How to be Super-Productive in an Unproductive Environment

Asmita Karanje

5 real-life scenarios to help you strategize in any bad situation

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

We all have faced that one bad day at the office

That one bad day when you feel dissatisfied after a meeting or when you aren’t able to get through the entire agenda. The day when you enter the office only to find droopy faces across the floor. The day when you find yourself in those never-ending meetings when the discussion goes around in circles, and there isn’t a meaningful outcome.

Not the bad days because of a bad boss

This article is not about the other spectrum of bad days — a boss giving you a run for your money, not approving your holidays, those uncalled for long hours, unreasonable deadlines, hard conversations or a dreadful appraisal session.

By no means, I am undermining these issues. These are all quite important, as well. But as these issues are either personality-driven or behavioral, it requires a much deeper level of understanding of human psychology, organizational behaviour and workplace culture overall.

That’s not the point of this article.

In this article, I want to write about the Work itself.

Be it some content you create or a beautiful presentation you draft or the gazillion numbers that you crunch on excel — whatever be your field of art, a bad day is when the output doesn’t satisfy ‘YOU’.

Yes, ‘You’ and no one else.

It doesn’t matter what others think.

Ok, I would be lying if I say that. It matters (a little) what others think or how they perceive you. But what matters the most, is when you aren’t satisfied with your Work — when you realize that somewhere the blocks don’t fit, the numbers don’t add up, the story isn’t complete.

How do you deal with such bad days?

No one answer fits all situation.

But broadly, first, we need to understand what is within our sphere of control and what isn’t.

Depending on this, we need to analyze the factors that lead to a bad day (barring the behavioural aspects) and then troubleshoot the problems one step at a time.

To explain, here are a few examples and how to deal with those situations.

What’s within your sphere of control?

#Scenario 1

You are working on this significant initiative or a big delivery or a big milestone; you realize that you haven’t yet locked in the scope. Either because there isn’t much direction from the big bosses, there is a lack of clarity on ‘who’ should be driving ‘what’ and you realize saying ‘No’ isn’t an alternative. It’s a ‘do or die’ situation. Ask the below questions in such a situation. It doesn’t matter at what level you are operating in the organization. Unless you act like a leader, you won’t become one.

  1. Are the roles and responsibilities clear to everyone?
  2. Have we locked down the scope?
  3. Is everyone comfortable with the timelines and the expected outcome?

If you answered ‘No’ for any of those questions, that’s your cue. Most problems arise because this foundational step isn’t laid correctly.

Let’s start with the framework documents and a ‘RACI’. For those not familiar with office jargons — ‘RACI’ stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted or Informed.

Also, understand the fact that everyone has a backstory, and that may not be visible, but it plays on the agenda at hand. So if you know those backstories — what direction is the top management taking, what’s driving the consultants or what goals do the other inter-dependent teams have; that would help you understand the varied perspectives that exist.

This requires understanding the big picture of how organizations operate, the level of communication and management styles in general.

#Scenario 2

You realize the initiative is running way behind the timelines. The meetings aren’t productive. The leads are possibly making the wrong judgment call.

Ask the following questions

  1. Do you sense when the team is going in the wrong direction?
  2. Are you too afraid to speak your mind?
  3. Is everyone a ‘yes’ man of the most influential talker in the room?

Those are your opportunities to shine, right there. If you know your stuff too well and you disagree, respectfully raise your voice and share your opinion. It might not change a thing for that specific conversation or meeting.

But it sends a strong signal that not everyone is ready to be a ‘yes’ man and someone would be happy and proud that you raised a valid argument.

That would motivate others to speak up the next time, and even before you know it, you would have instigated a small change in the organization.

Remember the Butterfly effect. A very small change in initial conditions can create a significantly different outcome.

Stand your ground and be true to your principles. They would show you the direction when everyone else fails you.

#Scenario 3

You have to deliver this big presentation to your clients in 3 weeks. This is your primary goal, but being a subject matter expert, you are also involved in several other smaller initiatives. As you approach your big deadline, you realize you won’t be able to deliver unless burning some midnight oil and that disrupts your work-life balance.

Are you driving the agenda or being driven by someone else’s agenda?

  1. Do you often attend meetings scheduled by others?
  2. Do you often feel you have done a lot but not accomplished much?
  3. Do you think you check your emails way too often?

