How to do a large amount of work in a small amount of time: advice from a veteran of rushing, botching, and bashing it out
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
You’d be amazed what you can get done in just a few hours – especially if you’re not overly concerned with trifling things like quality or spelling. Here’s a rough guide, for use in emergency situations, to getting stuff done quickly.
1. Get in the zone
I don’t know about you, but I have a dozen little rituals I have to perform before I sit down to do a big slog of work. In general, I make it a rule to work in the library or university, because I find working at home, with all its possibilities of making and drinking tea, drifting off to watch TV, or being drawn into long conversations with my housemates, too distracting.
But when I’m really up against the clock, or even about to start what I know will be an all-nighter, I prefer to be in my room, with easy access to vital things like coffee, food and the shower. (N.B. There is nothing like a shower for waking yourself up in the middle of a miserable work-session. Just don’t do what I did one particularly inauspicious Wednesday at 4am: fall asleep sitting down in it with a foot covering the plug, and wake half an hour later under a jet of now-freezing water to find that you have transformed your bathroom into a giant soapy sea).
But back to the rituals. Before I do any serious, or seriously rushed, work, I’ve got to do a number of things to ‘get in the zone’. This might sound like elaborate procrastination — which, in reality, it most definitely is — but if I don’t do these little things, I find my concentration is poor, and my mind constantly wanders. First, my room has to be absolutely, books-in-alphabetical-order, spotless — mess is incredibly distracting, and when I’m working I want to use all the space on my desk. Plus, while you’re tidying you get to watch videos of cats falling over on YouTube. Next, I have to have a strong coffee (which I never drink more than a few sips of before remembering that I hate coffee and it gives me a headache — but it smells nice and is somehow a very reassuring thing to sit next to). Third, classical music doesn’t work for me; while I’m working, and especially at night, I find it keeps the mind sharp to blare out tragic noughties techno music. In particular, the songs of the ultimately unsuccessful Australian band Pendulum played at approximately a million decibels are so unpleasant they keep one constantly skittish with adrenaline, hammering out a thousand questionable words an hour while simultaneously imagining you’re in a warehouse rave. Finally, and most embarrassingly, I have a pair of leggings called my essay leggings that I like to wear while I’m working. They’re very comfy (and holey) and haven’t been replaced since my first year of university, because they’re somehow magically conducive to getting lots done in very little time.
Now, the line between preparing oneself for work and procrastination is always thin, and one I continually find myself on the wrong side of. Your rituals might look very different to mine, and perhaps take a little less time. But if you need to do certain things to change your mindset from play to work, I’d advise you do them.
2. Work out exactly what you’ve got to do
Now that you’re sitting comfortably at your desk in your spotless room, work out exactly what you’ve got to do — and how long you’ve got to do it. Make a list of your tasks in order of priority, what they involve, the date they’re due in and how long you realistically think they’ll take. Your list might look something like this:
- Write out labels for Art coursework (2 hours, due tomorrow)
- Write self-analysis for Art coursework (3 hours, due tomorrow)
- Finish researching, plan and write History coursework essay (12 hours? 2 days? Due Friday)
- Finish Physics lab report (2 hours, due Thursday)
- Maths problems (3 hours, due tomorrow)
Now, for some of these tasks it will be absolutely essential that you hand the work in on or before the deadline. For any task that counts towards your coursework, or an exam, you’ll usually lose marks if they’re late — in my university, we would lose 5 marks out of 100 if an essay was handed in one minute after 12pm on the day of the deadline, and a further 10 if it was more than a day late. For these tasks, you absolutely can’t mess about — they should sit right at the top of your list of things to do, and be the first thing you get out of the way — and the ones you put most effort into getting right.
But, even though it won’t make you very popular with your teachers, sometimes you’ve got to accept that you can’t do everything you’re expected to in a small amount of time. When I’ve got a big deadline coming up, I jettison everything else: I tell people I can’t make other commitments, even if that annoys them, and if I haven’t got time, I simply don’t do less important pieces of work. On the list above, for example, I might decide that only the pieces of coursework were really important, and that I wasn’t going to bother handing in the lab report or the Maths problems.
Of course, all this is advice for an emergency situation: if you’ve got the time to do everything you need to, then deciding that you won’t is probably not the best strategic move and will mean you have to endure hours of unnecessary telling-off.
