0438 – break in case of utter desolation: a script

I realize that I’ve written many vomits that circle around the ideas of what I ought to be doing, but it’s never quite grounded or tied up the way I want. So I’m going to write a letter to myself assuming that I’m in a very difficult, overwhelmed situation.

First, stop. Whatever you’re doing. You’re probably on your computer or on your phone. Quickly save whatever it is you’re doing– save draft, and then shut down your device altogether. You have too many things open, your mind is stretched, your eyes are probably hurting, it’s probably late and you’re tired. Whatever it is, you can’t continue the way you are right now. Get up. Take a walk. Wash your face.

Now. What are you working on, what are you stressed about? Are you about to miss some deadline? Are you avoiding some task that’s important? Write it down. Write down what you need to deliver, and why you’re not doing it. It’s probably because you’re afraid of something, or you lack something. Write down the precise nature of your dilemma. Perhaps you have a tradeoff that needs to be made, that you’re not comfortable making. Maybe you need to reach out to somebody, and you don’t like doing that. Whatever it is, write it down.

Next, take stock of your physical and mental state. Are you physically burnt out? Are your eyes hurting badly? Can you think straight? Can you afford to call it a day? What’s the worst thing that happens if you do? You don’t necessarily need to call it a day, but write down what the outcome would be. It may be a reasonable choice.

Next. If you’ve decided that you want to double down and solve whatever’s in front of you within the amount of mental time you have left, you may want to take a 20 minute nap, a cold shower and drink some coffee or redbull. Do some pushups. Modafinil. Whatever.

What’s the minimum necessary for the task to be done? What’s the intended end-state of whatever it is that you’re working on? Work backwards from the end-state. There are usually a few big important things that need done, and the rest is just details that you can maybe fill in later if you really want to. The important thing is to get the big major parts right.

Suppose you’re done, phew. You sleep, you rest, you recover. It’s a new day. You’ve shipped whatever was crazy-critical that needed to be done. You’re still swimming in the murky mud of unfinished tasks and unfulfilled obligations. You’re going to have to prioritize to get ahead.

First– super quickly, don’t spend more than a couple of minutes on this– what are your upcoming obligations? What are the meetings you have where you’ll have to present things? Work backwards from there. What will be expected of you at those meetings? Figure out the minimum necessary to satisfice those meetings, and get those things done in order of whichever is most important. Break those things down into steps, and do them in 25-min pomodoro intervals.

When you’re done with that, you can now breathe a little easy. Your next couple of meetings are going to go smoothly. Well done. Maybe take a walk. But don’t be too quick to start surfing mindless crap on the Internet. Now might be a good time to take a meditation break, to calm your mind and think about what’s the next most important thing you need to do. Are there other people who are depending on you for things? And what are your top priorities right now? List out those things in a quick order, and get them done in order of urgency/importance. If there’s anything you’re hesitating on, write out why, and remind yourself that it’s ultimately worse to go cold/dark.

So say you finally got all your immediate and near-term serious stuff done or out of the way. You have some room to breathe. Now what? You probably need a quick break of some sort. Don’t go crazy and burn out the rest of your day or anything like that. Be reasonable. Meditate. Rest. Exercise. Sleep, etc. Eat, rehydrate.

Once you’re out of the danger zone, you want to overview everything that’s on your plate one more time. Put things into your personal Trello board (or write them in your notebook, or Evernote, or workflowy– whatever works. Right now it seems like Trello is working out for you, so use that). Schedule time to go through these tasks and write down why they’re important, what they’re going to help you achieve, and why you haven’t done it yet (what’s difficult or uncomfortable out it). I think you should do this at the start of the day if you wake up early. If you wake up early, go exercise, then shower, then work on this.

Then it’s all about scheduling, planning, timeboxing. Get the highest priority thing out of the way. If you don’t know what the highest priority thing is, find out. If you know what the highest priority thing is, but you aren’t making progress on it, identify the point of blockage, and figure out what’s stopping you. Break it down into chunks. Figure out what’s the most important thing and do that. Sometimes you might be stuck because of bad project management– that is, you bit off more than you can chew. You may want to refine whatever it is that you set out to do, and then order that.

What you want is to always have a 25 minute task ahead of you that’s manageable and finishable. If you don’t, then you’re suffering from bad project management. You just need to break things down into their components so that you can move them around as necessary.

Finally, once you’ve got that stuff in order, figure out your mental/emotional/psychological health. You may want to reach out to close friends to tell them you need a morale boost– you know they’d oblige. You might even want to quickly talk them through whatever’s bothering you.

Now, make sure you plan/schedule and review your plan/schedule each day so that you don’t get blindsided again. This is a very avoidable problem. So avoid it. G’night!

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