Author: Kate Matsudaira Source: Acmqueue
Have you ever come into work, sat down at your computer to begin a project, opened your editor, and then just stared at the screen? This happens to me all the time, so I understand your struggle.
Even if you love your job, you don’t always feel like doing it every day. There are so many factors that influence your ability to show up to work with enthusiasm and then work hard all day long.
External events can take priority in your mind—family struggles, a breakup, a sick pet—and make it hard to focus. Then, of course, there are the struggles at work that can make it hard to feel motivated. Getting a bad review can knock you off course. Likewise, if you work really hard on a project and your manager doesn’t seem to value it at all, you might wonder why you are working so hard.
Other times you have to work on tasks you don’t enjoy (for me that is writing lots of tests, or documentation) or projects that aren’t challenging. If your work is uninteresting or if a task you’ve been assigned seems beneath your ability, finding your motivation can be hard.
So, what do you do? Many people turn to procrastination or ignoring the task—but that only postpones the inevitable. You can try to talk your way out of the assignment, and maybe your manager will support you, but at some point the work needs to get done.
If you want to be successful, then it serves you better to rise to the occasion no matter what. That means learning how to push through challenges and deliver valuable results.
Since this happens to me quite often, I have captured five of my best strategies for turning out amazing work even when I don’t feel like it.
Gamify your process
Dealing with a really big project used to hold me back. If the project had lots of tasks I didn’t know how to do or that seemed really difficult, I resisted even starting because I was so overwhelmed by the scope.
Of course, this meant I procrastinated until only the minimum amount of time remained to complete the project. Then I would end up working crazy long hours, and sometimes I ended up with code that “worked” but was in no way ready for prime time (e.g., a few bugs, not enough coverage of edge cases, minimal testing, working only in my dev environment because I couldn’t make it work on staging, etc.). This was super stressful and usually meant my work wasn’t as good as it could have been if I had only started earlier.
This was one of the biggest obstacles early in my career: I had a hard time getting started.
I discovered that if I made the process of getting started easier, those first few steps on a daunting project became more tenable. Once I took a few steps, it was so much easier to keep going.
My solution was to approach a project by turning it into as many tiny steps as possible. That way I could get a few really easy wins under my belt. For example, each step would be a task such as “Search for ______ on Google” or “Have a conversation with ______.” Crossing things off your to-do list gives your brain a happy little dopamine hit, even if the tasks are tiny—it keeps your motivation up and your excuses down.
Try breaking your next project into the smallest increments you possibly can. Each step should be really small (I try for tasks that take 15 minutes or less) and really easy to accomplish, so that you can get a win!
You have to overcome inertia. Little wins add up and make it easier to do that.
Reserve calendar time for every project
Set aside time on your calendar specifically for working on a task you’re having trouble starting. Treat it as seriously as you would any other appointment. You must show up and you must work on that project.
Reserve an amount of time that is realistic for making progress—at least 30 minutes to an hour. This strategy is key for busy people or managers. If you don’t schedule the time to do meaningful strategic work, your time will fill up with tactical tasks.
And what if you don’t feel like working on the task at the appointed time? Set a timer when you’re starting work. Set it for 10 minutes and tell yourself you have to work only until the timer goes off.
Start working on the list of tiny steps you have created for yourself: google something; set up your project; send one email; review one document.
Almost always, taking one or two of these tiny steps will get your brain working, and it will be easier to keep going. You’ll do one task, cross it off the list, and then do another. Your timer for 10 minutes will go off, and you’ll just keep going because now you’re engaged with the project.
If you’re really not engaged with it after 10 minutes (though this rarely happens to me), then let yourself take a break. But block off another chunk of time on your calendar to come back to it soon.