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How to get a big project done when you’re already feeling drained

When your mental gas tank is depleted, there are things you can do to keep big projects moving forward.

How to get a big project done when you’re already feeling drained
[Photo: yossel63/iStock]

If you have ever engaged in an endurance sport, then chances are you have bonked. Your legs turn to lead and, no matter how much your brain tells you to keep moving, your body won’t cooperate. Bonking is a physiological response to long periods of exercise that happens when you deplete your glycogen stores.

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An analogous thing happens with endurance projects at work. A combination of stress, the feeling that there is no end in sight for the project, and long periods of working without a break can make it hard to concentrate for any great length of time. The pandemic has led a lot of people to bonk mentally. People haven’t taken much vacation, they are living with a lot of stress, and many businesses are struggling to survive.

So when your mental gas tank is already depleted, what can you do to keep big projects moving forward?

Small steps

Your motivation is strongest when you set a goal that you believe you can achieve. When you’re at your best, even significant goals can be motivating, because you have the self-confidence to believe that you can make progress on even the most significant tasks. But when you’re tapped out, completing something big can seem out of reach.

That’s when you really need to break the job down into its smallest components. You may not be able to finish the entire job. You might not even be able to see the end from where you are right now. But you can still do a little bit to move the project forward. Whether it’s making one phone call, writing one paragraph, or adding a few numbers to a spreadsheet, every little bit counts.

Plus, if you complete a few small steps in a day, you’re able to tell yourself you accomplished something at the end of the day. And that can help get you ready for the next day.

Progress, not perfection

Another big problem with large projects is that you may look at the results of what you did on any given day and hate them. This is often true for people who are trying to write something significant. You write a page and then stare at the results. Each word feels like further proof that you’re just not good enough to complete what you started.

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Success on any big project does not require that the initial attempt be flawless. For one thing, not every project needs to be flawless. Other people may still benefit from an effort you make, even if you could have done better. For another thing, when the project is big enough, there will be time (and often help from other people) to ensure that significant problems get fixed later. The main thing is not to let the fear that what you’re working on today is imperfect prevent you from doing something. Worry about editing or fixing any mistakes later, and just get something down on paper.

Find a team

During the pandemic, you’re probably working from home. That means your efforts are being done alone, even if you’re sharing your space with other people working on different projects.

Humans are social creatures—even the introverts among us—and we want to find ways to cooperate to solve big problems. That is one reason why working from an office is powerful. Everyone you see is collaborating toward a common set of goals. The office environment can motivate you to work because you feel like part of the team, even if you’re not actually talking with anyone else.

In the work-from-home environment, consider finding a pod of people with whom you can work virtually. Open up a Zoom session with a few colleagues and keep it visible on your screen. You don’t need to talk to anyone. In fact, it might be less distracting to keep the sound off. Just knowing there are other people on your screen you can see (and who can see you) can help keep you focused on your work.

Get a move on

One of the biggest problems with working from home is that you don’t need to go anywhere to get to work. If you have a pedometer (or phone), you might find that the number of steps you have taken each day has decreased substantially since the start of the pandemic. The lack of movement also decreases your resilience. And when you don’t move much, you don’t get much change of scenery. Eventually, it may feel like the walls are closing in on you as you slog through a long project.

If you’re stuck on a problem or a section of a report you’re trying to write, consider taking a walk and talking through the problem as you go. Start a voice note on your phone and walk outside. Talk out your thoughts on the project. Draft a paragraph of a report.

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You might feel self-conscious about recording yourself, but it is important to keep a record of what you’re doing. Often, when you’re really stuck on a problem or on something you’re writing, there is an idea you have that is blocking other ideas from coming to the forefront. If you don’t capture the idea, then your brain keeps it active so that you won’t forget it. Once you know that you have gotten it down in a recording, you won’t feel like you need to remember it anymore, and you can start thinking differently about the project.

A little movement, a change of scenery, and some talk often get you beyond the point that has kept you stuck. You don’t even necessarily need to listen to what you recorded. You might find that when you sit back down at your computer, you have a whole new perspective on your project.

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