Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Pull It Together and Push It Through: How to Get It Done When You Think You Can’t (Brain Boosting)

Pull It Together and Push It Through
How to Get It Done When You Think You Can’t

Do you ever have semi-complicated projects or tasks to do that you just can’t seem to wrap your mind around, especially when you are tired? How about these? 
  • pay bills, evaluate insurance options, do taxes
  • organize a storage area or your computer files
  • research health and nutrition issues
  • make menu plans so you can have a decent “real” dinner at least a few times a week instead of frozen pizza and fast food
  • shop for back-to-school items or Christmas
  • switch out seasonal clothing for several children and figure out how to store what you are using now and what you aren't
  • plan lessons, grade, and keep records for home schooling or classroom teaching
  • figure out a new computer program or app
  • write a blog post, a research paper, a freelance magazine article, or a book
  • help your child with an extended school project or college application
  • plan a party or outreach event
  • ship out orders for a home business
  • revamp your resume and looking for a new job
  • prepare notes for a public speech or presentation
  • write proposals, evaluations, or project plans at work
  • plan events and accommodations for a family vacation
  • work through personal therapy issues
  • make and prioritize long-term and short-term goals
  • think through an upcoming life-changing decision

Whatever it is, your brain can freeze up and you might think, “I just can’t do this. I don’t know how. I can’t focus. It’s too complicated. It’s confusing.”

This happens to me quite often. Honestly, that’s when I’m tempted to procrastinate, and sometimes I do. But then it just has to be done, and I don’t want to do a shoddy job. I want to get it done on time. I want to do it right. That’s when I need to “pull it together and push it through.”

The “pull it together” phase is setting myself up for success. It’s the foundation, the groundwork, the prep time. The “push it through” productive phase is actually getting the work done. Ready, set, go!

Pull It Together
  • Tell yourself it has to be done. Now. Remind yourself why it is important. What reward will come from getting it done? If there isn’t an intrinsic reward – which comes naturally – can you choose your own "carrot" reward to motivate yourself?
  • Figure out what success looks like for this project. Are there any deadlines or specifications? How will you know you have done it well? What will that look like? Take a few minutes to picture this and lock it into your mind. You might need to ask a supervisor, teacher, spouse, mentor, or other interested party for input. 
  • Remember that you should have SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed with the complexity, try to demystify the process. Sort out the tangles ahead of time. What questions need to be answered first? What decisions need to be made? Have you done anything like this before? What worked? What didn’t? Are you afraid of failure or criticism? Are you being a perfectionist? Write it down! Brainstorm!
  • Decide what steps you need to take to do it right. Write them down in logical order. This is called managing the critical path. You don’t want to bottleneck your project waiting for one thing that could have been done earlier. You also want to make sure the key things get done. (Remember the analogy of the “big rocks” going into the jar before the “little rocks”?) Maybe they won’t be chronologically first, because they are dependent on earlier steps, but make sure that first task path leads to the first priority whenever possible. All other things being equal, also try to alternate more simple steps with the harder ones. Or schedule the more difficult items for a time of day when you usually feel freshest. You can also try “backwards planning” where you start with the goal and trace back what needs to be done in order to get to each step.
  • If you don’t know how to do something, try looking it up on the web. You might find a tutorial or an instruction manual. Or check out a library book.
  • Contact others ASAP to get information or other things you need, like consulting with other family members on what needs to go in next month’s budget. Figure out which steps you can do even before they get back to you.
  • Ask for help actually doing the project, especially if you aren’t familiar with it. Be clear about what you need, so that you don’t end up going in different directions and getting frustrated with each other.
  • Clear your work area so you won’t be distracted and so you can have room to lay out the materials you need. If your desk area is too cluttered, take a basket bin and move off anything that you don't need right now. If you need extra space to lay out your supplies, set up a folding table.
  • Organize your information into notebooks, file folders, shelves, or an electronic device.
  • If you usually have trouble focusing on your screen or on the printed page, check into the need for eyeglasses for that particular distance. I wear progressive lenses with three focus strengths, so this is really easy for me. In earlier years, I just swapped out different pairs of non-prescription reading glasses for each task. Also make sure you have the right lighting for your job. You will tire more easily and you may miss important details if your eyes are strained.
  • Gather your supplies. What do you need? Make sure you have everything before you get started so you don’t have to stop in the middle to go find or buy what you are missing. Having a desk with fully stocked drawers (so everything I need is right there) has made a huge difference to me.
  • Make a ToDon’t list of distractions to avoid while you are working. If necessary, get your computer to block web sites that sidetrack you and/or set up a separate computer desktop that has only the programs and files you need.
  • Check what you’re wearing. It should be comfortable and suitable for your task. If you don’t feel productive, dress for success. There are certain things I like to do in my pajamas, but others that I should not, especially since I tend to work better if I've taken a shower. I’m not saying you should dress up in a suit every time you do paperwork, but try to be professional. 
  • Put on background music that is cheerful but not distracting, if it helps you. Classical or light jazz might be good choices.
  • Take care of your comfort needs. Drink some water. Eat a protein snack. Take a quick nap if you are about to crash and can’t think straight. Drink something with a moderate amount of caffeine. (I don’t like coffee, so I use Crystal Light drink packets with caffeine.) Go to the bathroom.  Put another cup or bottle of water in your work area where you can reach it easily.
  • Get up early and work while it’s quiet and your brain is fresh.
  • If you have recurring tasks, set up a regular procedure of how you do it. You don’t need to rethink it every time if it is still working. When I was classroom teaching, I had template documents for my lesson plans and for record keeping. No need to reinvent the wheel!
  • If you have multiple related recurring tasks, plan a regular routine. Before I go to bed, I have to lock three doors, turn off lights, make sure the kids are getting settled in, wipe & tidy the kitchen, brush my teeth, etc. When I see them as a set, I’m less likely to skip one. I can almost do these on auto-pilot.

