Tips and Tricks for Being Productive Under Duress
August 25, 2014 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Okay, so you feel like absolute crapola for some reason. You have a deadline and need to work. What are your personal best practices?

I am actually pretty good at this already but, ugh, I need to up my game this week.

Thanks in advance.
posted by Michele in California to Work & Money (19 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Timed bursts of activity. Give yourself three hours to work, one hour nap. Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by xingcat at 12:17 PM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Vitamin up. Sleep. Good coffee. Music from Daft Punk.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:19 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Effort bursts - although I try to get to natural breaking points in the project instead of doing it by hours. I have to get to point X before I can stop. No changing the points halfway through (unless symptoms are severe enough to warrant breaking).

I also allow myself to not be perfectionist when I feel like poop. "I'm just going to get the frame work done, and then tomorrow when I feel better, I will do the word-smithing" since sounding intelligent is hard when you're sick.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 12:30 PM on August 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Outsource everything that's not work. Fuck ergonomics and work from laptop in bed, change positions to sit or stand as needed. Cancel meetings, work from home. Have a good supply of gatorade and protein bars for manufactured nutrition. Sleep a lot. Drink tea. Take breaks but make them count - light exercise or breathing exercises are better than Internet.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:35 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Once I have all my basic needs taken care of (I'm done acquiring food, water, and medicine to solve the problem) I purposefully don't let myself waste time thinking about how crappy I feel. If I see my thoughts drifting over there I try to shut it down and get back to whatever I'm working on. It took me a really long time to realize that this was even possible, but it made everything a lot easier.
posted by bleep at 12:42 PM on August 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I often try to break my project into "brain-dead" and "brain-required" categories. Days when I'm feeling crummy or otherwise uninspired are the days when I reformat my work cited, or whatever. The benefit is that the more of the brain-dead work you get done, the easier the brain required work can be. Unfortunately, breaking the project into the two categories is often a "brain required" activity.
posted by fermezporte at 1:05 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take a 20 minute nap and a 5 minute shower as often as needed to feel awake and refreshed. Drink a LOT of water. Break things down into the smallest tasks possible.
posted by yogalemon at 1:08 PM on August 25, 2014

Redbull. I dont known if it actually works.or it's a placebo but I'm a busy little bee for a few hours after one of those.
posted by fshgrl at 1:45 PM on August 25, 2014

I'm interested in what others have to say because I have a ton of trouble with this, too, but here's the stuff that I find helps:

-- Gather all your materials together before you start work, so you're not a mess and having to dig around for things midway through. If there's a set "assignment" either an actual assignment or a specific question you're trying to research or task you're trying to complete, then have that written out and placed where you can easily see it.

-- Break down the task into smaller bits, and write down those lists on a task-specific To Do list. For example, I have to write a memo about a certain specific topic -- so I need to finish reading XYZ, taking notes on ABC resources, write up an outline, write up the topic headings, draft the paragraphs, edit, writing the (framing) email that I'm attaching it to in order to send it in, etc. Because I'm terrible at time management, I also estimate how long each specific task will take me and write down that estimate next to the task. Sometimes those estimates are off, but they're more likely to be correct than my big ballpark estimate for the whole project (which is usually going to be wildly off, because of the poor-time-management thing). That's really helpful in terms of keeping track of how much time you actually need to realistically devote to the project and what you can realistically expect your pace to be. Plus, it makes the whole thing feel less daunting, since you're only focusing on one specific small "task" at a time instead of the entire project.

-- Go someplace where the only thing you have to do is work on THIS project. Not a place where other chores or duties are even possible. For me, this means going to an isolation desk at the library. If I have to work at my desk at home, I put up a big piece of folded cardboard (folded sort of like a presentation board) to create a makeshift isolation desk. But something that's surprisingly effective if you're really desperate is to go under the covers on the bed. I know that sounds weird, but it really does block out all distraction.