Make a timetable detailing exactly when you’re going to do each of the things on your list. Make sure you plan enough time for each task rather than being overly optimistic — you’re going to stick to this timetable no matter what. Think about the times of day when you work best, and how tired you’re going to be at various stages of the day/night/week you’re mapping out — the morning of your deadline, for example, when your eyes are itchy with tiredness and your brain about as much use as its equivalent weight in mincemeat, is probably not the best time to be proof-reading or tackling difficult Algebra problems. I study English and consequently write lots of essays, and I find that I can read and take notes at pretty much any time of day, but planning and writing are tasks I can only really do well first thing in the morning.
Once you’ve made your plan, sit back and take a deep breath — it might be a rush, and you might not see sunlight for the next week, but it is possible to do everything you need to in the time you’ve got. All you need to do (and this is the important bit) is make sure you stick religiously to your timetable.
4. Let things be less-than-perfect
If you’re still not happy with something near the end of the time you’ve allotted for it — tough. Finish up and leave it in its imperfect state — if you’re lucky, you might have time at the end to come back to it, but it’s much more important to stick to a schedule which will allow you to get everything done than it is to perfect one part of the task. This means not reading that extra useful-looking article, not toying with the wording in an introduction any longer, and leaving a problem you just can’t solve.
Remember — when you’re working on any task, it’s completely normal that that task will feel like the most important one — but it’s important to take a step back and gain some perspective over your whole project. I’m constantly messing up because I find it really hard to leave things alone –– for example, I wasn’t happy with my dissertation last year the day before I handed it in, and decided to stay up all night before the deadline restructuring and rewriting the last 3,000 words before I’d even begun my referencing or conclusion. This meant (as I’m sure you can guess) that the section I rewrote was garbled and full of spelling mistakes, my footnotes and bibliography were a total mess and my conclusion was 5 lines long- not exactly what I’d planned when I decided to begin my noble rewriting mission, and not exactly the formula for a winning dissertation. Polished and finished, if slightly flawed, work will always make a much better impression than something messy and incomplete, even if it’s more carefully thought out — it actively irritates examiners to find silly mistakes or signs of haste in things they’re marking. Take it from me, look at the bigger picture and simply move on.
5. Be selfish
I’ve got a friend who actively refuses to make any plans other than a quick coffee for about four weeks before any deadline. Sometimes she doesn’t leave her house for days, and while she’s working she lets other people cook for her and tidy up her mess. Last year she didn’t go to her boyfriend’s birthday party because it was the week before a talk she was preparing. Now, this might all sound a bit mad, but my friend always does really, really well at everything she puts her mind to. Basically, in quite an extreme way she’s got her priorities straight — most of the time she’ll do anything for anyone, but when she’s got important work on her plate, she’ll say honestly that she needs to concentrate, and just can’t make other commitments.
I, meanwhile, work in the absolute opposite way. I let friends come to visit me the week before a deadline because I don’t want to annoy them by cancelling, and am anxious about work and cranky for the whole time they’re there. I’ll go to the library with someone else but get annoyed when we distract each other. I end up getting so stressed out over all the commitments I’ve made that I can’t concentrate even when I’ve actually got time to work.
I’ve come to conclude that my friend’s got it sorted. When you’ve got stuff to do, be selfish. This is one of very few chances you’ll have in your life (apart from, if you’re a girl, maybe your wedding) to be totally unreasonable, self-centred, and rude to everyone around you. Like a mad cross between Professor Snape and Kim Jong Un. Get your mum to make you dinner but refuse to sit and eat it at the table. Cancel plans, leave a mess. Refuse to read someone else’s work or do anyone a favour. Your friends might not like the new crazy you, but you’ll probably annoy them just as much by being irritable and stressed than you will by being selfish — and if you pick the latter course, you might actually get stuff done.
6. Do not entertain the thought that you might not finish
With the energy I’ve spent over the years asking for extensions, making up excuses or writing cringing apology emails to tutors and employers explaining that I just haven’t done things, I could have written novels. Stuff it, I could have written the Iliad. Extensions and the like might feel brilliant in the short term, but they’re not the solution to anything — you’ll still have to do the work one way or another, and you’ll annoy people and complicate your own life in the process of putting it off.
7. Just do the work
This is fairly self-explanatory. Though this article has tried to show that you can make things seem easier and more surmountable by organising, rationalising, and preparing, there are no magic solutions that can make you work miraculously quickly. There’s no substitute for sitting down, closing the door, turning off the internet and just doing your work. It might not be exactly fun, but it’ll feel worth it when you’re done, and then you can sleep and relax properly without feeling guilty or stressed.
Got any top tips for getting things done quickly? Let us know in the ‘Comments’ section below!