Workday interventions: 10 experts give their best advice for making better choices with your time

We all go through periods of feeling lost, confused, and overwhelmed at work. And who wouldn’t want an expert or trusted friend to pop in at that very moment and right the course?

Unfortunately, few of us get that kind of personalized attention. Instead, we continue to make many of the same mistakes over and over. But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

This got us thinking about a specific question: What would the experts tell you if they were able to jump in and intervene when you were right at the crossroads between productivity and burnout?

We reached out to 10+ of the most well-known time management, habit, and productivity experts to find out. So, if you’re facing your own crisis, consider this your personal productivity intervention.

Productivity interventions from the experts

  1. James Clear: Always give yourself a margin of safety
  2. Srinivas Rao & Catherine Price: Consider the opportunity cost
  3. Laura Vanderkam: Spend your time like you spend your money
  4. Darius Foroux: Return to your priorities
  5. Scott H. Young: Stop focusing on putting out small fires
  6. Pete Dunlap: Step away even when you think you don’t have the time
  7. Georgie Powell: Use the power of observation and look for real-world examples
  8. Robby Macdonell: Take advantage of tools to support your mental focus and clarity
  9. Julie Morgenstern: Give yourself an “overflow” day
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Always give yourself a margin of safety

Interventions - Margin of safety

While we all need to take certain risks to do our best work, too much risk can be both paralyzing and push us towards making decisions that aren’t in our best interests. So how do you find that sweet spot between playing it safe and pushing yourself?

As New York Times best-selling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, explains, it’s important that you have a margin of safety to make sure you’re still making sound decisions, even when the stakes are high:

“Failure and experimentation are part of life. They can be great learning experiences… but only if you survive them. Maintaining a margin of safety ensures that your failures don’t kill you.

“As a result, you should avoid risks that have limited upside, but unlimited downside (read: death). Example: texting while driving, taking on a debt that could bankrupt you, rock climbing without a harness, etc. Keep living and you can keep learning.”

How to make better choices by thinking about the consequences

When it comes to moments of uncertainty, consider the true downsides. Are you facing a life-threatening moment? What would actually happen if this project failed or you made the wrong choice?

While there are certainly moments when you need to be careful with your choices, much of the workday stress we encounter comes from exaggerating just how much is at stake and forgetting that we need to learn from our mistakes.  

Consider the opportunity cost. Every “yes” is a no to something else.

One of the hardest words to say in the workplace is “no.” We’ve placed a discounted price on availability. And our attention and focus pay the price.

But time is your most valuable resource. And we need to remember that every time we take on a new task we’re saying no to everything else we could be doing. Economists call this the “opportunity cost”—the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

As Unmistakable Creative founder, Srinivas Rao explains:

“When it comes to any decision, it’s important to consider opportunity costs. For example, the opportunity costs of peeking at Facebook when you want to accomplish something like writing a book is that you lose time to spend on your book. Or the opportunity costs of looking at your phone is often the time you have with the people who matter most to you. There’s no decision in your life without opportunity costs.

How to consider what you’re giving up by saying yes

When you’re feeling stuck or lost, take a second to step back and think about the true costs of saying yes. But be careful as it won’t always be obvious what you’re giving up.

As Catherine Price, author of How to break up with your phone, explains, we need to listen to the clues our bodies give us:

“By saying yes to this, what will I have to say no to? (That can be in reference to opportunities I’m already aware of, or opportunities that I don’t even know exist.)”

“I’ve personally also been trying to get better at monitoring my body’s response to my decisions. If I feel any sort of contraction or sense of dread when I imagine saying ‘yes,’ then I know that I should say no, even if my brain is making convincing arguments about why I should override my instincts.

Spend your time like you spend your money

Spend time like money

One of the worst mistakes we can all make is trying to make a decision without enough information (or the right information). You wouldn’t buy a house without understanding your budget. Yet how many people cram more and more into their workday without understanding how much time they actually have?

One of the hardest words to say in the workplace is “no.” We’ve placed a discounted price on availability. And our attention and focus pay the price. Click To Tweet

Psychologists call this the planning fallacy—our tendency to be over-optimistic about what we can do in a day/week/month/year.

But, as time management expert Laura Vanderkam explains, to make better decisions about how to spend your time, you need to know where your time actually goes.