-- I also like to wear a hat or hood while I'm working really intensely. It's also good at blocking out noise. If I'm at home, I use the the hood on a hooded sweatshirt because those kinds of hoods are comfy and warm and big. But that would look too bizarre and creepy at the library or coffeeshop or wherever, so when I'm in those kinds of places I usually use a baseball cap or maybe beanie/ear-flap-hat (yes, I still look ridiculous, but at least I don't look menacing, like I would with a hood on!).

-- Make sure the temperature and lighting are OK for you. I run cold, so for me that means lots of warm drinks and sweaters and things, but some people who run hot might need the room to be a bit chilly or to wear really light clothing or drink things with ice. I also tend to go way too dim on the lighting if left to my own devices, so I might need to HORROR OF HORRORS just sit there in the library under the super bright florescent lights and maybe by a window, too, to make sure I can really see what I'm doing without struggling at all.

-- White/brown/pink noise, whatever works for you. I use "Concentration" by the Monroe Institute (LOVE THIS).

-- No internet access allowed. Or at least use Leech or something. Lots of projects require the internet, but probably you're just on the internet because you're shirking and not because you HAVE to be, even if you can halfway convince yourself different. Try to be real about that and avoid the internet if at all possible, and definitely any pages not related to your work. Don't even go on the internet and surf around on your breaks because then you will probably get lost in thought and take forever on your break.

-- Set a timer. I've been trying 20 minutes work/10 minutes break, but lots of people do this differently -- whatever time makes sense to you. Make sure you actually set a timer that will beep at you, though, so that you can't accidentally lose track of time and either exhaust yourself working too long or ruin your day shirking for too long.

-- Remember to sleep. You still have to go to bed at bedtime and you still have to get up at wakeup time, even though this might be a crisis. You also still have to keep up with the other essentials of taking care of your body, like eating regular meals and doing your usual exercise routine. I don't think this is a time to switch things up in terms of how you care for your body, for better or worse, because you're already under a lot of stress from your project.

-- If I'm really stuck and freaking out, I will go on a run or take a shower or both. If I'm starting to freak out but don't have time to step away from my project for more than a few minutes, some pushups or stretching or even just getting up and walking around or seeing the sun for a couple minutes works, too. Don't force yourself to sit there panicking, that's not good for you or for your work. But if you do find yourself panicking, after you take a breather (via run, going outside, whatever), make sure you go back and continue working a bit before you actually knock off for the day. If you give in to panic completely and end the day on that note, it's going to be incredibly difficult to pick things back up the next day.
posted by rue72 at 1:46 PM on August 25, 2014 [13 favorites]

No internet access allowed. Or at least use Leech or something. Lots of projects require the internet, but probably you're just on the internet because you're shirking and not because you HAVE to be,

Just an FYI: In my case in specific, I actually have to be online to work. I do freelance work and I do that work online and it requires me to do some research and some writing.

I also do other stuff, but I need to focus on my freelance work as much as possible for the next three days.

posted by Michele in California at 1:50 PM on August 25, 2014

I do freelance work and I do that work online and it requires me to do some research and some writing.

I used to freelance as a researcher (among other things), and I still found that I needed to block sites and to use the internet as little as possible to save from distraction. That meant doing a lot of organizational things longhand, editing things longhand, printing out resources if possible or at least saving them to PDF and then reading them offline, etc. That was the only way to keep my productivity up without exhausting my concentration. Basically any project nowadays is going to require at least some internet usage, but whatever you can do to cut down on how long you're on the internet, *do it.* Nowadays, I honestly try to keep the computer out of site completely if at all possible. The internet really is difficult because you can't minimize distractions too much while you're online, so I find that the only way to be productive is to treat it with extreme caution even though when it's a vital tool to my work. Obviously YMMV.
posted by rue72 at 1:58 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, without digging around in my personal circumstances too much, please kindly take my word for it that I do my work on a computer, online. And that isn't going to be altered any time soon (certainly not in the aforementioned "next three days").

