Jul 172011
 

Some of us have to work a good 16 hours a day, or more. Some split this time between school and job, multiple jobs, job and hobby project or spend it on their one-and-only job or startup. After a while, waking up becomes a struggle. Disoriented, exhausted and sleep deprived. We work hard because we care. Because we want to make the best of our projects, be it personal, academic or professional. Here are some of things that I found improve this situation significantly when working on major projects for long periods. This isn’t be-all, end-all advice – there is no such thing. They are just good guidelines. I know, they are so simple and sound so obvious.

Disclaimer: I didn’t include exercise and other healthy activities. This isn’t medical or lifestyle advice. It’s just good notes to make the best of a major and important project. If this doesn’t work for you, don’t blame me.

Sleep

This is the single most important factor that can make or break. Get a good night sleep. It’s false economy to pull all-nighter and wake up late. Reverse it; sleep when you feel sleepy and wake up early. If you find it very hard to wake up and/or work, get as much done before sleep, but don’t overdo it. Try to improve your morning performance and shift your work hours towards the morning. Sure, sometimes we need to send some mail or prepare for a demo. Working for extended hours in those cases is probably fine, but make sure you make up for them soon. If possible, finish the absolute minimum before sleep and get the rest done in the morning. When we disrupt our sleep patterns by pulling all-nighters, it’s harder to make up for them.

The trick to good sleep is first and foremost to get in bed in time. Your body will give you the right cues, just pay attention. If you feel sleepy, go to bed, don’t wait 15 minutes to finish something. Be ready for it. Anticipate when your body will be ready to sleep, make sure you’ll be ready by then. Don’t do last-minute things like washing teeth, sending mails, setting up wake up alarms etc. right before stepping in bed. Get these done beforehand. If you miss that perfect time, your body will find it harder to get into deep sleep, which is the most regenerative type.

A sleepy mind with all the right answers will probably perform worse than an alert and fresh one with half the answers. Work hard only when you can afford being sleepy and slow. Never overwork before a big days like exams, interview, client meeting, project planning etc. Finish all the work at least 2 nights before the big day and make sure you get baby-sleep during the last couple of nights. Remember that our long-term memory needs deep sleep to accumulate new information. Last-night study will not only leave you sluggish and out of your zone during exam, but you won’t remember most of what you study a few hours later.

Exceptions are pretty much the norm. Plan for the long-term, not for every situation. Try to get an average of 7 hours of sleep per night during an average week. Figure out your natural average for yourself, it may be different. Sleeping also boosts our immune system.

Corollary

Alternatively, if you can’t fall asleep, don’t try hard. Either get some work done until you’re sleepy (at which point leave everything and go to bed,) or read a book in bed until you sleep (but don’t sleep with your glasses and lights on.) Don’t spend a couple of hours tossing and turning in bed, instead use that time to get something done. If your eyes are tired, try listening an audiobook or some music.

Eat

Nutrition comes next. When trying to meet a deadline we might skip a meal or two, get junk food or just go on coffee or coke. If you can plan your day, and you know it’s going to be a long one, make sure you make room for a good full-meal. If you can go out for lunch break, do so. You’ll be able to get a decent meal and give yourself a break. This will give you both physical energy and have a recreational effect. You’ll get back refreshed. Avoid going on bad diet for long periods of time. Minimize coffee if possible. Drink some fresh juice, tea, hot/cold chocolate and other beverages, including water. Caffeine, like alcohol, is diuretic. It dehydrates your body. It’s effect in increasing alertness doesn’t last very long either.

Make sure you don’t go on an empty stomach to important meetings. Being hungry makes most of us edgy and easy to get irritated. It’ll probably make you impatient as well, which isn’t a trait you want to have when making critical decisions.

Make sure your body is getting essential nutrients. Your immune system is at its weakest when stressed and sleep-deprived. Make sure you’re not malnourished as well when going on a spree. So the-daily-pizza has to make room for other -more healthy- meals. Lunch breaks with nutritious meals will more than pay back when you don’t get bed ridden for a few days on end, or drag yourself to work for a couple of weeks with a red runny nose, when the flu season hits.

Corollary

Don’t over eat! Not being hungry doesn’t mean having a 110% full stomach either. This is especially true if you have to do mental and/or physical activity (as opposed to mechanical and tedious work.) Eating too much will get you sluggish and sleepy. Moderation is the key.

