Despite your best intentions, crunch time happens, whether you’re doing something you hate (billing 2500 hours a year at a soul-sucking biglaw factory) or something you love ( defending the defenseless, writing your first big magazine article, starting a surf-camp business in Costa Rica). I define crunch time as anytime you need to put intense, sustained effort into an endeavor so that it takes over your life, whether it’s something that drains your soul or sparks your spirit. The former is a lot more difficult, but the latter carries its dangers too…you can easily get so excited about something that you crunch your way out of health, balance & sanity.
Last week, I was getting ready for a major deadline, racing the clock, putting in exhausting 18-hour days. Not the first or the last time it’s happened to me, but like most things lately, I’ve realized that it doesn’t have to suck. You can occasionally do crunch time for a week or two and stay sane and healthy.
The number one way to combat the adverse effects of crunch time is to avoid it altogether. E.g., try to get things done ahead of time. But that doesn’t always work out, right? Here’s my quick survival guide for those times 18-hour days are inevitable:
Plan your work before you start. Figure out how long it’s going to take. Plan to spend the most time on the important parts. Set time limits for things you tend to get stuck on or spend too much time on (excessive brainstorming or researching, for example). Make an outline, do the research, factor in plenty of time for revising and proofreading and getting feedback.
Do what you can to avoid catastrophe, but don’t dwell on it. Save your work every time you step away, back it up on a thumb drive, and email it to yourself every couple of hours. Factor in extra time in case the printer breaks, the internet goes down, or some other unforeseen or inevitable catastrophe happens. But don’t sit around expecting things to go wrong. Plan for the worst, and always, always, always, expect the best.
Prioritize sleep and exercise. Everything else has to go (e.g. TV, internet, reading non-project materials, cooking, cleaning, shaving your legs–except sex, which counts as exercise). You know how many hours of sleep you need for a week or two of sustained effort. It’s probably around six, bare minimum. For exercise, prioritize doing the things that give you the most mental clarity, not necessarily sticking to your normal routine. I get the most mentally from hot yoga or short, brisk runs.
Band together. Crunch time is a lot more fun in the company of fellow crunch-ers. Fellow students, co-workers & partners can be enlisted to make crunch time in to a memorable party…complete with popcorn and friendly competition.
Change the scenery. Especially if you work under fluorescent lights. Disappear to a cafe, or a beautiful public library for a few hours. If it’s nice, go outside. If you work in an office and it is getting late, go home and slog on in your pajamas with your feet propped up & glass of champagne & music.
Pick your poison wisely. If you’re going to slam caffeine, pick cleaner versions (like green tea or black coffee). Don’t touch energy drinks or sugary sodas coffee concoctions. Drink plenty of water. Stay away from other stimulants. Even if they’re legal. Even if they’re over the counter. It’s just bad news. Also, eat lots of fresh, healthy food. Stock up on healthy deliciousness ahead of time so you don’t have to rely on pizza and takeout.
Take regular breaks. To drink water, to take a few deep breaths, to watch the sunset, to eat a meal like a civilized person instead of inhaling it over your computer with crumbs falling into the keyboard.
Don’t expect to suffer. Crunch time is intense, sustained effort. There is no requirement that crunch time equal suffering.
THE KICKER: There has to be a light at the end of the tunnel. You have to either see the end in sight or get deep satisfaction from the outcome. When you’re studying for finals, you know you’re getting a break in a couple of weeks. When you’re starting a business, or a charity, or writing a book, you know you’ll soon see results–people benefitting from your blood, sweat, and tears. If there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, if you look around and realize that this madness has become your life, like Groundhog Day, then you need to reexamine the path you’ve chosen. It’s called crunch time, not crunch life.
How do you survive crunch time?