Getting work done in short periods of time
July 19, 2013 8:22 AM   Subscribe

I have a difficult time starting or working on something when I only have a short period of time. What tips do you have to overcome this?

I have a difficult time starting or working on something when I only have a short period of time, say an hour or less, to work on it. Normally when I start on something, I want to power through until completion, no matter how long that is. I also don't care to be interrupted while I am working. For instance, yesterday I could have spent an hour writing on a project and found myself wasting time because I knew I would never get it done that quickly.

This causes me to waste time and not be as productive as I could be. Plus, I am dealing with larger and larger projects. It isn't a matter of being lazy or wanting to waste time. The thought of starting and stopping bothers me for some reason.

Do you have any tips or tricks to help me overcome this?
posted by Silvertree to Work & Money (11 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I make lists and benchmarks. This makes it easier to check things off and to see progress towards something.

So make a checklist of all the things that need to be completed on a long project.

Then check them off.

Even if it's 'Write 1000 words' and it's on your check list 10 times. At least you can check one off and you can see the progress you're making.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:24 AM on July 19, 2013

Just get over it.

Seriously, I'm not just trying to be a dick. I was the same way.

What helped me was to stop thinking about the thing as one giant project. So "clean the house" becomes "clean the kitchen"+"clean the bathroom" etc. Even within that things get broken down. "Clean the kitchen" turns into "empty the dishwasher"+"wash sink washing stuff" etc.

Anther thing that helped was giving myself an arbitrary time limit. Commercials on TV, podcasts, anything with a definite end.

The last thing, and what put me over the top, was working in a restaurant. There the thing wa "get things done as fast as possible." At home I'll take an hour to clean the dishes that piled up and the sink and everything else that happens to be a mess. It doesn't matter how long I take. But when you've got some crazy person crawling up your ass about being faster you get that stuff done in 5 minutes. So TL;DR - Go faster and know that it's quality and not quantity that counts.

It's really surprising how much you can get done in a short period of time.
posted by theichibun at 8:35 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chunks, chunks, chunks. Chunk up the project into completable chunks and have at it.

Also, I take a tip from running...I can run for time or run for distance. If I'm running for time, I stop running when I've hit that time (that's easier on a treadmill or a short track than, say, through the streets of Boston). For distance, I tend not to look at the time, and just accomplish that. You could start disciplining yourself to work to time, since working for results seems to be something you've already developed.
posted by xingcat at 8:46 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Set a timer for 15 minutes and promise yourself you'll work for 15 minutes on it. And stick to it. By the time you've done 15 minutes, you're invested in the project and you keep going.

I use a similar method for exercising, which I hate: Just 15 minutes, I tell myself, but by that point I feel so good I just keep going!
posted by mochapickle at 9:20 AM on July 19, 2013

Have you ever heard of "overfocused ADHD"? You could look into it, and see if you have a mild version of it. I am not a doctor - I just read about this many years ago and found it interesting.
posted by icanbreathe at 9:53 AM on July 19, 2013

Reduce to an action you can do right now.

You seem to be hung up on "finishing," so choose a bite sized piece you can finish. For example, you can't write a book in one sitting so you have to reduce to manageable pieces, like -- I'll write that scene where the guy jumps off a cliff -- not the whole chapter or the whole book.

Finishing pieces is still finishing.

Develop the skill of breaking bigger projects into actionable pieces and finish them.
posted by gnossos at 10:26 AM on July 19, 2013

I think part of the issue here is that you need know how to break things down into smaller chunks. If your way of going about completing a task is just to power through it without interruptions, then you're probably not thinking about all the steps you need to accomplish something, you're just doing it.

I think you need to ask yourself exactly what the steps are that you need to take to finish a task. Write them down if you have to. If you're bad at estimating time, time yourself doing each step so you can better understand how long each step is going to take you.

Once your task is broken down into smaller chunks, you are not stopping and starting. You are completing a task (which happens to be a portion of the larger project) and moving on to something else.

Your previous question is kind of relevant here. Particularly this one--using even smaller amounts of time than you are asking about here to make lists about prioritizing larger tasks.
posted by inertia at 10:28 AM on July 19, 2013

I am the same way. The mental space to act is something you have to give yourself. If you have an hour to work on something, give yourself some time to quiet the head-buzz and figure out the next step. Then do it. 50 minutes in which you allow yourself to work is of course better than 60 minutes wasted.
posted by Jpfed at 10:35 AM on July 19, 2013

I like to give myself no choice BUT to do the Thing. If it's writing, for example, I turn on Freedom so that it cuts my internet connection. I keep all my games off the desktop so I have to actively go find them. When I catch myself going to actively find something to do besides The Thing, I redirect.

If the Thing is offline, then I'm only allowed to do non-fun things (weed the garden, clean my office, sort the recycling,) until I get off my duff and do The Thing. That way, even when I'm procrastinating, I'm accomplishing something useful. (And eventually, you will run out of random jobs to do and be like, well... I may as well do the Thing, I have nothing else non-fun to do!)
posted by headspace at 11:40 AM on July 19, 2013

I'm the same way. One thing that has helped has been to use a task manager that lets me tag items according to how much time or focus they'll need (I use Workflowy). For example, I have a #busywork tag that means "This thing doesn't require a huge investment of brain or time and can be done when I expect to be interrupted." So if I have a spare hour I hit those tasks, not the ones that require deep, sustained thinking.

For big projects, I do what others are suggesting -- break it down into chunks. Each chunk goes on the to-do list, like "Outline section 3" and "Write first draft of section 3." You might aim for writing tasks that each will take about an hour to do. That gives you the satisfaction of crossing things off a list.

Finally, I organize my day so that interrupty things happen all in one chunk. For example, I might schedule meetings and phone calls for Wednesday afternoon instead of letting them get sprinkled throughout a few days. That way I protect my focus time.
posted by ceiba at 12:39 PM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice above, but I don't see anyone else saying this:

Make lists of things that specifically require less than 60 minutes (ideally, lists of things that only take 15 or 20 minutes).

So if one of your projects involves writing, try to think of things that you know will only take 10-20 minutes. Like maybe:

write first draft paragraph about x
write draft paragraph transitioning from x to y
write draft paragraph about y
revise paragraph about x

Now, maybe you won't be able to get through all four of those in an hour, but you can probably complete at least items 1 and 2.

For me, this really helps with staying focused and maintaining a feeling of accomplishment. Focus on VERY SMALL, under-20-minute tasks.
posted by kristi at 3:45 PM on July 21, 2013

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