Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Focus on Focus

The home stretch.  The last enchilada.  For all the cookies.  However you want to word it, things are finally starting to wrap up this semester.  I don't know about all of you, but this semester has flown by.  We're talking swallow-and-coconut speed here.  (And anyone who understood that is automatically one hundred times better than those who didn't)

When it gets this close to the end of the semester, few things are as valuable as focus.  And fewer things are attacked on so many angles.  Friends.  Family.  Facebook.  Video games.  Shopping trips.  Impromptu Sweedish meatball parties ... you name it, it's calling for your attention.  Distraction is a powerful beast.

And we feed him.

So how can we defeat this monster that threatens to eat away all our free time, leaving us a panicked scrambling shell of a student, slamming away at a keyboard with speeds that leave your fingertips fractured and bleeding?  Well, I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that victory is always within your grasp.  The bad news is you have just enough rope to hang yourself.  Focus and discipline are rarely fun things to exercise, but there are a few tips that can make this battle easier:

1. Get out: The brain is a tricky little bugger.  If you constantly repeat the same kinds of activities in the same locations, your mind begins to expect those things and subconsciously prepare you for that kind of action.  Ever had trouble studying in bed?  Fall asleep in the same class no matter how awake you feel at the beginning?  Feel your stomach rumbling when you walk into a restaurant?  It's the same basic phenomena.  If you're like me and use your personal living space for relaxation, it's going to be a thousand times harder to study.  Not only are distractions present, but your mind has already warmed itself up for some fun.  Your own brain chemistry is working against you!  Go somewhere where you frequently study, or at least somewhere you don't frequently goof off.

2. Don't use your laptop: Let me clarify -- I'm not saying don't use any laptop.  If at all possible, use a public computer that has limited web access.  When you study on your own computer, it's going to be more tempting to hop on to Facebook or Twitter to check what everyone has to say.  And honestly, even typing that sentence made me want to jump on and check my own updates.  It's practically a reflex for people nowadays -- open browser, go to Facebook.

And yes, I realize that this has some logistical difficulties.  Sometimes projects require unrestricted internet access.  It's not a perfect plan, but if you can find a way to eliminate the temptation, do so.  It helps.

3. Silence your phone: Or if you're really feeling crazy, leave it behind.  For some of you, that may be like cutting off a limb.  I have a news flash for you: you'll live.  Get over it.  Not only are you constantly tempted to text, call, or Facebook, but you're much more likely to send or receive a self-sabotaging S.O.S.  If someone calls you with a more tempting activity (and let's be honest, if you're studying that's not difficult), you're much more likely to snap up the offer and put things off yet again.  Avoiding the situation entirely makes it easier to focus.  Duh.

And again, I realize there are some issues with this.  What if an emergency occurs?  What if someone desperately needs to ask a question?  A technique I've used in the past involves leaving my phone with a roommate and letting them know where I am.  If an important call or text comes in, he knows where to find me.  It's imperfect, but it works.

4. Don't blitz: Take breaks.  Reasonable breaks.  When I'm working on a big writing project, I'll usually stop about every hour and walk around campus for five or ten minutes.  There's not really a point to it, but stepping away from the project and getting some fresh air gives my brain a chance to slow down and process what's going on.  Sometimes I'll wander around and think about the paper, but more often I try to think about something else.  Give your brain a break every once in a while.  It will thank you.

5. Use what works for you: This isn't a dogmatic set of rules.  There is no magical formulae for productivity.  If you find yourself more distracted without your phone, constantly worried about what people might be saying, then ignore what I said and bring it with you.  Each of us are wired differently, and the trick is not stumbling upon the magical series of actions that forces you to be productive.  You have to want to be productive, or at least be willing to put legitimate, concerted effort towards it.

Of all the times to be focused in school, these last weeks are among the most important.  So saddle up, buckle down, put your nose to the grindstone, and kick it in to high gear.  Or whatever productivity metaphor you prefer.

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