For years, I had a system. Or at least I thought I did. I called it “my impenetrable wall.”
Sometime during college, I had figured out a way to get work done against a deadline, no matter what.
I could get anything done if I gave myself a weekend, or a couple days, to devote to it. 48 hours of unscheduled time. That’s what I figured out I needed. I never missed a deadline that way.
Sounds pretty good right? A fool-proof system? But it was not without its drawbacks. In fact, it was mostly nothing but drawbacks.
Did those 48 hours consist of neatly collated schedules, work sprints with pomodoro timers, and adequate rest periods built in? Of course not. Those 48 hours consisted of some-30-odd hours of white knuckled procrastination. Watching endless YouTube videos but not even really watching them. Certainly not enjoying them. Eating endless junk food, and buying coffee after coffee, sitting up, stuck inside a room.
Staying up all night. Getting to the point where the exhaustion would feel physically painful. And then, in that moment of desperation, with the clock ticking and the deadline looming, with lack of other options, I would find “the focus zone.” And work would happen. From the hours of 4am to 6:58am, two minutes before deadline.
The first time that happened, it was a nightmare. But it happened again two weeks later. And over time, I began to tell myself subconsciously that I needed to go to that place, and go through that whole process, to find that headspace where I could get real work done quickly. So I did it again and again.
A deadline would hit, and I’d say “give me that weekend and you got it.”
“It’ll be in your hands Monday morning,” I would say. And that would be 100% true. I never missed a deadline that way.
And I was able to rattle that promise off with some real confidence. But what they didn’t know is what I was setting myself up for: a weekend consisting of anywhere from 1 to 3 all nighters, if I needed them (and I always did). A few days where I would say no to every social plan, telling everyone I was working (and getting to play the role of “oh he’s so impressive what a workaholic I bet he makes six figures”). And a time where, in reality, I was actively hurting myself – eating poorly, robbing myself of sleep, and – most importantly – turning in lower quality work.
It was not healthy, or cost-effective, or time-effective, or sustainable, but that didn’t matter.
This is a cycle that leads to nowhere. There is no growth here. There is only plodding the depths, circling the drain. Stuck in the “technically, he delivered on time” zone.
So: don’t be like me. I’m sure no one reading this has developed such an aggressively stupid way of going about their important work. But everyone does have their own system, their own pattern of habits, that develops over time. And maybe there are some bad habits in yours.
Maybe it’s drinking way too much coffee, to the point where you blow past “productive focus” and land in the “jittery and agitated” zone. Maybe it’s as simple as the original sin that fells us all: putting things off to the last minute and having to scramble.
We all have a remarkable capacity to make things like that work. To still, against odds, turn the work in on time. But we have to be careful not to learn the wrong lesson from that “success.” It’s not the only way to do it. It’s one way to do it. And it very well may be the worst way.
So let’s go hunting for the best way. I’ve set about trying to recode my systems of work, and what I believe is necessary for me to work healthily and effectively. Maybe you could use the same kind of reflection.
Open yourself up to the possibilities
I’m writing this to you now from a place of self-understanding. I now know what I was doing then wasn’t healthy or efficient. But I didn’t know it back then. I might have realized it pretty early on had I made the effort to self-examine. But that’s easier said than done, and especially in hindsight.
What it took for me to realize was the system finally failing. I bought a pizza, and three shots of espresso over ice. I stayed up all night. And I didn’t get the work done. The method broke. My impenetrable wall crumbled.
Now, standing in the rubble, I began to look around at the candy wrappers and Starbucks cups and crumbled up pieces of paper, and I felt ashamed. As I sat blinking in my 26th straight waking hour, my well-adjusted friends of mine were waking up with morning coffee. How nice that must be, I thought. The all-nighter had lost its college charm. And more than anything, I felt ashamed at the quality of the work I had made. I knew I was better than that.
So, whatever it takes for you, the first step is getting to that place where you’re ready to change things up. Wake up calls are hard.
Try something new
There are plenty of productivity systems and approaches and mindsets out there, all over the internet. They all their pros and cons. They all fit different peoples’ brains in different ways.
I can’t prescribe a fits-all solution to you. Every situation is different, and every starting place and set of issues is varied as well. So you’ll have to do some digging around resources like the RescueTime blog and productivity YouTube and all our favorite spaces to find what most fits what you most need.
But – some nice places to start:
- Wake up early instead of staying up late – that pressurized quiet focus that finally comes around at 3 and 4am, where there aren’t as many outside distractions? It can also happen at 5 and 6 and 7am. And this way, your day isn’t blown apart by the consequences of an insane sleep schedule. To pull it off healthily you might have to go to bed an hour or two earlier, but it’s better than sleeping off and all-nighter until 2 in the afternoon, or living like a zombie due to the insane sleep dept. Just wake up to a crisp early morning, get some work done with intention, and feel your life declutter.
- Intentionally set boundaries for yourself – in the amount of work you take on, the amount of time you spend working without a break, and what work events you allow to “take over your life” versus not. Working for 10 hours straight isn’t impressive, or even effective. Getting an insane amount done in 10 hours is the impressive part. So over-design a plan to help you get there. And that includes stopping before you hurt yourself.
- Go in with a plan – this one might sound simple, but I can’t count the number of times I sat down in front of a blinking cursor or a blank notebook and expected the magic to happen – if from no other source than brute force. Yes, it works a frustratingly non-zero amount of the time, but again, it’s not sustainable. Give yourself an attack plan, execute it, feel how easy it was, and then refine that process. Much better.
See what happens
Now, after executing on some of those changes for a beat, note how you feel.
Are you sleeping more? Is the stress of a looming deadline not lording over your life and happiness as much?
Remember – your initial answers to these questions don’t have to be positive. You could have just made a good faith change that in fact was not a good match for you. But that’s not a bad thing – it’s valuable information. Now you can readjust and try again, as many times as you need.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “this is all well and good, but unlike this sociopath, my relationship with deadlines isn’t actively destructive,” congratulations! You’re further ahead in the race than a lot of us. But there might still be improvements to be made. I just invite you to consider the possibilities that there are changes that can be made, whether they’re refinements or overhauls, to your system.
There are beautiful developments on the other end of that closed door of “this is fine already.” Especially, like in my case, if the previous system was on its way to doing actual damage to your health or wellbeing.
So, good luck on your journey, if you choose to accept it. We’re never really done perfecting ourselves, right?