What do you do when you're faced with an impossible deadline? You probably dive right in and work as hard and as fast as you can. But that might be the wrong approach, says neuroscientist Josh Davis, author of Two Awesome Hours. Instead, start by focusing on your own mental and emotional state.

It's happened to everyone, and it's always a horrible feeling. Your biggest customer gives you a job that should take a week to complete, but tells you it's needed in two days. Or an investor you've been asking to pitch suddenly wants to see you tomorrow morning, as happened to the founders of Netflix. Or you find out that the presentation you planned to give before a huge crowd must be completely rewritten and you've got less than two days to do it.

That last thing actually happened to Davis. "I was on my way to give a talk at a big conference, there were going to be hundreds of people in the audience," he recalled in the latest episode of the YouTube series Intersections. The talk was scheduled for a Monday, and on the previous Saturday, Davis learned that a more senior colleague of his who was also presenting at the same conference was planning to give virtually the same talk. As the more junior of the two, Davis had to change his presentation, and he had only two days to come up with a new one. 

That was bad enough, but to make matters worse, he had already traveled to the city where the conference was to be held--with his wife. "It's a city that's a fun city and I've asked my wife to join me and she's gone to great pains to take the time off so she can be there for the weekend," he said. "Suddenly, I'm in this position where I have to create this whole new presentation and there is this tremendous pressure--how am I going to make this worthwhile for people? And meanwhile, I really don't want to let my wife down, we've been so looking forward to this." 

What would you do in that situation? If you're like me, you would first apologize profusely, send your spouse off to explore the fun city alone, and lock yourself in your hotel room with a pot of coffee. And then spend the next two hours staring uselessly at a blank screen, too stressed and upset to come up with a brand-new presentation.

Because of his neuroscience training, Davis knew better than to do any of that. "The first thing I did was to go out for a walk around the city with my wife for a couple of hours and have a leisurely lunch with her," he said. "The stress levels started to reduce. It was still on my mind; I knew I had to do it. But what happened was, there were breakthroughs occurring in my mind." 

Not wanting to abandon his wife or their plans, Davis did tourist things with her and wrote the new presentation during a few one- or two-hour sessions between other activities over the next day and a half. You might guess this approach would lead to a mediocre session, one that was different from his colleague's and acceptable for the audience but not particularly wonderful. Instead, it was one of his biggest successes. "People loved the presentation," he said. "It was a big hit, and I've been able to use it again and again."

"What is actually important?"

There are two big lessons you can learn from this story. The first is one that I've had to learn the hard way multiple times. When you are feeling mentally or physically unwell, you may be able to perform a mindless task, but you won't be able to do your best work. You'll lose both efficiency and effectiveness. So if you're faced with a difficult deadline, your first job is to take care of your own well-being before you tackle the daunting project in front of you. It might seem to you like you're losing valuable time, but in fact the opposite is true.

The second big lesson is that you can use the constraint of time or resources to help you focus on what's most essential. With so little time to create a new presentation, Davis started asking himself some questions. "What is actually important for me to do here with this audience? What are the messages I have that really are unique?" 

Working in short snatches "forced me into this position where my mind automatically started going to this place of asking what is important here," Davis said. "And the work I did was so on point." Just as important, he was able to spend lots of time with his wife. "She was happy that she'd come."

How can you apply this knowledge next time you're stuck with your own impossible deadline? Begin by checking in on how you're feeling, physically and mentally. Is the tight deadline making you anxious? If so, do what you need to to feel better. Davis notes that 20 minutes of moderate exercise can act as a "reset switch" if you want to change your mood.

Then, ask yourself the questions Davis did about what's most essential. Once you figure that out, you can pare away the rest. And that impossible deadline might start looking possible after all.