If you answered in positive to most of these questions, you are in the backseat rather than in the driver’s seat.

Take back some of that control — Resist the urge to respond to each email.

Cut down on the volume of email ping-pong if you can.

Just talk to the person, call them or find that information yourself — it’s somewhere out there. You don’t need 100 emails each day.

Similarly, resist the urge to accept all meetings on your calendar.

Prioritize your Work as part of your goals and only focus on the ones which would help you in adding value to the overall business goals.

#Try this simple exercise below

Think about all the successes you have experienced in the last year. List them down — all small and big ones, it doesn’t matter. Now try to find any of them that say you attended this ‘x’ meeting or sent that ‘y’ email.

I am sure those emails and meetings aren’t the top of your list.

It’s either the most acclaimed project you were part of or the things you learnt about the product, process or system over the years, that training you delivered or the initiative that people associate with your name.

It’s big wins that matter, not the day-to-day million tasks on your list. Be laser-focused on that one big piece of Work.

Own the game, or the game owns you.

What isn’t within your sphere of control?

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned there are numerous reasons which can lead to a bad day or an unproductive outcome really. Some are within your control, but there are several other situations which aren’t in your direct control. Especially when your circle of influence is smaller, you have little to no control over these factors. Don’t fret over things that you can’t change alone.

Let’s look at a few more examples

#Scenario 3

You have recently been hired as a ‘Data Analyst’ in this company which has a very traditional way of working. You have previously worked in relatively newer companies with state-of-the-art technology and change mindset. You recognize within the first few months this new company is way behind in its use of technology, has age-old systems and processes that haven’t been reviewed in a long time and has a primitive leadership style. What do you do?

  1. Do you find yourself in the rut where nothing is changing? Or no one wants to change?
  2. Has hiring slowed down?
  3. Or you hear of a layoff somewhere in another department?
  4. Or the management is quiet on some extreme media coverage?

These are all the signs that tell us the company is in troubled waters, but there isn’t much you can do about it.

Sail through and focus your energy on things outside of Work.

Once the storm has gone, and the dust settled; there will be a new beginning, preserve your energy for this time. And if you don’t believe in the growth strategy of the company, it’s time to look elsewhere.

#Example 5

Your organization recently underwent a big transformation. They have recently adopted Agile practices of working, and that has caused a lot of changes in how it operates. However, the organization is still reliant on their top brass of leadership who are still have a fixed mindset, and it is not going well for the company that wants to implement the new age practices such as Agile, Lean and others but still has old blood.

However, let’s not confuse old blood and old mindset with old age. Age is irrelevant. There are some senior leaders whom I have worked with who have been absolutely brilliant in how they strategize and lead their teams. They are visionaries in their space. They have succeeded because of their ability to adapt to change faster than others.

So, how do you know if you are stuck in a team or a company that doesn’t value change? Ask the below questions.

  1. Is there a lack of transparency within the organization?
  2. Are people at the top management withholding crucial information?
  3. Are people afraid to speak up?
  4. Is there a general environment of fear and lack of trust?

Those are your cues about how engaged the management is and the direction they are taking. Unfortunately, there isn’t a straight-forward answer to this.

The textbook answer would be to work your way through the problems and develop ways to be more transparent, to speak up and to get more coaching or mentoring to overcome any negative feelings.

But then who are we kidding?

These aren’t the issues that you can resolve on your own. These are very complex, strategic and organization-wide problems.

At the personal level, follow your instincts. That gut has probably picked up much more than the eyes have seen or the ears have heard. At first, look for opportunities to change this mindset within your organization. Drive those incremental changes. But when your many attempts to change fail, it’s time to look outside.

Everyone wants to channel their energy in the right direction.

In summary, when you have a bad day at the office, which isn’t caused because of behavioral issues, it is essential to unwind, relax and analyze what led to that feeling.

Once you understand the factors that led to the bad day, see what is within your sphere of influence.

For those that are well within your control, identify the factors that are causing stress and make incremental changes to how you would problem-solve, communicate and address those issues. Simultaneously do not ignore the big picture — anchor your Workaround those goals that you want to accomplish without being diverted by other million things thrown at your way.

For all the other factors beyond your pay grade, don’t stress much, simply follow your gut.

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Thinker, self-experimenter, and a newbie writer. I write about personal growth, socio-political issues, and career advice.

Dallas, TX

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