“The first step to spending time better is figuring out where it’s going now. Not where we think it’s going, but where it’s actually going, hour by hour. I always have people track their time for a week, so I can get a complete picture of their lives.”

How to understand where your time is actually going

Not only will this give you an accurate picture of how you spend your time, but it can also help break out of the negative feeling of “never doing enough.” We live in a society obsessed with productivity and few of us take the time to celebrate how much we actually do.

As Laura explains:

“Most people are pleasantly surprised by how much good stuff is going on—stuff that’s easy to miss when we keep telling ourselves how busy we are. There are also usually some painful realizations (‘I spend how much time hitting snooze??’) but the truth sets us free. When you see what’s not working, you can take small steps to change it. It doesn’t have to feel overwhelming.

RescueTime tells you exactly how you spend your time on your computer and phone so you can build better habits and stay focused. Try it for free

When you’re feeling lost, return to your priorities

There’s no denying that the modern world is chaotic. With email, calls, texts, social media, news, entertainment, and all the other things vying for your attention at once, it can be hard to focus on the bigger picture.

But, as productivity expert Darius Foroux explains, it’s at these precise moments where it’s important to get clear on your priorities.

“When I’m confused and overwhelmed, I have no clue what I’m doing. In those moments, it’s important to get clear on your priorities. What matters to you? What are you trying to achieve? Are there things you should stop doing? What about ones you should start doing?

I ask myself those questions and journal about it. The result is always clarity. When you have a sense of purpose, you don’t feel lost. You probably won’t find the answers in one journaling session. That’s why I recommend reflecting on those questions every day until you have clarity. Then, keep up the journaling to STAY focused.”

How to break down your true priorities

Journaling is a powerful way to get clear on your priorities, but there are also many other ways to force yourself to separate the urgent from the important and decide what deserves your time and attention.

You can try building a master list, using the Eisenhower Matrix, or even Brian Tracy’s ABCDE method.

Whichever method you choose, the important part is to clear about what matters to you. Once you know your priorities and long-term goals, you can make sure that the decisions you make today help get you closer to them.

Stop focusing on putting out small fires and give yourself clear steps

putting out small fires

While it’s important to have your larger priorities clear, it’s also important to be able to work them into your daily schedule and routine. Too often, we start our days with big plans and then end up running around putting out fires.

Too often, we start our days with big plans and then end up running around putting out fires. Click To Tweet

While this is inevitable at times, the problem is there’s no one right answer on how to take the long view. Context matters. And instead of trying to find that one “hack” that will save us, we need to approach our work in a different fashion.

As blogger and efficiency expert, Scott H. Young says:

“Being lost/confused/overwhelmed has more to do with a failure to plan at a higher level. If you’re constantly putting out fires, it can feel overwhelming or undirected.

“The best solution is something like goal-setting. I usually aim at projects rather than ‘goals’, since the way people typically think of the latter is simply setting some ambitious target and just hoping it will get realized somehow. A project, in contrast, is more action-oriented, and looks at how you need to break down your efforts into monthly, weekly and daily increments in order to make progress.”

How to stop focusing on goals and start planning for projects

As we wrote in our Guide to Effective Goal-Setting, goals are great for giving our lives purpose and focus. But they fail when we don’t define the specific, actionable steps we need to take to hit them.

As Scott explains, when you’re feeling overwhelmed and facing indecision, it’s important to think about what needs to happen next. What’s the smallest next step you can take to get closer to your ultimate goal?

Seeing progress like this is also one of the best ways to boost your mood and give you motivation. By breaking down your goals and decisions into small next steps, you reduce the pressure and get to see the progress you make.

Hard decisions need space. Step away even when you don’t think you have the time.

Of course, feeling overwhelmed and confused can also come down to simply not having the space to make better decisions. When you’re just trying to cram more into your day without taking proper breaks, you’re not listening to what your body and mind are asking for.

As Digital Detangler, Pete Dunlap, explains, the most productive people find their rhythm and work with it:

If you are hoping to build a career around your passion it has to be sustainable. Working long hours may sound impressive over beers but you’re likely so caught up in minutia that you miss out on big moves you need to make that only reflection would have revealed.”

How to be OK with your “non-productive” time

Being productivity obsessed works. Until it doesn’t. Yet it’s hard for many of us to understand when we’ve crossed that line. But by taking a step back and thinking holistically about how you choose to spend your time, you’ll end being able to do more with the time you do have to focus.

