Maybe it’s a fire drill, or a plumbing disaster, or a customer service rabbit hole of hold music. In any case, something has seriously distracted you from what you really needed to accomplish today. It’s thrown you off, and you got nothing done. Now it’s 5 p.m., you’re way behind, and you’re already beginning to panic about the horrorscape that tomorrow’s shaping up to be.
First, step away from your computer. Better yet, get away from your office altogether. Then do this.
As time management expert Allyson Lewis tells Fast Company, it’s essential to find a quiet spot, away from the place where your workday went down in flames. Bring a pen and paper, and grab that egg timer or your smartphone.
“Then,” Lewis counsels, “set it to seven minutes.”
“People don’t have time to create this master plan,” she explains. The longer you spend trying to resurrect the previous day’s ambitions, the longer you’ll be locked in a state of agitation and regret. And that isn’t productive.
Before you can do anything else, Lewis says, you need to abandon all hope of a grand strategy for getting back on track. It just isn’t going to happen, so you need to set some parameters that force you to think more narrowly.
In those seven minutes, lay out up to five things you can accomplish the following day—within 2 seconds to 20 minutes each. According to Lewis, “that’s the attentional bandwidth” that most of us can devote to a given task continuously.
Chances are you’ll still spend a few of those seven minutes thinking up tasks that don’t quite meet that criteria—and that’s fine. Part of the exercise is boiling those down into these smaller, quickly achievable goals, which Lewis calls “micro-actions.”
“These things have to be very short, [and] they have to be completed by you—where you’re relying on no one else—within that 20-minute window,” she says. In addition, “they have to be high-value enough that you’re moving yourself toward a goal, [and] you have to have all the supplies to accomplish them” right away.
If you have to make phone calls, get approvals, or set up a meeting before you can start on a micro-action, it isn’t a micro-action—it’s a project, and it doesn’t make the cut.
“Getting this article done is a project,” she tells me. “Talking to me is a micro-action.”
The next morning, resist the urge to peer into the abyss of your untended inbox. Instead, dive right into your five-item list. The key advantage here, Lewis says, is that you’ve just about guaranteed yourself some form of actual progress on a day when it really matters.
If you follow it to a T, this “five before eleven” model makes sure you’ll get five tasks accomplished in 100 minutes, or by around 11 a.m. But, Lewis says, “Even if you just get one thing done after that terrible day, the brain secretes dopamine and epinephrine into your bloodstream.” And that’s arguably more important because it gives you the cognitive push you need in order to bounce back.
According to Lewis, it isn’t the experience of accomplishing something that creates that neurochemical boost. It’s the anticipation of doing so: “As soon as you mark off one [item], you not only experience that euphoria . . . you then now get a hit of dopamine anticipating the next thing you can tackle.” What just yesterday was backsliding is now momentum.
“So much of our time is scripted rather than our own,” Lewis says. “And then all of a sudden, when the script gets impaled and you’re in a boiling cauldron of activity and being scorched from everyplace,” she vividly continues, “that’s really hard.”
But over time, it can become less hard. Thanks to a property called “neuroplasticity,” our brains can adapt. Old neural pathways can fall out of use as we forge new ones.
Typically, when an emergency strikes, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. “We don’t just go, ‘Oh this is gonna be a little problem,’” Lewis says. Instead, “you’re being pumped through with cortisol and adrenaline, [and] it’s exhausting.” Over time, that stress response becomes an ingrained reaction: “Every day that you’re expecting it, those cognitive models are strengthening, and your brain can’t do anything but feel that.”
But by pulling ourselves aside at the end of the day and mapping out five micro-actions to complete the next morning, Lewis says, we can unlearn that exhausting reaction—or at least start learning a fresh one that makes better use of our parasympathetic nervous system, the more logical “cognitive model” we’re built with.
By rewarding our brains with a hit of pleasurable neurochemicals each time we accomplish a micro-action, the more likely we’ll be to make that seven-minute planning session a daily habit. Not only can that boost our productivity on ordinary days, but, according to Lewis, it can give us the recovery skills we so desperately need in order to salvage one that’s gone sideways.
Ironically enough, perhaps the best antidote to all the stress of getting nothing done is to get something done. “Energy,” Lewis adds, “is created and motivated by doing.”