Don’t Drink (too much)

It’s well known that a bit of drink after a long day is a good relaxant. This works best with soft liquors like wine, martini, champagne and beer in small quantities. Consume hard liquor or excessive soft ones at your peril. Alcohol is actually known to disrupt our sleep patterns. It’ll dehydrate you, leaving you thirsty all night and give you a nice buzzing headache in the morning. So not only you won’t get a good deep sleep, but you’ll wake up tired and hungover. The best way to use alcohol as a relaxant is, after dinning, to drink no more than 100-150ml (half a cup) and, once you feel a bit buzzed, go to bed. The difference between half a beer and a full bottle will probably cost you the next day.

If you must, drink on Fridays or when you can afford to take the next day off. But don’t drink like there’s no tomorrow.

Take a Break

During a long day as well as during a long project, make sure you get refreshing power breaks. The lunch break outside the office is one such. Try to do something unrelated, even if on the same project or subject. I take coffee breaks (but I avoid coffee as such) when I get stuck or between tasks. This forces me to get up and stretch my muscles as well as socialize. The chances that I’ll be distracted are extremely high, which is the point of the break. However, make sure you won’t be dragged into something extended. Limit the break to 15-20 minutes max but typically 10. Socializing in person is a great way to do this, but don’t get into a global warming argument! Even talking about work will be refreshing. I tend to read a few pages from a non-technical book like popular science. Watching a funny sketch, video clip or reading a blog article is also a good way to get away.

Take power-naps if it’s your thing whenever you can. For some people who like napping even dozing off for 10 minutes during the day gives them a great boost. If you can’t nap, try stretching on a sofa and relax. Reading or listening chill music can also help you get a grip during a hectic day.

Every so often, take an early leave or a day off. Go do something completely different and unlike your daily habit. Even if you stay-in and sleep or go for a walk and watch a movie, you’ll get back to your project much more refreshed and enthused.

Corollary

Be wary of getting out of your zone. If you’re making progress and things are rolling like a well-oiled machine, don’t stop! In fact, avoid distractions at all cost. Being in the zone is when we’re most efficient and productive. Switch your IM to “Busy” or “Don’t disturb” status. Check email and get back to colleagues later. Make it clear when you don’t want to be interrupted unless the building is collapsing so your colleagues will be mindful. When taking breaks or power-naps, be very aware of the time. Set alarms and go back to work when your time is up. If you’re too tired to work, then either go get some sleep, discuss work-related topics or do some other mentally undemanding and mechanical task. Any progress is better then idle chatter or web surfing (aka watching funny pics.)

Don’t Work Too Hard

In some professions keeping up with industry can be critical for success. Burying one’s head in some project for extended time might not be the wisest of decisions. Don’t neglect the rest of the world. Working too hard on your project will probably have diminishing returns beyond some point anyway. Instead, try to keep your proverbial finger on the trends pulse. Spend some time reading the news, read on similar projects, success and failure stories, blogs with insightful technical and non-technical information. Look for smart ways to take shortcuts and reuse other successful platforms or components. Look for good patterns and stories from people like yourself. Keep an eye on competition, both existing and potential. But don’t overwhelm yourself with news and obsessive competition tracking. Get back to your project and get focused.

Working too hard may not be the most efficient way to make a successful project. Be thoughtful of the alternatives. Having a well-rested and fresh mind will certainly help with this.

Bottom-line (TL;DR)

  • Sleep well: makes you fresh, active and in your zone. But if you can’t sleep, get some work done.
  • Eat well: replenish your energy and nutrients. But don’t overeat.
  • Don’t drink: not when you have to work the next day. But half a pint before sleep may help.
  • Take a break: refresh and clear your mind. But don’t get carried away.
  • Don’t work too hard: keep updated on news, competition and advice from others. But don’t overwhelm yourself.
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  2 Responses to “Working Too Hard”

  1. Good advice. I find, though, that those little nighttime routines like brushing my teeth and setting the alarm help me to get sleepy. I agree that when someone can’t sleep it’s better to get up and do something than to toss and turn.

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  2. [...] People who don’t wake up early — Working Too Hard [...]

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