As Pete explains:

One of the most unfortunate misconceptions is that productivity comes from maximizing time spent working.

“If you don’t like the idea of doing nothing during breaks from work, use the time on other time-consuming but important parts of life: preparing healthy food, eating with friends, taking a walk without your phone, reaching out to loved ones, cleaning up, reading, rearranging, tinkering.”

“By working rhythmically you can build a productive, fulfilling life without missing out because you were in the office at 8 pm.”

Use the power of observation and look for examples from the real-world

Power of observation

Have you ever found yourself giving someone insightful and powerful advice and thought “I would never do this”? It’s easy to tell people what to do to make better choices. But much harder when you’re in the hot seat.

In these situations, it can be powerful to look for real-world examples of how things have played out for others. This moves the results of your choices out of the imaginary and into reality.

As Georgie Powell, CEO of digital wellness app SPACE, explains:

“Observation is the most powerful tool for changing habits. I have spent a lot of time watching other people (friends, family but also strangers) and how they interact with their devices. When I see how distracted they can become from the rest of life, how their memories are affected or their stress levels, it helps to remind me that if left unchecked my phone habits will have the same effect on me.”

How to become aware of your bad habits (and build better ones)

Taking time to understand your own habits can be a powerful way to uncover little changes that can have a profound impact on your productivity. For Georgie, her smartphone usage is one of the biggest examples of how this can help:

“I have made the conscious choice to only check my phone for messages or emails when I know that I have sufficient time and headspace to respond to whatever is potentially waiting for me.”

Think about the other habits that shape your day and add to your stress. Whether that’s checking email every 6 minutes or spending 40% of your day multitasking, there are certainly ways you can adjust your routines to give you more space and focus.

Take advantage of tools to support your mental focus and clarity

Speaking of devices, your smartphone and computer don’t have to be sources of distraction, stress, and overwhelm in your day. If you use them right. However, with the rise of communication and collaboration tools, it’s become harder and harder to take control over what you let into your life.

As RescueTime CEO, Robby Macdonell, explains:

“Most people underestimate just how much their devices can dictate how they spend their time. They start the day with a plan, but 75 notifications later the day is over and they’ve been pulled in so many directions they haven’t gotten to do what they wanted.”

How your most distracting devices can help you find focus

Instead of living your life always being reactive, it’s important to give yourself space and time to be proactive. As Robby explains:

“There are all sorts of strategies to deal with this, but there’s one really quick band-aid–get good at turning on your phone and computer’s do-not-disturb feature. Once you get into the habit of it, it’s an easy way to get temporary relief so you can be deliberate about your time without interruption.”

As we wrote in our Guide to Digital Minimalism, it’s often hard to separate the good parts of technology from the bad ones. But learning and using features like your device’s DND mode is a quick and dirty way to reduce the noise and give you more space to focus.

Give yourself an “overflow” day

Interventions - overflow

Regardless of how well you are at prioritizing your to-do list and setting up your daily schedule, there are bound to be tasks that keep rolling over day after day. We all have things we don’t want to do during the workday. But when we leave these tasks on the backburner for too long they become overwhelming.

That’s why author and speaker Julie Morgenstern suggests giving yourself an “overflow” day or block of time to tackle them each week:

“Instead of doing a little bit of these tasks you hate every day just say Friday morning is my overflow block for anything small that didn’t get done during the week. That way, you’re not harassing yourself every single day and feeling bad that you didn’t get your expense account filed or didn’t send that email.”

How to commit to clearing up your lingering tasks

Even with an overflow block set aside, it’s not always easy to commit to working through these tasks. Instead of fighting it each week, you need to turn this practice into a habit.

Start with the smallest steps possible. Schedule a 10 or 15-minute overflow session once a week and work through some of the small tasks that you’ve been putting off. As James Clear explains, “once you start doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it.” 

If you need help coming up with a list of small tasks to tackle during your overflow session, check out our Guide to the 2-minute rule.

Use these interventions when you’re facing a moment of indecision

In the clinical world, an intervention is usually a last-ditch attempt to help someone steer away from a dangerous life choice. And while the stakes certainly aren’t as high when you’re talking about how you spend your time, it’s still important to give these moments the respect and consideration they deserve.

The next time you’re hitting a wall, faced with a hard decision, or feeling overwhelmed, take a second and listen to what the experts have to say. Their experience might just be enough to steer you back onto the right path.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.