We all hit walls. We all procrastinate. We all get distracted. It happens. During the COVID-19 pandemic, hitting the wall may feel different than before because so many other aspects of our lives have changed. Certainly, we all need to think about putting self-care before productivity. We also need to take adequate breaks to prevent burnout. There are times, though, when what we really need is to find a way to push through a bad moment, get a little motivational boost, and get the work done.
Here are five techniques to steer you back on track when you need a little help.
1. Eat the Frog
“Eat the frog” means do your most important task first and get it over with. The expression originally comes from Mark Twain. “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” The expression was popularized more recently in a book by training and consultancy CEO Brian Tracy.
How, exactly, do you eat the frog, though? If you’ve been procrastinating or hit a wall, how do you get up the motivation to do the tough thing that needs to get done?
The answer: You define it.
Have you ever had a great idea in your head, but when you tried to tell it to someone, it didn’t fit neatly into one or two sentences? Often when that happens, it means the idea wasn’t fully defined. The same is true for some tasks. We know what the end result needs to be, but we don’t always know the task or tasks we should do to get there. Defining it by writing it down helps tremendously.
So write down the frog you need to eat, and then eat it first thing in the morning.
2. Don’t Eat the Elephant
There’s another expression popular among productivity enthusiasts: Don’t try to eat the elephant. The idea here is that an elephant is too big to eat. It can’t be done. Similarly, some tasks are too big to tackle. You have to break them down into pieces that you can manage.
Some examples are obvious. If you have to create a presentation, for example, you can break it down into several steps, something like: 1) Define the purpose of the presentation. 2) Research the topic or gather the data. 3) Organize your ideas. 4) Create a draft of the presentation. 5) Ask colleagues for feedback on the draft. 6) Edit it for time, length or attention span, and so on.
By breaking down the task, it’s much easier to see where you should start and what you can get done in the next hour or the next day.
Sometimes it’s not obvious that a task needs to be broken into pieces. When it comes to tasks that you really hate, you might want to break them down into quite tiny pieces, just so that you can feel like you’re making some progress. The classic example for me is calling doctors to make appointments. I hate doing it and will procrastinate for weeks. Every day it’s on my to-do list, and every day I push it off. And then I remember how to break it down to make it work for me. The first task is “Look up the phone number of the doctor’s office.” I can do that! The next task is “Figure out what times I have free.” Finally, the last task is “Call the doctor” with the phone number listed right in the task. It works every time.
3. Start a Pomodoro Cycle
Do you know about the Pomodoro Technique? It’s a method of working developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, which he turned into a book, seminar series, and website.
The name comes from using a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro is Italian for tomato) to time yourself while you work for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes when the timer rings, you take a 3-5 minute break, which you also measure with the timer. Then you start a new 25-minute work cycle. While you work, you keep a pencil and piece of paper at your side, and if a thought interrupts you, you write it down and deal with it later. You repeat this cycle a few times and then take a longer break.
I tend to use the Pomodoro Technique when I hit a wall in the afternoon. That’s when I’m most likely to feel distracted. My mind is tempted to wander, and whatever I’m supposed to be doing, I just don’t feel like doing it. That’s a good time to ask, “Can you do it for 25 minutes?” 25 minutes is not “the rest of the day.” It’s not “until it’s done.” It’s a defined period with a break in sight. It’s a hump you can get over.
There are apps and browser extensions for following the Pomodoro Technique. I like Strict Workflow, which blocks distracting websites when you’re in a work cycle.
4. Time-Block Your Day
The Pomodoro Technique is great when you need a boost of motivation now. Time-blocking is helpful when you need a boost of motivation to last the whole day.
Time blocking means writing down when you will do certain tasks. It’s helpful when you have a full day of work in front of you or multiple tasks that you need to prioritize for today. You write down blocks of time, such as 9:15-10:30, 10:45-11:30, and so on, and fill in what you intend to do during that time. Be sure to leave breaks in between your blocks, especially when it’s time to switch from one task to another.
I like to block out my time in a digital calendar so that I get reminders before a new interval starts. Since the pandemic started, time blocking has helped me restart projects that had no deadline and therefore were the first to get cut out of my day. By dedicating a few blocks of time each day to work on them, I was able to make some progress.
5. Prioritize Your Week
So far, all the tactics for getting motivated have a near-immediate payoff. Prioritizing your week doesn’t, but it does help people focus and get more of the right work done in the long run. It helps when the wall you’ve hit is persistent and you need to step back to rethink what you’re doing and why.
Prioritizing your week—or month, or quarter—might involve thinking, reflecting, scribbling down ideas, writing lists, or drawing free association diagrams. It’s whatever you need to do to get clarity on what’s important and why.
Ashley Whillans is a professor at Harvard Business School. She’s involved in ongoing research in which employees are mandated to take two hours each week, uninterrupted, to think about what’s important and plan their time. As she explained in an episode of HBR’s Women at Work podcast, “we find that employees who take time every week to prioritize their own work and their life outside of work… self-report being 30 to 40 percent more focused on tasks at work, much happier, less stressed.”
Note that the employees reflected on what was important and how to prioritize it both at work and in their personal lives. Having a personal life, pursuing your interests, and being present with family or friends affects your ability to get work done because it contributes to overall happiness and combats burnout. By planning your week and thinking about what matters most, you can restore balance between your work and personal time, if it has been off.