As a graduate student, you’ll often be confronted with mentally challenging tasks. Your thesis, for example, demands you to write about difficult concepts, understand dense research articles, and analyze unruly data. Here are five strategies to help you focus so that you can tackle these tasks:
Strategy #1: Schedule tasks based on your energy level
In his book – The Power of When – Dr. Michael Breus discusses chronotypes. Chronotypes describes our bodies’ natural sleep habits and energy patterns. Each person can be classified into one of four chronotypes – bears (normal sleep schedule), lions (morning person), wolves (night person), and dolphins (irregular sleep schedule). Based on my wolf chronotype, I should schedule easier tasks earlier during the day and more challenging tasks later on. Personally, I find it less of a hurdle to start my day when my morning to-do list contains easier tasks (e.g. checking references or making tables/figures). It is also less daunting for me to tackle hard-to-do items (e.g. writing new materials) after lunch or even after dinner. Scheduling tasks based on one’s energy level makes sense because at your peak time, you have the extra energy to focus more. You are also making the most of your day by scheduling easier tasks when you are not at your prime.
You can try this strategy for yourself. For the next 3 to 5 days, simply note down how alert or energetic you feel within 1- or 2-hour intervals. Identify whether you are at your peak, off-peak, or anywhere in-between. See if a pattern emerges. Try to schedule tasks based on the ebb and flow of your energy level.
Strategy #2: Visualize (and compartmentalize) your work
I found this tip by listening to Prof. Tara Brabazon’s vlog on compartmentalization. Prof. Brabazon suggests a visualization technique to compartmentalize your life, when you are struggling to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities. I adapted her visualization technique to help me focus on my thesis. Basically, I visualize my thesis as a box with smaller boxes inside it. Each smaller box is a chapter. When I’m about to start work, I visualize opening the big box and taking out a smaller box corresponding to the chapter that I’ll be working on. So far, visualization has been helpful. It enables me to focus on a particular part of my thesis and move that part forward.
Visualization may sound new-agey for some, but elite athletes have been known to use visualization to improve their physical performances. Give it a go. Perhaps visualization may also help graduate students to get through their programs?
Strategy #3: Externalize your distractions
Clear your mind by externalizing your distractions, and externalize your distractions by writing them down. A few suggestions:
- Write in a journal or personal diary
- Make lists
- Do a brain dump (or free-writing)
- Create a list of distractions – write down any unrelated thoughts that cross your mind while you are working
I read about creating a list of distractions in Chris Bailey’s book – The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time. This is a very effective technique. I also find the number of times I wanted to scrub the bathtub while working on my thesis quite interesting.
Strategy #4: Let your environment do part of the heavy lifting
Let your environment do part of the heavy lifting by associating your work to certain cues or routines. My 15-year old daughter does a lot of detailed artwork. Before she starts on her artwork, she puts on her red sweatshirt, makes a cup of hot chocolate or tea, and lights a scented candle. She can focus for hours and ignore almost everything around her.
Helen Sword talks about this technique in her book – Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. She refers to the technique as spatialized rituals, which is writing based on triggers associated with place, time, or frame of mind. Perhaps you can focus better if you do your readings at one of these cafes around Kingston? Or, be more inspired to write at the Harry Potter room at the Douglas Library?
Strategy #5: Train for focus
Caveat, my approach to strategy #5 is purely theoretical.
Think of your brain as a muscle. Train your brain to focus by doing yoga or meditations.
Other than training your brain, you should also physically train. Make sure to get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise weekly. Exercise improves your brain function, memory, and thinking skills.
Do you have a strategy to help you focus? Please share in the comments section.