I’m a perfectionist, an overachiever, and an overcommitter—a total Lisa Simpson wannabe. I set a ton of insane goals for myself, and expect to meet—no—exceed them. All of this might suggest that I’m some kind of Responsibility Champion, but not so much. I am very easily distracted (by Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, the DVR, the stack of novels next to the bed, that box of cake mix in the pantry, all of Amy Rose’s Face-ics tutorials, the sunny outside world); it takes ALL of my concentration to get anything done. And the bigger or more urgent my obligations, the shinier and more distracting those distractions get. When I have an important deadline or project on the horizon, even my messy room or closet can divert me, because organizing all of my stuff seems like a much more doable, or, in the case of studying for a test, much more fun task.
Whether or not you count Lisa Simpson among your role models, this is the time of year when school projects and final exams are popping up seemingly out of nowhere, and I want you to be able to tackle them like the bosses I know you are. Even though I’ve been out of high school and college for a while now, my life as a writer is full of deadlines big and small, so I’ve been honing my concentration and focusing skills for a long time now and I think I have some good tips to impart. I also consulted my fellow Rookie staffers and some writer buddies to bring you as many strategies and tricks as possible. Depending on your personal learning/working style, not everything here will work for you—and if you’re having so much trouble focusing in school and elsewhere that it’s affecting your grades, your relationships, your feelings, and your whole entire life, please talk to a doctor; you might have a treatable medical condition. But no matter what your particular situation might be, hopefully this list will provide you with some ideas and resources to navigate your way through the home stretch of the school year and into summer! (Ahhhh, summmmmer….)
- Speaking of summer! A great way to get motivated and kick your brain into gear is to keep your eyes on the prize. If you’re slogging through final exams and projects right now, find a picture that embodies your perfect summer—green grass, swings, a beach, the basketball court, a bright blue sky, you and your friends hanging out, whatever—and put that up somewhere in your work space. Or, if you’re more word-orientated, write yourself an inspirational message or reminder. Right now, I have a bunch of different projects to finish before I move to Seattle this summer, so I have a picture of that city on my desk with a sticky note that reads: “Remember! You are moving there this summer. Keep calm and carry on, you will get to Seattle.” Even if you don’t have a school break coming up, you can promise yourself a weekend marathon of your favorite show, a day of pampering and conspicuous consumption, or a trip to the ice cream parlor when you finish your project. You can also come up with small rewards—candy, an hour of craft time, dinner with a friend—for meeting your daily and weekly goals.
- Take a moment to calm down. Being overwhelmed with work can speed up your heart rate and shatter your ability to concentrate on any one thing, because the zillion other things you have to do keep popping back into your thoughts. Try sitting down, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breath for a few minutes. This is a basic form of meditation, which has been shown to help build tissue in parts of your brain that are associated with paying attention. Here is a good beginner’s guide to some relatively simple meditation techniques.
- Make a plan. I’m usually working on one giant project (a novel) and a bunch of smaller ones (pieces for Rookie). At the end of the school year, you might have a few big projects as well a bunch of tests to study for. Just thinking about all of the things might be so overwhelming that you feel paralyzed, unable to start on anything. Start by writing your deadlines and exam dates on a calendar or daily planner. I actually use both—I put deadlines on the wall calendar so I have a basic picture of what’s ahead, and I use the planner to break my daily work into manageable bits (and then schedule those bits). Start each day (or afternoon, if this is all after-school stuff) by making a to-do list. Then put that list in order, most urgent/important to least. (If they’re ALL urgent, put them in any order, but try to alternate between harder and easier tasks.) Now you know what to focus on first—whatever’s at the top of the list—and don’t have to drive yourself crazy fretting about all the other stuff. You’ll get to it.
- Give yourself as much of a cushion as possible. Overestimate the amount of time it will take to each thing on your list. I used to be in a constant state of panic because everything on my to-do list took twice as long as I’d guessed and I would miss my deadlines; then my panic would take up even more of my precious time. Eventually, I realized I was setting myself up to fail. Don’t do this. Also: even if you plan everything perfectly, you’re a human being and sometimes life happens to you and everyone understands that you have no control over getting sick or a family crisis. People also tend to understand that sometimes things just take longer than you thought they would, and if you just fess up, you very well may get an extension. (Don’t do this too often, though, or people will feel less sympathetic.)
- Figure out when, where, and what makes you most productive. You probably have some idea of this already—whether you are most focused in the morning, in the afternoon, or at night, in a quiet room at home or at a busy place like a café. But it doesn’t hurt to experiment with different techniques—you might find that each project you work on asks for a different setting or time, and that your habits change too. I used to work best at night, but now I find myself most focused super early in the morning. I hate this because I don’t like getting up early, but when I’ve got a big deadline, I just remind myself that it’s only temporary. Make that your mantra if you know you have to give up a few weekends to get things done. Emma D. suggests temporarily changing your workplace. “I like to study in my bed or in a bathtub or lying on the lawn when I get sick of my desk. Focusing/studying when my body is relaxed is surprisingly effective,” she says. A change of scenery, or a 30-minute walk, run or bike ride, can do wonders for clearing your head and getting your focus back. One caveat: while experimentation is helpful, tight deadlines are never the time to screw around—stick with what you know works for you.
