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’.
I might sound like a swot, but I like to start writing mine a week before the due in date so its not rushed. I have one due in next Friday and I will probably start it tommorrow evening and try to get it done by Monday. That way I have time to make adjustments if I want.
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.
So—write down the first three or four ideas that occur to you. If you cannot think of an appropriate topic, ask a parent or a friend to review the assignment with you. Do not spend more than 10 or 15 minutes on this part of your essay, as the execution ultimately matters more than the idea itself.
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).
There are many resources that can advise you on how to write a wonderful essay, but the purpose of this article is to shape that advice to the demands of a very short timeline. This includes resisting the urge to abandon the outline. Having an outline is even more important for a one-day essay than for a week-long project with a similar word count. A strong outline will keep your essay focused and organized from the start—which is critical when time constraints will limit your rewrites.
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.
You don't want to finish one essay only to find all the books for the next one have been taken out. Get your resources together so you can form a plan. Even if you don't intend to start the essay for a while, having the books ready will make you feel more comfortable and prepared, and you won't feel as though you've done nothing at all for one piece of work.
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.
Sometimes it can be useful to write them side-by-side because if you get bored or stuck with one, you can have a stab at the other. Some people might find this too confusing and prefer to tackle one first.
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.
Under normal circumstances, you might devote several days to brainstorming a promising topic, and then you might write a detailed outline before writing and revising your essay over a week or two. When you are on a tight schedule, this is not possible.
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)
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.
Whether you are writing a personal statement for a college or graduate school application, or an essay for a high school or college class, your assignment will have specific goals. Before you begin to write, review these goals. Clearly understanding your objective is essential when working with a shortened timeline.
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.
Establishing deadlines for a one-day essay is key. Budget 5-10 minutes for brainstorming, 15-20 minutes for creating an outline, and several hours for writing. You can also set aside an hour for feedback and review, and another hour for any necessary revisions. You should also allow for an hour-long break to recharge your mind. Finally, plan to submit your essay several hours before the deadline. A schedule with some flexibility will allow you to adapt to any unforeseen complications.
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.
Either way: make a schedule. Plan a couple of weeks in advance when you'll do the reading and writing for each and write these dates down. Even if you've found yourself with only a few days until the deadline - plan what you will do on each day. It's important to keep things focussed so you spend equal time on both.
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.
Whenever possible, arrange for reviewers (such as your parents or friends) first thing in the morning, and let them know when they can expect a draft. When your deadline is in several days or weeks, you have the luxury of finding reviewers after you have finished your draft. With a shorter deadline, you will not have this ability. Be clear on the short turnaround time to ensure as smooth a review period as possible.
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.
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.
What's more, going to lectures will help simulate your mind - if you stay home, nothing will be forcing you to come up with new ideas.
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.
In addition, do not stress yourself about selecting the “perfect” topic. Without a topic, you will have no essay to turn in, and any essay is better than no essay. (It naturally follows that any topic is also better than no topic at all.)
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.
Finally, remember that “perfect is the enemy of good.” Manage your expectations. Your goal should be to write a good essay, not a perfect one. If you have a compelling hook and a well-organized flow of ideas, check your writing for errors, and then send it in.
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
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. 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.
You have two options when tackling two essays: write them one-by-one, or write them at the same time over a longer period. The choice is yours, and there's no right way.
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.
Whatever your preferences - make sure you have all the food, caffeine, and music you need ready before you begin.
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
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.
Tools like StayFocusd restrict the amount of time you can spend on time-wasting websites such as Twitter or Facebook. Put your phone on aeroplane mode for 20 minutes at a time, or tell your flatmate to bugger off when she wants to come chat about Terry from theology. Whatever your weakness: find a way to combat it.
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.
When you are under pressure, your tendency may be to start writing and to see where your essay goes. Try instead to use a brief anecdote or emotional impact statement (i.e. the “hook” in your opening paragraph) to set the stakes for your essay. This is essentially your opportunity to state why your argument or idea is worth your reader’s attention.
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.
If they're both equally important, make sure you divide your time properly. You don't want to end up with one kickass essay and one terrible one - ensure you have time enough to research, write, and proofread both.
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. 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..