Feeling Overwhelmed? You Need an MVD—That’s Minimum Viable Day
I’m a product director at a corporate financial tech company. Which means I bloody love a TLA (three-letter acronym). Yes, I know the fact that I wrote an acronym about an acronym is lame. I am lame.
One concept that’s thrown around regularly is the MVP, or minimum viable product. The term originates from The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, who describes an MVP as “[the] version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
The whole point of an MVP is to get something very basic out there to prove the business model, test key hypotheses, and gather data so you can iterate your product development based on facts, rather than theory.
A good MVP is quick, simple to implement, and contains the minimum feature set to be usable and deliver some value to the customer.
It should not be lofty, effortful, and costly. Priority is on shipping over perfection: getting your product out there to start gaining traction and learning from reality, not just theory.
“So, what’s this got to do with me and my increasingly stressful work life, constant feeling of languishing, and impending burnout?” I hear you ask. Good question, my smart reader.
Well, what if you could apply the “minimum viable” concept to other things in life, not just product development in business? Like, your actual day?
Welcome to the concept of the minimum viable day.
The idea for this came about on a morning when I woke up and felt crushing anxiety. Come on, peeps, you know what I’m on about here. Tight chest, sense of impending doom, a million racing thoughts. An “oh god, I wish I didn’t have to work today” kind of day.
These kind of days can come out of nowhere, but they are usually linked to:
- A little bit of overwork here.
- A little bit of neglecting self-care over there.
- A pinch of pressure from colleagues.
- A smidge of the inner critic sprinkled on top.
It all adds up to the perfect recipe for a nice plate of anxiety stew, thank you very much.
My partner found me trying to hide from the world and gave me some great advice: “You just have to get through today. It doesn’t have to be the best day—it just has to be a day. Just do the minimum you need to do. Make it a minimum viable day.”
Yeah, that’s right, guys, I did not invent the minimum viable day. My boyfriend did. And now I stole it and wrote about it. (He doesn’t mind, I promise.)
Anyway, I took his advice, and guess what? It has been revolutionary.
So, how does it work?
How to have a great minimum viable day: The 5 Ps
When you’re feeling crappy, the last thing you want to do is follow some rules. Tough shit. You’re going to need my five steps below to have a great minimum viable day. (They also apply to building a great minimum viable product, but that’s for another day, when you’re feeling up to building stuff.)
1. Be clear about the purpose
Understand the purpose of having a minimum viable day, and keep this in mind at all times.
Here are some key qualities that make up the MVD:
- Delivers some value: Achieve some small things that count as a win. Gain some rest time.
- Lean: Do the absolute minimum. Prioritization is key (see below).
- Shipped: Do the day and get through it. Don’t give up.
- Insightful: Use it as a learning exercise. Be curious, even if you don’t feel like doing much else.
Before we go further, I have an important thing to say: If you are burned out or on your way to being so, you absolutely need to take proper time off and rest fully. It’s super-important that you do this, otherwise things can get very bad. (I know. I have been there.)
The MVD is not a replacement for proper time off. Rather, it’s a remedy for when you wake up feeling blah and a bit anxious and need a bit of an energy top-up to get you through the week.
If you’re still feeling up to sending a few emails and doing a few bits, but you don’t feel like you can cope with anything major, then you are the perfect candidate for a minimum viable day (or days, or week, or month — whatever you need).
If you’ve been stressed and run down for a week or more, crying a lot, exhausted, and feeling generally unwell, take some proper time off and speak to someone about how you’re feeling. You are more important than your work.
2. Prioritize (ruthlessly)
As in product management, you have to be ruthless at prioritizing your deliverables in the minimum viable day. The key to success here is using the MoSCoW principle, which stands for “Must Have, Should Have, Could Have, Won’t Have.”
I told you we like acronyms.
So, what does this mean in practice? Essentially, for your MVD, you want to focus only on the must-have actions/outputs that you absolutely must do to prevent chaos from breaking out.
Here are some suggestions for “must have” things to do on your MVD:
- Send your most important emails.
- Do that one big meeting that you absolutely cannot postpone.
- Bake in some self-care must-haves as well. I would advise walking, stretching, or eating a cake.
Here are your “won’t have/won’t do” items:
- Literally anything that can be done tomorrow instead.
- Beat self up.
You might define a few “should/could haves” that you should do only if 1) the must-haves get done, and 2) you have the time/energy to do them. But feel free to pop them in the Won’t Do column. Remember, be ruthless here.
3. Postpone anything that can be done tomorrow
As mentioned above, it’s important to be clear about what can be postponed to another day. For high performers like yourself, this might feel a bit uncomfortable. But remember, we’re on an MVD here.
- What can I do tomorrow/next week, when I gave regained my energy?
- Who do I need to be honest with about how I’m feeling today so they can help me move a few things off my plate?
- Who could stand in for me?
- What can be binned off altogether that I shouldn’t have been doing anyway? (This one’s a goodie.)
4. Measure performance based on your original objectives
Do not be tempted to measure your day based on different success measurements than the ones you set out:
- Did I do the day?
- Did I not kill anyone?
- Do I feel okay?
- Can I do tomorrow? (That is, did the product — you — not fully break and fall over so that we can iterate tomorrow?)
If the answers to all of the above are yes, congratulations, you’ve launched a successful MVD! Boom.
No self-hatred; no “I should have done xyz.” No one gets angry at the MVP for not doing everything. Its purpose is to exist. In MVD terms: We did it! We did a day!
5. Ponder: Reflect, be curious
In product management, the purpose of launching a minimum viable product is to learn from customer feedback and iterate on it in the next release. Once the product is launched and the feedback is in, product managers will analyze and brainstorm on what the data means for future development.
In your minimum viable day, it’s valuable to use the time to ponder—that is, to be curious and reflect:
- Maybe use some of the day to be reflective about why you’re feeling run down and how you can avoid anxiety days in the future.
- Maybe reflect on what’s going well and what you might want to achieve the rest of the week if you feel up to it.
- Maybe reflect on what you want to achieve longer term and which priorities you want to adhere to (the MoSCoW principle for life).
Journaling. Meditation (basically just put on a timer for 10 mins and close your eyes and breathe). These are your friends today.
My minimum viable days usually look like this:
- Work from bed (and do the minimum).
- Play classical music in the background.
- Get in some basic wins — emails, meetings scheduling/postponing.
- Stay off video — no one needs to see my soggy anxiety face.
- Do some journaling on what I achieved last week, why I’m feeling a bit crap, and what I can do to avoid this in future.
- Brainstorm ideas for the rest of the week.
- Have a hot bath at the end of the day.
- Eat a cake.
Benefits of having an MVD
- You will be rested.
- You will not burn out (and this is very important).
- You will get some great ideas.
- You are practicing self-care.
- You are seeing yourself as a living, breathing human being, not a machine.
- You are zooming out and getting distance from your negative emotions. (See my article on zooming out — sorry for the shameless plug.)
If you’ve read all of this and are thinking, “I can’t just take a day to dial down the pressure and do the minimum! My boss will find out and fire me!” Well, stop. You are not a machine. You are most likely performing exceptionally well 99% of the time, and sometimes we need to take a day to look after ourselves so we can go back to being on form later. This is normal.
Now go. Make yourself a cup of tea, get into bed with your laptop and send your most critical emails, then turn it off and grab your journal. Tomorrow will be a normal day, but today is your MVD.
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