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How to Concentrate

Tips for wiping out distraction and getting down to business.

Illustration by Ruby A.

Illustration by Ruby A.

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:

    2013-04-22 10.29.13

    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! ♦

38 Comments

  • Ella W May 3rd, 2013 7:27 PM

    I totally get the film music thing when revising. The Lord of the Rings was my soundtrack for my January exams, and as I have just got the music from the Hobbit, I have no doubt as to what I’ll be revising to this summer.

    http://gorillalegs.blogspot.co.uk/

    • soretudaaa May 4th, 2013 8:46 PM

      I don’t really do film music, but something quite folk-y and acoustic helps me concentrate a lot…. I found out Jeff Buckley is the best soundtrack for stoichiometry problems :)

  • catpower44 May 3rd, 2013 7:32 PM

    This is amazing and exactly what I need right now. I don’t have any projects right now, but I have exams at the end of the month along with end of year projects in June. I’m a HUGE procrastinator, so I’ll put off time until I do things at the last minute. I’m pretty organised, though. I’ll use your advice about pictures, I’m going on a trip to Europe this summer, so I’m going to put some pictures above my desk!

    http://flowyshirtsminiskirts.blogspot.ca/
    http://cosmicballerinas.tumblr.com/

  • Maryse89 May 3rd, 2013 7:33 PM

    Hey similar to some of those Chrome extensions is a free app for Mac users that I want to plug here because it just SAVED my life and allowed me to write a 30 page paper in 20 hours yesterday (when with all my usual internet distractions it probably would have taken days!):

    it’s called “self control”, it lets you customize your list of sites to block, and customize the time up to 24 hours…

    it’s amazing!

    http://selfcontrolapp.com

  • ladiesfirst May 3rd, 2013 8:05 PM

    The application “Self Control” is immensely helpful. It’s totally free and allows you to block certain websites (i.e.: facebook, tumblr, nytimes, bbc, youtube–anything that’s distracting to you) for up to 12 hours.
    Getting it was the BEST decision I’ve ever made, and coupled with deactivating facebook during finals/APs, I get work done in a much more efficient manner.

    • ladiesfirst May 3rd, 2013 8:05 PM

      Sorry, forgot the download link!
      Here ’tis:
      http://selfcontrolapp.com

    • Mayabett May 5th, 2013 2:13 PM

      I was just about to recommend the app Self Control! It’s absolutely amazing – totally saved me during my last round of final projects for school.

  • luanda jabur May 3rd, 2013 8:27 PM

    I’m really, really happy that you posted it. I’m from Brazil and I’m dealing with a terrible moment in my scientific iniciation. It’s like I know everything that my project says but when i try to make it clear it only gets unclear, tumblr doesn’t help and i totally star cleaning my room all the time and then it gets messy again. Thank you for the post! Just feels good knowing someone goes through the same stuff and that it’s possible to get over!

  • Narnia May 3rd, 2013 8:27 PM

    I needed this really badly! when i become overwhelmed i tend to become completely apathetic, which makes me hate myself. so much. lately i cant even read books because keep analyzing the writing of the author and comparing it to mine and getting afraid I dont have enough talent/potential. and ive begun to hate competition so much its hard for me to have motivation in school. but I used to have OCD/perfectionism and it was horrible but I long for how motivated it made. i wish i cared more/less. im so worried.

  • Bridget May 3rd, 2013 8:32 PM

    I can’t even focus on this article I JUST SKIMMED IT THIS IS BECOMING A PROBLEM

  • KatGirl May 3rd, 2013 8:40 PM

    hyperbole and a half is awesome alot :)

  • Nadya May 3rd, 2013 9:01 PM

    It amazes me how many times Rookie articles seem to just come at the right time.
    I’ve been in a bit of a school rut lately (starting hmw at 9:00PM, leaving everything to the last minute, thinking that watching TV shows will make my hmw go away) and this was exactly what I needed so THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!

  • Abby May 3rd, 2013 9:26 PM

    That ironic moment when I’m using this article to procrastinate.

    BUT ANYWAY… THANK YOU FOR THIS. I’m going crazy over finals and final papers at this moment, and this is really helpful.

  • kathryn-s May 3rd, 2013 9:33 PM

    THANK YOU I NEEDED THIS

  • Skatapus May 3rd, 2013 10:20 PM

    …way to make me feel guilty about not currently studying for my IB exams, Rookie. ;P

  • ivoire May 4th, 2013 12:17 AM

    I needed this desperately and BAM here is the article. I have a speech to do and any internet research just turns into a solid four hours of facebook stalking and procrastination ugh.

    Thanks Stephanie for this extremely handy article!

    • ivoire May 4th, 2013 12:18 AM

      Also I can’t stop listening to the 4 album by Beyonce help me out omg.

  • sophiethewitch May 4th, 2013 1:12 AM

    “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.”

    Stephanie. You are me. Seriously.

  • sissiLOL May 4th, 2013 2:47 AM

    So genial tips! They will help me if I learn maths in one houre. :-)
    http://stylebruch.blogspot.de/

  • crapbag May 4th, 2013 3:01 AM

    I am part of the ironic crew who were lead to this article by the power of procrastination. The stress my brain is currently churning out is caused by a giant essay worth 30% of my final grade due in one and a half days that I haven’t started, despite spending many hours at the library this past week procrastinating it. HAaAa.! ! !!!

