I hate work. To some extent, we all do. But I don’t hate my job, and sometimes my passion pushes me to work a lot harder and longer than I usually like to. Other times, circumstances do. In either case, pulling 80- or even 100-hour workweeks sucks beyond description. And while I'm not proud of it—and by no means recommend it—I've had enough of them to have figured out a strategy for making it through a truly awful work bender without having a mental breakdown. Here's how:
Anytime you're looking at what's shaping up to be a totally hideous, round-the-clock workweek, the very first step is to try and dodge it—or at least make it less hideous. Pulling insane hours is no act of heroism; real heroes work hard to make time for things that actually matter in life, like family, friends, and community. If you can't manage to do that, then in a sense you've already failed. So with that foremost in mind, make absolutely certain that the week of overwork you're facing truly is something you just can't avoid.
Then get your plan straight. A lot of people will tell you that you can’t actually focus and be productive working that many hours—and they're at least halfway right. It’s possible to work crazy hours more or less productively when circumstances demand it, but it isn't sustainable, and you have to find the right routine.
For some, that means using the Pomodoro technique; for others it’s the 52/17 method. Ultimately, both involve "batching"—sorting your tasks by type so you can tackle similar things in designated blocks of time—in combination with your brain's natural rhythms. Certain times of the day, our brains will be better conditioned to tackle one "batch" of tasks than another.
On an especially ugly workweek, I typically start at 8 a.m. and can wind up working until 2 a.m. or later, Monday through Saturday, then try to just tie up any loose ends on Sunday, when I can start regaining my sanity. But the key, until then, is to set the right rhythm from the outset and keep it going through the week.
After the first couple really long workdays you plow through, you won't wake up feeling well-rested in the morning, so try to make yourself as comfortable as you can. If you're able to work from home, pick cozy seating (I sit in a recliner), then start small: knock out a bunch of easy emails, clear simple tasks, and catch up on any messages from coworkers. Use this time for the low-impact stuff—or to find ways to outsource it to UpWork or something similar, because this is not the week for that junk.
The point is to use the morning to warm up while also feeling accomplished. It’s rewarding to cross things off my list—which gets me excited and motivated to move on to harder tasks. I’m conditioning my brain to be productive. And as much as I want to drink coffee as soon as I wake up, I don’t. It’ll come in handy later.
Keys for Stage 1:
- Work on mindless task completion.
- Answer easy email questions, and catch up on work chat history.
- Don’t drink coffee—yet.
Move on to more challenging, complex tasks in the afternoon. Once I've cleared out the clutter from my mind (and my inbox), it's time to dig into the harder stuff. This is when I grab a good cup of coffee to ease me out of my post-lunch slump.
It's also when I get settled into an ergonomic working position (work desk or standing desk), turn off notifications from email, chat apps, and my cell phone, and focus more deeply. Personally, I don't adhere to the strict time-blocking techniques that the Pomodoro and 52/17 methods prescribe, but some sort of batching can be helpful. Do what works for you.
Why wait to get caffeinated now? If you aren’t a coffee drinker, don’t feel the need to start. But if you are, you'll really feel it’s power if you can hold off until this critical time of day. Coffee blocks adenosine in the frontal lobe of your brain, which can lead to serious boosts in concentration and focus. Don’t drink a triple shot of espresso, though—too much caffeine will likely make it harder to focus. It’s about finding that sweet spot, and the right dose is different for each person.
Keys for Stage 2:
- Drink coffee now!
- Use the Pomodoro, 52/17, or similar batching technique.
- Cut out distractions and get the mentally challenging work done.
Come back to mindless tasks again after dinner. Crack back open your email inbox, chat apps, and cell phone messages and clear out as many easy tasks as possible. Personally, I find this is a good time to run some numbers for marketing reports and other things that don’t really require me to think too hard.
Keys for Stage 3:
- Answer emails and chat messages.
- Do some more mindless tasks.
Here's the part of your day when you really know you're working longer than you should be. But because you've just spent the past couple of hours plugging away at easier tasks, you're more likely to have enough morale and energy to give another run at some of the more difficult work you're facing.
This probably isn’t the best idea, but I usually end up drinking another small cup of coffee around this time in order to stay focused. Use this time to really hammer out tough projects that require your full attention. This is the stretch of time when it really hits you that you're in the trenches—so keep in mind that it's an extreme case, and make it count. Tune out any distractions again and do the best you can.
Keys for Stage 4:
- Dig back into the tougher projects.
- Return to your batching technique of choice in order to stay on task.
- Eliminate distractions.
- Grab another coffee if necessary.
There are some problems that just require a more creative mindset, and the hour or two after midnight—if you've got any remaining energy—is the time to tackle them. When you get tired, your brain shuts off dopamine to the frontal cortex, which makes you less task-oriented. So no matter how hard you try to complete tasks this late, you almost always fail. But that can be an advantage, freeing up the final burst of your cognitive resources to think about things in a completely different way.
Remember all those tasks that you just couldn’t figure out the right solution to earlier in the day? Pick one. Sit back in your chair, and just start brainstorming ideas. Use a whiteboard if that’s your thing. Just be willing to let your mind come up with crazy ideas and solutions. Don’t evaluate them. Wait until tomorrow and see what makes sense when you are back in task-mode.
Keys for Stage 5:
- Step away from getting things done.
- Brainstorm creative approaches to problems that stumped you earlier in the day—but don't try to solve them completely.
Working 80 or 100 hours a week isn’t fun, heroic, or advisable, but sometimes it may be necessary. There are times when you’ll want to throw a coffee mug on the ground and smash it to pieces (but you hold back because you can’t imagine not being able to drink coffee). Your friends and relatives will hate you, but hopefully that'll be as temporary as your work-slog. You can get through it. In fact, I managed this routine for four months—months I never, ever want to repeat (and don't want you to experience, either) but that I survived.
William Harris is the CEO and growth marketer of Elumynt, LLC., VP of marketing and growth for a top 700 online retailer, and former head of marketing for When I Work, a VC-backed SaaS company. Follow him on Twitter at @wmharris101, LinkedIn, and Google+.