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Try this 48-hour productivity sprint when you’re behind at work

These productivity habits might be tough to stick with for the long haul, but the good news is you don’t need them for the long haul.

Try this 48-hour productivity sprint when you’re behind at work
[Photo: Brooke Lark/Unsplash]

It’s impossible to operate at maximum productivity 100% of the time. But sometimes circumstances force you into overdrive, and you inevitably fall behind. Getting back on track when you’re already feeling overwhelmed isn’t easy, but this two-day productivity sprint can help you sideline the less important stuff and focus–without losing sleep or your sanity–on what really matters. Here’s how it works.

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Start with a digital slimdown

Too many sources of digital information can short-circuit your brain by activating its “aversion networks”: You either avoid responding to any emails or notifications, or you get caught up trying to respond to everything as though it’s all equally urgent.

The solution here isn’t to go cold-turkey. When you’re starting a 48-hour productivity sprint, you need to limit your device usage, not ditch it entirely. (Since good luck with that!) So completely turn off any apps whose information streams aren’t connected to your most urgent projects and deadlines, then fire them up again after 5 p.m. to check back in before going to sleep. For me, this usually includes Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and some of my email accounts for less pressing communications.

I’ve also found the app RescueTime handy for creating blocks of “focus time” (you can set their length yourself) during which period the websites you’ve designated in your settings as “very distracting” become inaccessible until your timer has run out.

Devote 30 minutes to answering emails

Next, set two 15-minute blocks each day for checking and responding to only the most urgent emails. I do one block just before lunch and one before the end of the day. However, before you even open your email in the morning, jot down (either in a note-taking app or a physical notepad) the names or keywords associated with the projects, clients, or people you need to scan your inbox for. This way you don’t get sucked into answering everything in your inbox–which can turn 15 minutes into an hour in no time.

For reminders of urgent things you absolutely need to get done that day, try using Google Keep as a digital sticky-note system; the mobile app can go everywhere with you and lets you “pin” color-coded reminders to the top where you’ll see them right away on your home screen. It’s easy to delete them after the task is done.

Follow the “two-minute rule”

If it takes less than two minutes, do it now and check it off. This gives your brain a nice little rush of reward chemicals like dopamine and avoids the “I’m not getting anything done today” spiral. But if it’s a slightly more involved task (even three to five minutes), you’ve got to skip it until your two-day productivity sprint is over.

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Set three priorities per day

If I have a particularly hectic week and feel myself slipping behind, I’ll add this strategy to the three above. When you only allow yourself only a handful of discrete goals or priorities for the day, it quickly crystalizes what’s most important. And when you write them down, it eliminates confusion. This is crucial because confusion combined with stress makes the brain switch into aversion mode, which leads to putting things off even when you’re pressed for time already. If you remove the confusion, you’ll feel less averse.

Use a paper planner or notepad to write a quick “today” and “tomorrow” plan, identifying three top priorities for both days, followed by a specific time-block for each (e.g. “2:00–4:00 p.m. on Monday for project X”; “9:30–10:15 on Tuesday for task Y”). The beauty of a two-day productivity sprint is that it’s relatively easy to plan a mere 48 hours ahead. Try to schedule the most mentally intensive tasks for the morning when you’re fresh, and save the less strenuous (yet equally important) items for the afternoon. Creative projects and brainstorming-heavy tasks are also good to tackle later in the day.

When you get stuck, switch gears

That’s right: Abandon anything you find yourself spinning your wheels on and start something else (and it’s easy when you’ve already got a super slim to-do list handy). Research suggests that task performance improves when you switch to another uninterrupted, unrelated task, compared with trying to muscle through when you’re stuck. If you find yourself stalled for 15 minutes, change tack by doing one of two things:

  1. Take a short 5–15 minute break, then start a new time-block devoted to a totally different task, preferably something that’s more linear.
  2. If you can spare the time, take 30–60 minute break for some physical movement before starting another task or trying to return to the one that’s stumped you (a quick yoga practice at home or going for a short jog are both great options).

Sticking to this routine for just two days can help reacquaint you with the happier, more productive version of yourself–even when things are at their busiest.

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