\#studyingforcomps - focus techniques

Staying focused is hard, being productive perhaps even more challenging. In grad school the challenge of focus is especially true because there are SO many things pulling for your attention. Your research, your classes, any teaching you do, writing grants, writing papers, presenting at conferences, and all the other tasks. It makes it easy to be very busy without actually doing anything.

Over Christmas Break I was studying for my comprehensive exams, trying to get through a chunk of the reading before my classes started in January. Trying to do anything while home over break is difficult, everyone wants your time and doesn’t want to sit and watch you read. As a result, I didn’t get as much done as I thought and when spring semester started I set some rules for my self and tried some new things to help myself focus.

I share an office with my lab mates, there are six of us in here. Most of the time the noise isn’t an issue, but it can get noisy. As a result I got a pair of over-ear headphones. Previously I’d always used ear buds, but they were giving me headaches and didn’t really block out all the chaos around me.

I blocked a bunch of websites from my web browser. I use Google Chrome most of the time and I added the ‘stay focused’ extension. I blocked hulu, netflix, reddit, twitter, facebook, everything I didn’t need to have available to me during the day. I had discovered in the fall while I thought I could ‘listen to TV shows’ in the background and still get things done they were crazy distracting. Now I only let myself watch TV at home in the evenings.

I’ve also started listening to a lot of brown noise via ‘simply noise’ overlay-ed with rain noises via ‘simply rain’ instead of listening to music. Before I was listening to Pandora, which was fine, but I kept getting distracted trying to get my stations ‘just right’ and constant noise in the background doesn’t distract me like music does. Constant noise combined with my new headphones drowns out my lab mates. Which they have quickly adapted to. Now they know they have to get my attention before talking to me.

I was introduced to Pomodoro’s via this piece from GradHacker and have found it really helpful for both reading and writing. I can make myself do almost anything for 25 minutes. I set the timer on my computer, crank up the brown noise and go. Then I get five minutes off, to talk to my lab mates, eat a snack, check twitter on my phone, whatever. It works well with my need for constant change while still allowing me to get things done. It doesn’t work as well for coding in R

I’ve also been finding myself printing off more of my reading. Which is odd since I’ve been using Mendeley religiously for awhile now. But for really stats heavy papers it helps me to be able to read them in their paper form and highlight/scribble the heck out of them. I’ve been transferring a lot of my notes back into Mendeley. I don’t have a good rule yet for how to decide whether to print a paper or not, but if I keep getting stuck rereading the abstract and not getting anything out of it, I hit print, and it seems to have helped thus far.

Now granted these techniques are not foolproof. That’s why I’m writing this post on a rainy Saturday afternoon when I can’t seem to concentrate on anything for more then five minutes, but these ‘techniques’ have helped overall.

I’m always open to new ideas on how to help focus my attention. Feel free to drop me a line in the comments or on twitter (@rallidaerule) hopefully it won’t distract me more then I already distract myself.

Written on March 12, 2014