Push It Through
  • As you start to work, decide how much you are going to do right now. Estimate and set aside how much time it will take. If you need more quiet concentration, lock the door and let others know not to bother you unless it’s really important. Then get going on it.
  • If you start losing focus or getting confused, stop yourself for a minute. Ask yourself a few questions to figure out what the problems are. Review what you have already accomplished. Did it go as planned? Do you need to redo part of it in order to continue well with the rest of it?  Reorient yourself to what you are doing now. Look at your list of steps, and then remind yourself of what you need to do next.
  • Don’t over think or make the job harder than it needs to be. The simple way is often the best way. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be worthwhile.
  • Motivate yourself when you are losing steam. You can do this. You must do this. Tell yourself that you are capable, confident, clever, imaginative, and logical. Psych yourself up! Knock the fear and doubt out of the way.
  • Take a short "power up" break when you need it. Breathe deeply. Get up and flex your stiff muscles. Drink more water. Close your eyes for a few minutes, especially if you are doing detail work or staring at a screen. If you are hot, crank up the air conditioning. If your work area is getting cluttered, take a few minutes to reorganize for the next step. Just don’t start a completely different activity or get stuck in diversions on your break. Focus on what will help you get back on task quickly.
  • Pace yourself. If the job turns out to be more than you can reasonably handle right now, break the tasks into steps and plan specific times to get them done, maybe a little this hour (or day), and a little more the next.
  • Keep going. Push on through until you have completed the goal you set for yourself. Remind yourself that if you quit before a logical stopping point, it’s going to be that much harder to figure out where you left off once you come back to it. Make sure your train of thought doesn’t lose its caboose.
  • Clean up after yourself if you don’t have a dedicated spot to work on this project. Even if you can leave things out, at least organize them so that you can pick up your work again easily.
  • If you aren’t completely done with the project, leave a note (paper or electronic) to remind yourself what you need to do next. If others are involved, communicate your progress and what still needs to be done.
  • If you are so tired or flustered that you can't determine whether you have done the job completely and accurately, don't finalize it yet. This is especially true for make-or-break communications or projects, which may or may not need an extra day to gel. Wait until you can come back to it with fresh eyes, a calm soul, and an energized brain. Then make your own second opinion or ask for feedback from a family member or colleague.
  • Evaluate your work. Review what you learned and completed. Decide what to do better. Feel a sense of accomplishment. Enjoy your reward! 

Becoming more productive and taking more responsibility for myself and my family are ways that I am growing up as a mom and as a human being.

How about you? What do you do pull it together and push it through?

This is the second post in my Brain Boosting series. You can find the first one here: Brain Boosting: The Physical Factors.

Other related posts on this blog:
Articles on the web that I used as idea resources: 

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