The beginning of this year was awful for work. I just couldn’t get in to it. There were probably a few reasons for this: the commute was long and dark; there were lingering, unresolved tasks waiting for me; returning to the everyday stress of work after a long break over the holidays.
Whatever the combination of reasons, it was tough. Motivating myself to work felt like trying to wade through treacle. This is something that happens to everyone sometimes, but once you recognise it’s happening, there are steps you can take to help get back on track.
If you’re already struggling to stay on task, adding distractions is going to be the final straw. For those of us working tech jobs, there are a lot of distractions coming in different forms. The big offenders: Twitter, Slack, e-mail. Reddit. Close them. Block them. For e-mail, it’s best to have a set time each day that you use to check and respond to e-mails. This sets the expectation with others that you’ll reliably get to the e-mail at a set time. If it’s truly urgent, it shouldn’t have been in an e-mail anyway.
There are numerous browser extensions that you can use to limit your access to certain websites within certain time ranges, or limit it to a set amount per day. This is a useful way to allow yourself to Tweet your lunch break away without compromising your attention during the time that you’re trying to focus.
Consider Adding Distractions
This sounds like the opposite of what I said before, but I’m going somewhere with it. Optimal performance on a task requires a certain level of mental stimulation. Most tasks provide enough stimulation that you should not add another distraction. However, some tasks are extremely repetitive and/or mindless. It’s with these tasks that I find my attention is really tested, and my performance eventually drops to zero after I snap and go read Twitter instead.
When I need to power through those mundane tasks without getting overly distracted and without losing the will to live, it helps me to put on YouTube or Netflix in the background. With YouTube, I get to learn new things by watching conference talks, tutorials, etc. With Netflix, so long as I’m watching something brainless that I’ve seen before, it provides enough mental stimulation that I can keep momentum on the boring task.
Break Your Tasks Down Into Tiny Milestones
Your task probably looks bigger than it is. Another killer to motivation and momentum is feeling like you’re facing something insurmountable. A gargantuan task that’s going to take an age to complete. You imagine continuing the current drudgery for that amount of time, and grind to a halt. You open Twitter.
If you spend a little while breaking the task down into bite size pieces, it’ll seem more approachable. Current wisdom seems to be swinging away from singing the praises of the Pomodoro Technique towards the concepts of Flow and Deep Work, but I think breaking your work into pre-planned 25 minute chunks is a great way to set yourself up for the small wins and frequent rests that really help bust that motivational block.
Take Your Breaks
Take your breaks. If possible, take them away from your desk. Go get a cup of tea. Go outside. You’ll focus better if you spend your breaks actually resting and recharging.
Cultivate an Environment of Work
This is easier if you work in an office rather than from home. If you work from home, you will be surrounded by familiar comforts and distractions. You’re unlikely to get any real work done in bed with your laptop in your pyjamas. If possible, keep a clear separation between your work area and your relaxation area. Dress for work, even if nobody is going to see you. Make a cup of tea, sit up straight, and get to it.
Remember That It’s Okay to Have Off Days
Finally, remember that it’s okay to have off days. It’s also okay to have off-weeks! You won’t always be motivated, high-energy and kicking ass. When you’re in a slump, focus on the small things you can get done effectively. A low-energy week is a perfect time to get some of that documentation done.