabile said, “huge achievements are much less likely than small wins, and if we wait for them to feel good about our work, most of us are going to suffer through vast deserts of tedium.”

This reality magnifies the importance of recognizing and briefly honoring the more mundane — but much more common — instances of progress among ourselves, our family and our colleagues.

What’s more, Ms. Amabile’s research suggests, is that small wins can have just as positive an influence on our sense of self-efficacy, happiness and, ultimately, our productivity as enormous accomplishments do.

So what are some small wins you can hone in on? Ms. Amabile and her husband recently celebrated disinfecting a large load of groceries.

“That was time I desperately wanted to spend on my research, but I decided disinfecting the groceries was exactly what I needed to be doing,” she said.
My small wins?

Well, I cleared the screenshots and random documents from my computer desktop, changed my screen saver image, cleaned out my refrigerator and read one chapter of a book that has sat on my bedside table for a year. (Oh, and I brushed my pug, too.)

Sound delightfully unimpressive? That’s exactly what we’re looking for.

This article appeared on the ‘Smart Living’ section of the New York Times

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