Though I do things like, say, log out of metafilter or whatever when I really need to focus. I do try to do things like that to keep it focused on my actual work when I need to do so.

Thank you.
posted by Michele in California at 2:03 PM on August 25, 2014

LeechBlock and other blockers allow you to selectively block out particular sites that are timesucks for you, without restricting your access to sites you have to use for work, for particular periods of time that you can specify in advance.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:12 PM on August 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know this sounds overly simplistic, but I swear to god making sure I regularly drink water helps me enormously in situations like this. Also, changing up my work space as much as possible. So do one chunk with laptop while sitting on sofa. Next chunk, while standing at a particular table. Next chunk, at the desk with the desktop computer. Etc. Short chunks, lots of changing plages, lots of water.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:41 PM on August 25, 2014

-- I buy new stationery. Even cheap stuff, some new markers, a new composition notebook. Or I dig out pens and markers that I haven't used in a while. Suddenly I have the urge to plan.

-- I use said stationery to plan. I plan when I'm in a time crunch because in my experience a plan saves me a lot of time vs just diving in.

-- While planning, I never write down a task that will take longer than 2 minutes to complete. Every task is e.g. "walk to bookshelf and retrieve notes from Friday's meeting, 10 seconds". This way I build up "doing stuff" momentum very fast.

-- I turn on background-noise TV shows that I used to watch with my dad when I was a kid. I have watched The Rockford Files about 3x through and still don't remember what most episodes were about. The shows tend to relax me, make me feel a bit like I can give myself permission to chill while I work.

-- I discuss the situation with someone who is good at empathizing. I tell them what my needs are and express frustration.

-- I say a prayer and ask for specific things. Instead of "please help me get my work done," I'll say, "I need a lot of courage and patience right now, because I feel like crap. Please help me to find it somewhere." Then I think about where and how I might find some extra patience and courage.

-- At some point I try to call (never email if you want empathy) whoever it is I'm reporting to and ask a question, or ask them to walk through the assignment with me. I make sure I understand what they mean. Sometimes this discussion turns into "wouldn't it be cool if..." and I end up saying, "I can do that extra thing we just discussed, but I will need X more days" and usually it's OK. Just did that recently in fact, and the client gave me a week-long extension when I asked for a single day. I don't know if it's true in your case, but people are sometimes more flexible and less worried about what we're doing than we think.

Best of luck to you!
posted by circular at 3:44 PM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Outlines and Lists. Make sure it's all broken up into the smallest chunks. If the project is some sort of writing, the outline is the most crucial thing. Going to a coffee shop with the laptop can be a huge help if the ailment isn't too disabling - an indulgent mocha can go a long way, and the background noise helps me concentrate. Good luck.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:20 PM on August 25, 2014

I'm mostly here to listen, because I'm in a similar boat -- today, I am trying to write something scary to a deadline in the presence of panic symptoms. But I did want to offer that after failing to settle myself in various upright positions (in various places), and seeing efforts to calm down taking up too much of the day, switching to lying on the stomach just cut out some of the nausea and palpitations that were dogging me (maybe because of a marginal reduction in blood pressure? who knows). I have no idea if that's something that's bothering you now, but throwing it out just in case. (I see that crazycanuck's commented on this as well!)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:52 PM on August 25, 2014

Hide. I swear 90% of my productivity is lost by people knowing where to find me.

Following similar reasoning I go for a late lunch (i.e. around 2pm), as there are shorter waiting times if you're ordering food and fewer people to distract you if you are eating a common work space.

Also, be aware that there are certain times of the day when you're naturally more focused and productive (for me it's 8-10:30 but according to the American sleep apnea association the peak is at 10am, so maybe I should be going hard until 12).
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:35 AM on August 26, 2014

SPIKES THE BALL! Happy dance in end-zone!

Thank you MeFi. With your support, I done good.
posted by Michele in California at 9:46 AM on August 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

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