- Tend to your basic needs. You must sleep and eat in order to function. Yes, caffeine can help you work while tired, but it is no substitute for actual sleep. Use it in moderation (personally, I stick with tea to keep me alert but not jittery) and if your deadline is turning you into an insomniac, try these remedies. If you don’t have parents, roommates or a partner who will keep you fed, stock up on frozen meals and energy bars or make a big batch of soup or beans and rice or whatever your favorite (filling!) comfort food may be. Put sleeping and eating on your schedule! Skipping them will only lead to sickness, which will lead to losing precious time, which will lead to panic. TRUST ME, this cycle is to be avoided.
- Organize your space to your liking. Personally, I have to start any project in a clean room. Even though I don’t like cleaning, it magically becomes very enticing when I’m supposed to be doing other things. So I tidy up my work room at the outset, and I keep it pretty clean for a few days. Then I around day four I tell myself that cleanliness is not the priority here—and that, in fact, messiness is a sign of hard work. This is what my office looked like after I met my last book deadline:
That was OK, though. Once I’m in the flow of my work, messiness is less distracting to me. But see what works for you.
- Enhance your space to your liking. I find that engaging a bunch of different senses at once keeps my attention from wandering off, so I like to burn incense or scented candles while I’m writing, and I turn on some kind of background noise—lately I’ve been liking the Brainwave Tuner app, which is available for all types of smartphones and plays trippy sounds at different speeds/frequencies depending on what you want to do: focus, learn faster, meditate, etc. I heard about Brainwave Tuner from my friend and fellow writer Jeri Smith-Ready, who also also swears by film scores (her personal favorite is from the movie 300) while she’s working, because they are for the most part lyric free and therefore less likely to distract. It’s OK to work in total silence, of course, or to blast dance music or metal if that’s your jam. I like to build a different playlist for each thing I’m working on, to help me shift into the required mood.
- Take how you learn best into consideration, especially when you’re studying. Do you learn through reading and/or writing; through looking at images and diagrams; listening to lectures or audiobooks; or by doing? Be sure to employ whatever techniques work best for you, whether that means writing and rewriting your notes, making charts and illustrations to lay all the information out, reading aloud and maybe even recording it and listening back, or taking something apart and physically putting it back together.
- Cut out distractions. The internet is my biggest distraction. I know a lot of other people feel the same way. There are many ways to scale back, depending on how much time you need to carve out for yourself and how strong your self-control is. On the light end, for people who don’t need to be controlled but just informed, there are lots of free extensions for Google Chrome that will let you know precisely how much you spend on a given website on a given day—Ananke Timer is one example that I hear good things about. For people like me on the other end of the self-control spectrum, there’s Freedom, an app I use whenever I start a new project. Freedom completely blocks you from the internet for an amount of time you specify beforehand (up to eight hours, with the option to start again when your session ends). It costs 10 bucks, but it has been totally worth it for me. If you there are just a couple of sites that you need to be blocked from, you can use another Chrome extension called Stay Focused. It’s highly customizable; you can choose what you’re blocked from and for how long. (Of course, if you know Facebook is just always going to be a problem for you, deactivating your account until the end of finals might be the way to go. It can also be a nice way to emotionally cleanse yourself of social media.) If you need even more motivation than that and you are working on a paper or another writing project, there is a program called Write or Die that you can use for free online (or pay $10 to download). This app keeps you writing. If you stop after a certain amount of time (which you preset), it prods you in some way that’s determined by the mode you choose. The gentle mode simply reminds you with a pop-up window to keep typing. Normal mode emits an unpleasant sound that doesn’t stop until you start writing again. The kamikaze setting actually starts to delete your words if you stop. That’s too upsetting for me to even try, but you might be more hardcore than I am!
- Make an announcement. Let your friends know that you are going to be absorbed in your project for X amount of time, so you won’t have to feel guilty about saying no to parties, day trips, or anything else. (Not that you should ever feel guilty for saying no in your own best interest—but if you are an overcommitter like me, it’s good to be reminded.) Speaking of which:
- Use your friends. They can be great sources of motivation, especially if you are all studying for finals or working to meet deadlines. (But if you’re like Hazel, who knows she has to study alone because groups are too distracting for her, tell your friends you’ll see them after finals are over.) Since writing is usually a solo, isolated task, my writer friends and I keep each other accountable. Sometimes I’ll tweet that I’m going to do at 90-minute writing session at a certain time and see who wants to join me—even if no one does, I’ve just told the entire internet that I’m going to stay off the internet for 90 minutes—my fear of being caught keeps me offline. When I’m avoiding the internet completely, Jeri and I text in the morning to share our goals, encourage each other, and then set a time to check in.
- Exercise your brain. You can teach yourself to focus for longer periods of time by doing fun things like watching a long movie without letting yourself check your computer or your phone, and without taking any breaks (except to pee), till it’s done. Then start timing yourself to work without distractions or breaks for 10-minute chunks, then gradually build up your time. When I’m working on a long-term project like a novel, eventually I get into a mode where I can sit for hours, totally engrossed in my work, but it takes weeks and sometimes even months to build up to that. Some of the other Rookies use tools to time their working periods and their breaks: Leanna sets an alarm; Allegra uses the Chrome extension Chromodoro as her timer.
- Make adjustments as necessary!
Good luck on your big projects and tests, my friends. I raise my Responsibility Champion mug to you! ♦