Ask D.I.: Any advice on how to stay focused?

How to stay focused.

So you’ve sat down to write a book, or finish your thesis, or put together that big report you have to present on Monday. Knowing that you have to get some work done is one thing. But actually figuring out how to stay focused while you work? That’s another thing entirely.

Today’s question comes from Tumblr:

I’ve got a big paper due really soon and I know I’ve gotta get it done. But I always end up on Facebook or Wikipedia or reorganizing my bookshelf or whatever…Any advice on how to stay focused?

Whether you’re doing schoolwork or getting started on your Camp NaNoWriMo project, figuring out how to stay focused is the key to being successful.

Here are a few quick tips on how to stay focused:

1) Set manageable goals.

When you’re working on a big project (e.g. a novel, a dissertation), it’s easy to become demotivated. After all, the task can seem so large that it feels nigh impossible to actually achieve.

Feeling intimidated by your project? Try breaking up your big goal into a bunch of smaller, more manageable goals. Think about it like trying to climb a series of hills rather than scale a mountain: staying focused on the smaller obstacles makes it much easier to overcome the bigger obstacle.

Writing a book? Focus on finishing each individual chapter. Working on a college essay? Think about it as a collection of distinct sections—e.g. an introduction, two to three arguments, and a conclusion. Remember: focusing your attention on small wins can help you preserve your momentum and stay motivated to finish your project.

2) Be strict with your time.

Allot dedicated periods of time to work on your project. Be specific: rather than saying “I’ll work on it sometime after I get home from work,” say “I’ll work on it every weekday from 8:00 to 8:30.” Plug these times into your calendar. If you use digital applications like Google Calendar, set up automatic alerts to remind you when it’s time to start working.

Now stick to your plan. Don’t be afraid to say no to friends and family members who want to hang out during your dedicated writing time. This is your time—it’s okay to be selfish.

How to stay focused.
Technology can both help and hurt your ability to stay focused.

3) Cut out distractions.

Eliminating distractions is a key part of figuring out how to stay focused. First things first: turn off your phone and get off time-wasting websites. If you find yourself drifting into a Wikipedia sinkhole or taking too many Buzzfeed quizzes, try downloading productivity apps that help keep you focused. Software like SelfControl (free, for Macs) and Freedom ($10, for PC) blocks your access to certain websites for set periods of time. You can also try free browser apps like StayFocusd for Google Chrome and LeechBlock for Mozilla Firefox in order to achieve a similar effect.

The Internet isn’t your only concern. Try to minimize distractions in the real world, as well. Are you the type that works best in a noiseless environment? Go to the quietest space in your home and close the door. If necessary, invest in some ear plugs that you can use to block out noise.

Do you work best with sound? Play neutral songs like classical or ambient music, anything that doesn’t have lyrics or other distracting things that might refocus your attention. Alternately, try noise generators like SimplyNoise, which work by masking distracting noises with more soothing sounds.

4) Reward yourself.

Give yourself tangible incentives for completing your tasks for the day. Some people find that promising themselves fun activities can help them stay motivated to finish their work—for example, for every hour’s worth of writing you complete, you get to watch 30 minutes of TV. Others prefer more physical awards—a slice of cake after finishing that chapter of your dissertation, perhaps, or a new pair of shoes for successfully completing your presentation.

However, your biggest reward will come when you finish your big project. Think about how proud you’ll be when you finally submit your thesis, earn that promotion, or finish your novel. Reminding yourself why these goals are important to you can help to keep you motivated to finish the project.

What do you think? What strategies do you use to keep yourself focused and motivated?

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

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