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Crushing Work Marathons: a 3-Step Productivity Method for Avoiding All-Nighters

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Working All night

This is a guest post by Alistair Clark. He runs worklifefitness.co, a site that helps overworked professionals perform better at work, stay fit and healthy, and improve their work-life balance.


 

“I need this done for tomorrow morning, but don’t spend too much time on it. I don’t want you to be here all night.”

These ominous words are what I heard before I pulled my first all-nighter.

It happened about four years ago while I was a management consultant. And I still remember how much it sucked. Starbucks coffee cups littered the desk. Takeout containers overflowed from the garbage. The glow of my computer screen lit up the windowless conference room.

I sat there for 12 hours straight, trying to do a week’s worth of work before 9:00am.

I survived (barely).

The next day I floated through work in a semi-conscious state, counting down the hours until I could go home and sleep.

At that point in my life, I thought all-nighters were a “badge of honour.” My friends in investment banking and management consulting all seemed to brag about how much they worked. I actually felt proud after my first all-nighter.

…I realize now how naive I was. Pulling an all-nighter might be one of the LEAST productive things you can do. Your work quality is crap, it wrecks your body, and it cripples your productivity for days afterwards. Avoid it at all costs.

But sometimes, it feels like working late is unavoidable. Maybe your boss drops a mountain of work on your desk at 5:00pm. Or maybe you’ve been procrastinating and are now working against a crazy deadline.

Whatever the reason, you’ve got a mountain of work to do and very little time. It might seem like the only option is to grab a coffee and stay up late.

I’m here to show you a better solution.

In this post I’m going to outline a three-step productivity method that I use for crushing work marathons so that I can avoid late nights and all-nighters completely.

But first, a quick story.

Back when I pulled my first all-nighter, I had no concept of time-management or productivity. My approach to work was to load up on caffeine and sugar and then put my head down and work until I was finished.

Unsurprisingly, this approach produced less than stellar results…I’d start strong, but then I’d lose focus and make silly mistakes. I’d get tired and go down pointless rabbit holes. My energy would spike and crash with each injection of caffeine or sugar. And worst of all, I’d be a wreck for the rest of the week.

A few weeks ago, I pulled another all-nighter. I didn’t do this because my boss was breathing down my neck or because I had a pending deadline to hit. You see, I’m self-employed, so I set my hours and avoid working late at all costs.

I pulled an all-nighter so that you don’t have to! I turned myself into a “human guinea pig” to test productivity, energy, and motivation hacks for my “All-Nighter Experiment.”

I wanted to figure out a better way to crush work marathons so that you and my coaching clients can avoid working late altogether.

1. Begin with the End in Mind

I love diving into work. I love it so much that I’ll often dive in without having a solid idea of what I need to do and what I’m trying to achieve.

I know that not having a plan is a productivity killer, but I can’t help it sometimes. When faced with a ton of work to get done, everyone feels that pressure to get started as fast as possible and not waste any time.

After all, you’re trying to avoid an all-nighter, so shouldn’t you get started ASAP?

Over time, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way: it’s worth taking a few minutes to plan before diving in.

While your goal might seem clear in your head when you start working, soon you’ll be stuck in the weeds trying to remember what you’re trying to actually do. You’ll lose sight of the big picture.

The concept of “Begin with the End in Mind” will fix this problem.

It’s a principle I’ve borrowed from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which sold over 25 million copies.

The short version is this: you need to develop a concrete vision of the exact end goal you are working towards before you do anything. Not just a vague inkling in your mind. A descriptive, written statement of exactly what you are trying to do, why you are trying to do it, and how you are going to do it.

Not only will this help you prioritize work, it will also give you a simple benchmark for determining when you’re done.

For example, in writing this post, I know my end goal is a 2,500+ word article that outlines my three-step productivity method. Before I even touched the keyboard, I had already outlined the entire post. All I had to do after that was fill in the blanks.

But how do you figure out your end goal? What if you’re at work and you’re not exactly sure what your boss is asking for?

Here’s the system I use to figure out my end goal:

Step #1 — Understand the Situation

The goal of this step is to turn the jumbled thoughts in your head into something concrete. I do this by asking myself a series of questions:

  • What am I trying to do?
  • Why am I trying to do this? OR Why did my boss / client ask for this?
  • Is there a better way to achieve the same result?

Just as important as the “what” is the “why.” Most people are vaguely clear on what they are trying to do (e.g., create a PowerPoint presentation), but few people take the extra step to think of why.

More often than not, you’ll realize that there is a better way of achieving the same end result. You can save yourself a huge amount of time by taking five minutes and asking yourself a series of questions before diving into your work.

Step #2 — Clarify Your Understanding

This step applies more if you’re in an office environment and doing work for someone else.

