You grip your coffee and stare at your computer screen, trying to remember what you were about to do when you’re asked to join a Zoom meeting that will go nowhere and solve nothing.
After the meeting, a coworker Slacks you to help him with something. You can’t believe he couldn’t figure this out on his own.
Your boss has been absent the last few days and suddenly bursts in to alert everyone to stop what they’re doing because the ship is about to go under. This happens every month.
Or maybe you're home. Even though you have a thousand things to do for work, that pile of laundry is calling your name and the family dog is begging for a walk.
As open-offices get hipper and working from home becomes more widely the norm, you might find yourself trying to figure out how to be productive in an unproductive working environment. Fear not! There is hope.
All it takes is becoming aware of ingrained habits and tweaking your regular routines. I know, easier said than done. But it’s not impossible. Here are some tips to stay on top of your game in an unproductive environment…
1. Buy noise reductive earphones.
I used a pair while I wrote my book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night. My neighbor’s house was under construction for six months. I would not have been able to write a word without my trusty Bose noise-canceling headphones. These earphones – coupled with a little white noise or brain.fm – makes a world of difference.
Note: These things really work. If you do this, put a sign on your back to gently approach you because it can be terrifying when you’re not expecting someone.
2. Set boundaries with your time.
Every unproductive workspace has a few interrupters who routinely need help, who like to chitchat, who seek advice. They’ll hunt you down. See if you can have some fun with this one: maybe an “ON AIR” light to indicate you’re not available, maybe a velvet rope, or maybe an auto-response you create in the AM that announces you’ll be unavailable for a period of time that day (every day?).
3. Learn how to time-block.
Do this the night before or first thing in the morning. Assign time periods for your projects so you have a plan in place. It can be very relaxing to look at your daily calendar and see, “OK, I’m doing this until 12, then I’m doing that until two.” Assign a time slot for tedium like answering emails and such and then turn off those notifications for the rest of the time. Tell the people in your personal and professional life to call if there is an emergency, rather than text or email. That way you’ll know it’s necessary to pick up.
4. Divide your day into creative + reactive work.
To time-chunk more effectively, try this. Creative work projects are projects that require your undivided attention and the full scope of your mental capacity. Schedule those early in the day when you feel energized. Reactive work – answering phone calls, emails, unimportant but unavoidable meetings and so on – can be slated for the latter half of the day.
Note: During the creative part of your workday block out everything that is not part of your creative work. No emails, phone calls, texts, social media.
5. Don’t go to every meeting if you don’t have to.
If you work for a meeting-heavy company, figure out when your presence is truly required as more often than not these meetings are unproductive. Maybe you can get an exemption if not truly needed. If you are truly needed, schedule the meetings for a time that works for you (see: #3: block your time). Basically, this falls under the “don’t be afraid to speak up” umbrella. If you never say anything then you’ll never know.
6. If you’re not a fireman, don’t get involved with putting out every fire.
There are those reactive-putting-out-fires constantly environments that can tire a soul out, i.e. the whole company might fold any second if we don’t do THIS! Maybe you can implement a grassroots campaign to analyze what’s urgent and what’s not. A nice consequence is you will begin to behave proactively (versus reactively) to abate these “urgent” yet unproductive scenarios from reoccurring.
7. If you’re drowning in work, prioritize.
Sit down with your manager/boss to help prioritize your workload. Then you can block your time (#3), maybe work from home, and skip some meetings perhaps (#4). To be clear, I’m referring to the overwhelming workload that results because you might work at a company where everyone wears a lot of hats, or perhaps someone was recently let go and their job was folded into yours. This isn’t because you don’t know how to manage your time and/or distractions. Bottom line: don’t assume other people know you are overloaded. It’s your job to speak up.
8. If your boss is inconsistent, ask for confirmation.
This can be frustrating and unproductive. You start to work on something only to be told to change directions midway; something was given top priority and then there’s a new something that’s suddenly an even higher priority; but wait, now there’s something even more important; actually, now that they think of it, the first thing is still the most important and by the way, where are you on that? If you have a boss like this, get confirmation on the prioritization of work.
9. When your colleagues aren’t carrying their weight, do this.
Communicate, but don’t tattletale. For instance, you can send a group email to all parties involved, with the boss cc’d, asking for confirmation on who’s responsible for what. That way it’s in writing and there are no assumptions. If the scenario doesn’t allow for that type of communication the next best thing is to speak with the colleague(s) themselves. Again, speaking up is vital!
The only reliable way to get different results in this world is to change your own behavior. Don’t expect anyone to change.
Much of being productive in an unproductive work environment involves being communicative about your needs and speaking up for yourself. It’s the only way you’ll know what resources and freedom are available to you.
A great byproduct of all this speaking up for yourself is your self-confidence will improve; your self-efficacy bolsters; you’ll feel empowered to ask for what you need; the world will start to work for you instead of against you.
Perspective is everything when learning how to be productive in an unproductive space. Don’t presume anyone knows what’s happening in your world and don’t expect anything to change without you changing first. Don't be unproductive be proactive and then productive.
It all starts with you.
I’m an organizational psychologist specializing in leadership and organizational development, consulting and coaching. I help leaders and companies expand their insight, impact, and influence. I’m the author of two books, “Y in the Workplace” and “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.” I have a doctorate in clinical psychology (Psy.D.), Master of Business Administration (MBA), and Master of Criminal Justice (MACJ) – I initially wanted to be in the FBI but I think this was largely fueled by my dream of “working” with Agent Mulder in the X Files. I love coffee, my cats, traveling to new cities, fall weather, boots, meeting people, and coming up with new business ideas, which my GoDaddy account can attest to.