Janet Choi- circleThis is a guest post by Janet Choi, the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, an incredibly simple way to share your progress with your colleagues at work. Find out more about the science behind how done lists help you work smarter in a free eBook, The Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List. Say hi on Twitter @lethargarian or on Google+.

Can you remember the best thing you accomplished at work last week?

If this question is a head-scratcher, then you’ve probably fallen into a bad habit of failing to acknowledge your own productivity.

This is a common mental trap that everyone — including, and maybe especially, many productive, ambitious people — fall into without realizing it. You spend your time running around, taking care of business, putting out fires, and working hard to stay on top of things. Yet, for all that effort, by the end of the day, you feel like you weren’t productive enough and can’t even remember what it was that you accomplished.

The particular peril of this mental trap is that it sets you up for a doomed cycle of work, alternating between a mode of blurry busyness, feeling like you’re not going fast enough and trying to redouble your efforts to reach some unrealistic productivity ninja level. Unsurprisingly, that paves the way for major stress and burnout.

Why am I so sad?

Harness the most powerful motivator

There’s one ingredient to motivation that most people miss. In fact, when Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer asked hundreds of managers to identify the most powerful motivator, 95% of them got it wrong. Instead of carrots or sticks like bonuses and threats, as the researchers found, the number one motivator is making progress on meaningful work.

Noting your progress creates a positive feedback loop, in which the intrinsic motivation you gain from recognizing the forward steps you’ve made drives you to make even more progress. When we don’t take time to celebrate even our smallest wins with this “progress principle,” we let an incredible source of fuel go untapped.

In order to harness the motivating power of wins, you have to be able to see them. So if you can’t remember the best thing you did at work last week, that means you haven’t been paying enough attention to what you got done and you’ve sped right past your progress.

High five

Make what you get done visible with a done list, which is like a reverse to-do list. Here’s how it works:

  1. After you do something you consider useful, write it down. Or start a new ritual to close out your workday or before you go to sleep by drawing up your list in a batch. Even if something isn’t completely finished, such as making progress on a draft or figuring out a bug, count it and acknowledge your efforts.
  2. Look at your list and celebrate all the things you got done! Review regularly — in the mornings, every week, month, year — to gain boosts of motivation and self-knowledge.

Done lists also give you the rare chance to reflect on your work. Making progress visible not only enables you to see how far you’ve come, it provides valuable information for your growth and improvement. Use that record to analyze what you’re doing and make course corrections so that you start spending your time more productively rather than trying to be productive by aimlessly doing more.


Show and tell your progress with your team

Scale the progress principle benefits of motivation and insight to entire teams by using processes to talk about what you got done and share your wins.

Team done lists, for example, are used by many successful companies, from Google to Foursquare to Buzzfeed, to create visibility into its employees’ progress and obstacles. In the Google system called Snippets, conceived in the company’s early days, employees get a weekly email asking what they did last week and what they plan to do in the next. Replies are collected in a public space and distributed the following day by email.

While most teams already use processes and tools to manage projects and get status updates, including collaboration apps and daily standup meetings, keeping a team done list provides a key boost by leveraging the progress principle in a way that doesn’t disrupt everyone’s schedule. Writing things down and reflecting on what has happened nudges you to take a step back and get some perspective, away from the pressure of worrying about what task and obstacle are next in line to tackle, and gets people thinking about feeding that positive feedback loop.

Raise the roof

Knowledge is power, especially in the workplace, and understanding what people are up to and how they’re doing helps your team feel connected and makes everyone’s job easier, paving the way to productive teams in tune with each other.

Ambitious people are ironically susceptible to missing their small wins, because they get so caught up in focusing on huge goals, incredible growth, and dazzling standards. When you wear many hats, have so much on your plate, and deal with often large, fuzzy problems, it’s hard to tell whether what you’re doing is moving you forward without taking pause to reflect.

Work is dispiriting when you feel like you’re just going in circles, chasing your tail. When you take a step back to document and reflect on what you get done, you can tap new heights of motivation, learning, and growth, and feel like you’re finally getting somewhere.

Janet Choi is the Marketing Manager at Customer.io, a data-driven email platform used to communicate better by keeping your messages human — even at scale. She writes about marketing, psychology, and how to communicate like a real person. Say hi : @lethargarian

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