After you’ve got a firm handle on the situation, reiterate it to the person who assigned you the work. Not only does this ensure you aren’t missing anything, but it also gives them a second chance to think about what they’re asking you to do. They’ll probably change their mind on a few things they asked for, which could end up saving you both a lot of time.

Step #3 — Write It Down

The last step is to take everything you’ve learned and summarize three things: what you’re trying to do, why you’re doing it, and how you’re going to do it.

To do this I literally take out a piece of paper and write these three things down. Later on, if I ever feel like I’m lost or off track, I just stop working and revisit my end goal.

These three steps alone can turn your all-nighter work marathon into just a late night. But that’s not good enough since we want to avoid working late altogether. Step #2 takes your plan one step further…

2. Zero-Based Scheduling

Alright. You have your end-goal and the what / why / how of the work, but we’re not ready to dive in just yet.

You need a schedule. Why?

Well, two reasons:

  1. A schedule helps you estimate how long your mountain of work will take. It’s much better to know you’ll be here for an all-nighter BEFORE you get started so that you can either get some help or push back your deadline and avoid pulling an all-nighter.
  2. A schedule helps you stay on track and efficient. Without it, it’s really easy to let the hours slip away from you and have your work take much longer than it needs to.

The strategy I use is called “zero-based scheduling.”

I’ve borrowed the idea from a concept I learned while consulting called “zero-based budgeting”.

Zero-based budgeting is a tool companies use for cost management. Basically, you start with a “zero base” of $0, and then add expenses one-by-one, justifying and analyzing each one as you go. Zero-based budgeting is becoming really popular for its ability to ruthlessly cut unnecessary costs that aren’t critical to a company’s end goal.

Zero-based scheduling works the same way, except instead of money, we’re budgeting time.

Zero-based scheduling is a way to turn your mammoth 12-hour project into a four-hour sprint by stripping away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary to your end goal.

You start with a blank calendar (i.e., $0 budget) and then start adding tasks to the calendar one by one. As with each cost in budgeting, each task is analyzed and justified to make sure it’s absolutely necessary to achieve your end goal.

At the end you’ll have a schedule that lays out from start to finish exactly what you’ll do, in what order, and how long each activity will take. If you do it right, you can cut out a huge amount of unnecessary work before you even get started.

Here are three steps for applying zero-based scheduling the next time you have to get through a mountain of work:

Step #1 — Make a List of Everything That Needs to Get Done

The first step is to break down your monster project into bite-sized chunks. For example, the bite-sized “Import new data file” is better than the vague “Do Excel analysis.” Continue breaking down your work until you have a list of the individual tasks required to reach your end goal.

The order of tasks doesn’t matter at this point. Just make sure that everything is on there.

Now look at the list. Are there any shortcuts you could take? Does everything need to be finished with the same quality? Can you skip or delegate any steps?

Remember, focus on your end goal and fight to ignore your perfectionist tendencies.

If you want to stay productive and avoid working late, then be ruthless and keep this list as short, simple, and specific as possible.

Step #2 — Estimate How Long Each Task Will Take

Go down your list from top to bottom and estimate how many minutes each task will take.

Set aggressive goals.

Not only will this give you something to work towards, but totaling up the times will give you a rough estimate of when you’ll be finished. This is especially useful if you’re working against a deadline, since it’s much better to know that you’ll miss the deadline now instead of when you’re halfway through the work and it’s too late to do anything about it.

Step #3 — Order the Tasks

Take your list of tasks and put them in the order they need to be completed in. Just write a number from 1 to N next to each item.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Try to put your cognitive heavy lifting first since your mind will be fresh.
  • Think about the dependencies — what needs to happen before / after another step?
  • Does anyone else need to be involved (e.g., reviews or printing)? If so, make sure you schedule a buffer for other people’s time.
  • Depending on the complexity of the project, this could start looking like a mini-Gantt chart.

Step #4 — Schedule the Tasks

Here’s what you have at this point: an ordered list of tasks, including how long each will take.

The next step is simple: put them on your calendar. I use Google Calendar for this, but you can use anything. Even a piece of paper. Just start from the time you’ll be starting to work and schedule each task as a separate item.

If your estimates are accurate, you’ll have a pretty good idea of when you’ll be finished and also a nice benchmark to measure yourself against.

Finally, if you realize at this point that it will take you until 2:00pm tomorrow to finish your project, then it’s time to call in the reinforcements or change the deadline and avoid that all-nighter.

By using these two techniques — Begin with the End in Mind and Zero-Based Scheduling — you’ll have a rock-solid plan for getting through your work.

But planning without action is just intention.

It’s time to actually get to work!

3. The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique turns me into a work-crushing machine. I love it. It’s my favourite productivity technique.

I first came across the Pomodoro technique through this post on Asian Efficiency. It’s been a staple in my work toolbox ever since.

AE already has a huge amount of great information on the Pomodoro technique, so I won’t go into detail on how it works.

