Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Working effectively: no guilt, less stress, and more mental health days

I was just talking to a friend about procrastination. She's trying to figure out the reason for her procrastinatory tendencies, ironically delaying finishing overdue work in the process. I started telling her about all the things I learnt last year working on my thesis about guilt and procrastination and managing stress and accountability, and I realised, I learnt an awful lot. Most importantly, the major thing I learnt last year was how I work effectively. I keep forgetting, though, so I thought I should write them all together in the one place.

While not all of these things may apply to you, hopefully you can identify with some points.

1. Guilt makes me less productive
Let's say I had intended to finish writing something by Monday, but hadn't. So Tuesday comes and I try to motivate myself by emphasising that it was supposed to be done by now. Inevitably I end up doing less on Tuesday than any other day of the week. I think in part it's because I subconsciously look for ways to cheer myself up so I am enthused to get to work, and before you know it I've read half the internet and achieved nothing and it's already 5pm so should I work late or call the day a write-off (pun intended)? I try to remind myself to let go of the guilt but sometimes plain forget to.

2. Know when to go home
Some days, around mid afternoon, I'd hit the wall. The brain wasn't responsive and I'd been staring at the same paragraph for half an hour, whether reading or writing. To push on or go home? That was the question. The challenge is knowing whether you really have hit the wall, or whether you've just tied your shoe laces together. I have to admit to relying a little more on coffee and energy drinks than I should've to kick start the focus, but the thesis got done and I've kicked that habit. But important to that was knowing when my brain had genuinely reached saturation point, and taking the hint.

Similarly you have to take care of yourself physically. For me I have to be careful of migraines. The weird thing with my migraines is how often at the start I would not think to do those things which are proven to stop migraines (take analgesia, stop staring at a bright screen, drink lots). So it was important to know when my body had had enough, and to recognise that a migraine, or tiredness, or whatever, would be sooner dealt with by going home than staying and working, or even staying and slacking off. This is an obvious point, but it's sad how easily we forget to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired, or stretch when stiff and sore - and then we're surprised when we're not particularly productive. 

At other times I finished what I set out to achieve that day. Maybe I finished early, or maybe I finished later, but either way I'd be the tempted by the fact that if I kept working I'd be ahead tomorrow. Eventually I realised though that if I did keep working, the next day ended up disproportionately less productive: I'd sleep in, or just slack off, or both. So if you meet realistic targets, go home.

3. The sense of accomplishment lies
You know that inner warmth you get when you've achieved what you set out to achieve and made progress? It's a total illusion! Some days I spent only an hour working on the design for a slideshow, or in a flash figured out something I'd been struggling with, and the inner glow would light me up like fireworks. I'd feel like I deserved to call it a day, or at least take a break, maybe go buy myself something as a reward. Other days I worked long and hard, but didn't actually finish anything per se and there was no glow, no warmth, no sense of accomplishment. Even when I had measurable evidence of how much work I'd done, even if I did what I set out to do that day, even when I'd made progress, I didn't feel like I'd done enough. So don't trust the sense of accomplishment; find a different way to measure success, and then trust that instead.

4. Accountability and tomatoes 
And that brings me to tomatoes. If you haven't heard about pomodoro technique (25 mins work, 5 mins break) or shutupandwrite, there's heaps of information around. This was a big way for me to beat the procrastination. The accountability of working with or at the same time as other people, getting through the 10 minute "surely I deserve a break now" wall, and getting competitive when you hear others typing frantically was a huge help. It gives you another way to measure your accomplishment, and often 25 minutes solid work was more productive than 2 hours unstructured work. Some days the productive measurement is word count, but other times it's not helpful; timing how long you work can be. 

5. There are many ways to slack off
Just as it's possible to slack off from work, it's equally possible to slack off from relaxing. And if I wasn't counting reading the whole internet as work, then I equally couldn't count it as down time. Sometimes I needed to allocate a tomato to going and getting a coffee, or going for a walk in the botanic gardens, or reading a chapter of an entirely fictional and non-academic book. Work effectively - if you're gonna work, work. If you're gonna relax, do something that actually relaxes you!

6. Work ethics
I'd love to have a strong work ethic. I really doubt I do sometimes. But I realised: The reason I wasn't working wasn't because I didn't have a work ethic; I didn't have a work ethic because I wasn't working. A work ethic is something you develop over time, not a fortunate glitch in your personality profile. You earn it. So quit with the guilt (see point 1) and get to work. 

7.  Tears = mandatory mental health day
I had one absolute rule. If I ever got to the point where I was teary and stressed, it meant I had to take a mandatory mental health day. On MMH days I had three things to do:
  1. Clean something
  2. Exercise
  3. Do something as a treat (see a movie, go to a cafe, read a book)
Of course I was lucky to be able to take time off when I needed. And I usually only ever did two of the three things. But stress is poisonous - I've seen friends and family make themselves sick with stress. And so it's important to manage your stress, and give yourself permission to.

Seriously, take lunch breaks, take holidays, and if you're still in tears, take a mental health day. And at any point along this, talk to people - supervisors, colleagues, office mates, counsellors.

So that's what worked for me. I'm now adjusting these lessons to life after-thesis, particularly when working at home alone, and more often than not I forget lessons already learnt. You know, now that I read back over them, some seem really obvious. But I've seen all my friends forget the basics. I've seen myself forget the basics, like 'your brain doesn't work if you don't eat.' 

Some days you need to keep calm and carry on. Other days you just have to shut up and get to work.

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