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. (NB. 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).
Extreme tidiness is conducive to successful last-minute work marathons.
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’.
Just because you’re a procrastinator, that doesn’t give you any right to be writing sloppy. Whatever you end up churning out tonight is not going to be your best work, so don’t lose points on any formatting errors. Check your syllabus. Check Purdu Owl. Check out whatever formatting this paper needs and do it right now. Write out that header and your title and for the LOVE OF GOD: DO NOT FORGET THE PAGE NUMBERS. This step is crucial because you don’t have to worry about it at three a.m when you finally finish this damn thing, and it will make you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Good job by you!
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.
Your procrastination has paid off and now is the time to figure out what your professor wants from you. Whip out those highlighters and take a look at the prompt. You don’t have time to study it carefully, but at least go through it once. As you read through it your first and final time, mark all the important things such as page requirements, specific questions that need answering and required sources. Be sure to know when, where and how to turn in your essay. You don’t want to be scrambling to print last minute.
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).
You’re going to need something to help you grind through the next steps, so grab some coffee or soda to boost your energy. With how little time you have, breaks aren’t an option. Get ready to burn your engines hot, full steam ahead.
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.
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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.
Just because you can sleep a little doesn’t mean you can sleep in! Who do you think you are? No no, it’s time to wake up and smell the revisions. Now that you’ve slept, you have fresh eyes to go over that paper. This will be painful, but since we are officially in crunch time, this step is only here to make sure you don’t have typos. Scan over your paper. Run spell check. Make sure everything makes moderate sense
. You’ll thank me later: revise revise revise.
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.
Once you finish writing, the best thing to do is sleep on it. This might seem odd, seeing as your paper is due tomorrow, but I promise it’ll help. It doesn’t matter if your paper is due in the morning; I guarantee you won’t make much progress going straight into revisions. Set your alarm a little earlier than normal and go to bed. When you wake up, grab a snack and revise with a fresh set of eyes. Do another once-over to fix any awkward sentences and redundancies and to make sure you hit that page requirement.
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.
Unless you sit in your room and doodle about all day, chances are you’ve had a pretty hectic day. You’ve had classes, you’ve been dreading writing this paper, you need a lil pick me up. Make some coffee. Or tea. Or drink some water. Eat some fruit. Although this section is titled “coffee” what I really mean is “whatever will give you the energy and will power to fight through this paper.” You need to be feeling good in order to be working great. I default to coffee because it’s in my life’s blood.
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)
Some deadlines are absolutely inflexible and you will lose marks if you fail to meet them; give them top priority.
Now, for some of these tasks it will be absolutely essential that you hand the work in on or before the deadline.
When this is all done, you are more than welcome to submit that jank and call it a day! You’ll swear to yourself that you’ll never procrastinate again. You’re lying. When your next deadline comes around, feel free to remember these handy dandy tips and tricks.
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.
After you thought about the subject you need to write the essay. Start by writing five words or sentences that best describe your topic. After you wrote these, think about your introduction and conclusion. Think how you would like to approach the essay, considering the words that were already written.
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.
The most important thing that you have to do during this hour is to keep your calm. If you will panic, your mind will start wondering off and you will have trouble concentrating, making it impossible to finish the essay. Take a seat at your desk and close anything that can make noises, this includes the TV and your cell phone. After you are sitting at the desk in total silence, start thinking about the subject at hand. At this stage you should not write a thing, just consider the topic for a couple of minutes.
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.
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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.
You probably don’t know your specific topic yet, seeing as you just started. However, that shouldn’t limit your ability to make a plan of attack. Take a look at your highlights and generate an outline of the general items you need; “thesis” and “paragraph on context,” for example.
If you want to complete a large amount of work in little time, you must be inflexible with your schedule.
Make a timetable detailing exactly when you’re going to do each of the things on your list.
There are plenty reasons of why you’d may need to write your essay in just one hour, and regardless of those you should know that this is not an impossible task.The first thing that you need to understand is that this method is not something that should be done regularly. No essay written in one hour will ever be better than one which was written in a few days. But it is an option you can use when you need to finish an essay fast.
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.
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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.
Michael is a senior studying Creative Writing and Film/Television at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Aside from a passion for writing, film, and television, Michael enjoys his hobbies of cooking and ultimate Frisbee. In the future he hopes to combine his passions for writing and mass media to write reviews and maybe even a screenplay or two.
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.
Another great strategy for this all-nighter paper is to set breaks for yourself. Set a timer for a half hour. In that half hour, you must write for as long as possible, and at the end of the half hour: break time! You can go on Facebook, retweet that Kim K. konversation, watch “Formation” for the fortieth time: whatever! Give your brain a break for fifteen minutes and then go back in. Repeat this until done.
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
Not every work of art can be a masterpiece; sometimes you really must wrap it up and move on.
If you’re still not happy with something near the end of the time you’ve allotted for it — tough.
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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.
You won’t finish this essay unless you avoid distractions completely. Lock yourself in your room, go to your favorite library or slap in some earplugs. Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself any opportunity for distractions. Yes, this includes your phone. Unless you have a legitimate reason to have your phone on, turn it off until you crank out that essay.
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.
It’s time to add the meat to the skeleton. Take 10 to 20 minutes to figure out your argument and hone in on an approach. Develop a working thesis and your topic sentences. Focus on making your thesis functional, not perfect. You’re running out of time, so you just need a workable foundation to get you started. You can revise it later. Once you have your specific topic, write. Write like the wind, Bullseye! Treat it like a timed final and try to crank it out in less than an hour. Don’t worry about page limits, just generate as much content as you can with the material you’ve got.
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.
The essay would be properly researched and will be given to the student beforehand so that they can see if there are any revisions required.
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.
You heard it all the time in middle school and you never did it: outline your papers! I know, you’re a college student, you’re a great writer, you don’t need an outline. Trust me: it helps. Outlines give you the opportunity to focus your papers a little bit more. You have the skeleton of your paper lined up right there. It’s the night before your paper’s due, and you don’t have the time to get to page four in a five page paper and run out of ideas. Have a plan.
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.
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Take it from me, look at the bigger picture and simply move on.
5. Be selfish
It’s tempting, of course, but you must say “no.”
I’ve got a friend who actively refuses to make any plans other than a quick coffee for about four weeks before any deadline.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
2 Responses to “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”
September 04, 2017 at 11:29 am, Justine said:
This is an excellent and non-judgemental article. Thank you. I have an assignment due in 3 1/2 hours.
You did it! You wrote an entire revised essay in less than 24 hours. Celebrate with some much-needed caffeine and print (or upload) your newly crafted masterpiece.
I needed this pep talk. Thank you.
September 28, 2017 at 7:43 am, K said:
Very very helpful. My partner tried to persuade me not to write a to do lost or plan how and when I would get thugs done. That I should just get on with it. But now I can acknowledge the procrastination I must allow myself and plan how I actually get sh** done. I’ve just realised that I’ve got a reunion weekend slap bang in the middle of having rto e-do a dissertation. Can’t cancel. I can’t WAIT to plan how I’m going to be very inflexible and get this work done..