But if you’ve never heard of it, here’s an abbreviated summary:

The Pomodoro technique involves doing 25-minute chunks of highly focused work separated by five-minute breaks to refresh and recharge. Following four work cycles, you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. Implementing the Pomodoro technique is simple:

  1. Choose a task to work on.
  2. Set your timer to 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task until the timer goes off.
  4. Take a five-minute break.
  5. For every four Pomodoros take a longer break (15 to 30 minutes).

Here’s what a typical Pomodoro cycle looks like:

Pomodoro Cycle

During my All-Nighter Experiment I completed 20 individual 25-minute Pomodoros between 8PM and 8AM. That’s 8h20m of 100% focused and productive work, and I felt fresh and sharp the entire time.

The secret is the breaks. They help you disengage from the work and mentally recharge.

To track my Pomodoros, I used the MarinaraTimer. It keeps track of the history of your Pomodoro cycles, so you have a good measure of how productive you’ve been. Here’s a screenshot of the MarinaraTimer from my All-Nighter Experiment:

Pomodoro HistoryInstead of talking more about why I love Pomodoros so much, I’ll tell you two little tricks that I use to amplify the effects.

Trick #1 — Use Brain.FM During the Work Blocks

brain.fm is an online music service designed to dramatically improve your focus, relaxation, and sleep. I listen to it whenever I’m working (in fact, I’m listening to it right now). The music isn’t really music at all; it’s magical rhythmic noise that puts me into a hypnotic work trance.

It’s much better than listening to typical music, because I usually get distracted by the lyrics or beats.

I can’t vouch for the science behind the idea, but I can say that it works great for me. It’s a paid service, but they have a free trial.

Trick #2 — Use Exercise Circuits During the Break Blocks

The biggest mistake people make with Pomodoros is that they don’t take a real break. Instead, they’ll pull out their phone or open a new tab and scroll through Facebook.

The problem with this approach is that you’re not really giving yourself a break at all. You’re still staring at a screen and your brain is still processing information.

Instead, my rule for breaks is that I have to get up and leave my desk. Here’s what I’ll do during the breaks:

  • Five-minute break: go to the bathroom, get a drink, stretch, go for a lap around the office, meditate.
  • 15-30 minute break: exercise.

I’m going to focus on what I do for the 15-30 minute break. Exercise is the single best way I’ve found for waking up my mind and staying productive. Way better than coffee and other stimulants I’ve tried.

Here’s what I do: during the 15-30 minute break, I get out of my chair and do something to get my heart pumping. I keep it simple with push ups, bodyweight squats, or jumping jacks. If you’re in an office environment, climbing stairs is a good alternative.

Experts agree that it doesn’t matter what you do, just move.

The effects of a physical workout on your brain and productivity can’t be overstated. In the same way that a quick, 20-minute workout can help your brain directly before an exam, exercise can help boost your brain’s ability to learn and retain information, as well as improving creative thinking. We call this trait neuroplasticity.

You don’t want to exhaust yourself with a full body workout, of course. However, going for a walk, doing a few pushups or jumping jacks, or something to get your blood flowing will help keep your brain on the right track. This is a basic physiological response to thousands of years of evolution: if prehistoric humans fell asleep while running from danger, chances are they wouldn’t live very long. When your body is exerting physical energy, it signals to your brain that now is the time to be alert and focused, not to drift off to dreamland.

That’s it. These three techniques can help you crush your work marathons and stay productive by avoiding late-night work.

Getting Started

The next time you have a mountain of work to get through, try these three techniques:

  1. Begin with the End in Mind
  2. Zero-Based Scheduling
  3. The Pomodoro Technique

Make it easy. Take 15 minutes for #1 and #2 and then use Pomdoros until you’re finished.

Bonus: Get More All-Nighter Hacks

This post contains just a snippet of the strategies I tried during my All-Nighter Experiment. I’ve put together a special bonus area for AE readers with my free 30-page eBook: The All-Nighter Survival Guide. Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • What to eat and drink to increase your energy
  • How to use caffeine naps to recharge your batteries
  • How to stay motivated (even when you feel like quitting)
  • And much, much more…

Click here to get all this and more for free.

Over to You

After you’ve thought about each technique, let me ask you this: What was your biggest takeaway? How will you start using these to impact your day-to-day work? Leave a comment.


This is a guest post by Alistair Clark. He runs worklifefitness.co, a site that helps overworked professionals perform better at work, stay fit and healthy, and improve their work-life balance.

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1 Comment

Posted by Alexandra  | June 30, 2016 at 9:09AM | Reply

Wow, Alistair, your story was almost painful to read, but I guess this is what happens to a lot of people who are self employed. It’s only when exhaustion takes its toll you realize you need to work better, not more.
Thank you for sharing your system, your piece was very insightful.

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