  • dragonfly May 4th, 2013 7:23 AM

    YES. The perfect timing of Rookie articles always surprises me. If there were awards for procrastination, I think the whole world would know my name. I find that the more work I have, the less I do and I find it harder and harder to do anything as I get more and more behind and the work stacks up. ALSO YAY HYPERBOLE AND A HALF IS AMAZING.

  • moonshine28 May 4th, 2013 7:50 AM

    This is perfect! I’m just about to start revising for all of my summer exams and I am feeling very overwhelmed. Thank you xxx

  • Zoe May 4th, 2013 8:25 AM

    I downloaded Stayfocusd on Chrome a few days ago, and it’s already simultaneously killing me and saving me. I can’t bring myself to block Rookie, though…

  • Anya N. May 4th, 2013 11:25 AM

    can this be in Rookie: Yearbook Two?

  • elliecp May 4th, 2013 11:39 AM

    I am such a procrastinator. I’ll start my work and decide I want some tea. And some background music. And a snack. And before I know it, I’m scrolling through tumblr and I’ve forgotton the homework I was supposed to be doing.
    Best tip: try get your personal interests into your schoolwork. For example I’m doing David Bowie for my art project, and two hours Bowie research and drawing does not feel like homework to me!

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • periwinkle_dreams May 4th, 2013 11:41 AM

    I LOVE StayFocusd! It’s saved me from myself so many times. I’ve got Facebook on a timer so it’ll block after a total of 30 mins every day, and I use the Nuclear Option whenever I really need to work on a paper or something. That one’s awesome, cause it doesn’t block the internet – it either blocks all the sites on your blocked list or everything but the sites on your approved list. So I can still use the internet for research, but every potentially distracting website is inaccessible for however long I set it for, and it’s impossible to change it back until the time is up.

  • Ben May 4th, 2013 1:25 PM

    omg i need this! i ended up with 3 honors classes this year and i have so much homework and i get so stressed and depressed and i procrastinate and get distracted and ugh! SO thank u for these tips! I will try them!

  • neenbean May 4th, 2013 1:37 PM

    Thanks for all of this. I think I am actually going to get Freedom now – my goal is to only use the internet for an hour a day because I’m going to be starting various writing projects, and that will really help keep me to it. I’ve never used apps to keep me off the internet, but I do need it – facebook and lots of other websites are wayyyy too addictive.

    I also really recommend using a calendar AND having a planner as this article does too – besides work, it also lets you plan and remember when you are available to meet with friends and etc around your workload. It’s really really super helpful to have. When the calendar is staring you in the face with deadlines, every day that’s closer to them makes you panic a little but it really is for the best (a healthy kind of panicking as opposed to totally forgetting about deadlines!)

    http://greybluedreams.blogspot.ca

  • azultardis May 4th, 2013 2:23 PM

    ahh this is perfect,lately I’ve been really behind at school work and I haven’t slept properly and god is so stressing, but when I do concentrate I log out of all the social networks, and I’ve noticed that listening to french music helps me, not english or spanish cause I start to sing along haha

    and about the calendars I just find it very difficult to programming myself :(, but these tips are great and I’ll definetly be applying some, specially the ones that block websites hahah

    http://lavie-estailleurs.blogspot.mx/

  • taliabc May 4th, 2013 4:47 PM

    Rookie, how are you always so convenient? Also, THANK YOU!

  • missatomicbomb May 4th, 2013 6:52 PM

    This is exactly what I needed right now. It came in the perfect moment. I have tons of work to do. Thanksss a lot Rookie! :)

  • Cynthia May 4th, 2013 6:53 PM

    Ha, here in Australia summer ended 2 weeks ago. Technically it ended a few months ago, but the weather has gotten more cold suddenly now that I’m back at school, term 2. ): so I have no summer to look forward to- that’s 3 terms away- but I can work towards the winter school holidays! Thanks, this is really helpful as I have 2 pretty big assignments which I need to work on, maths homwork (yuck) and there will be more assignments flooding in soon! I think I’ll start with a list. (okay, my goal for today is that new Doctor Who episode that’s airing tonight at 7:30!)

  • Krista May 4th, 2013 8:14 PM

    What if I’m reading this article while avoiding writing an article right nowwwww

  • soretudaaa May 4th, 2013 8:49 PM

    when I was studying for Engineering school admissions setting up an excel chart and adding every hour I studied in it helped me a lot because ALL I WANTED was to see those numbers go up as fast as I could :) ANYWAY, now that I’m actually in college, I desperately need to print this article and take it with me everywhere I go.

  • Harley May 4th, 2013 9:19 PM

    It’s like you knew that I have my final senior paper due in 36 hours! I have to type 7-10 pages, I have 4 pages of BS done. I’m going to scrap the BS and start over with these tips in mind, thank you!

  • Velvetmary May 5th, 2013 7:44 AM

    Too bad I’m reading this procrastinating.
    Well, actually I have to hand in the first chapter of my semester work and even though it’s the coolest topic ever (Springsteen) it’s hard to keep working. Finals are coming and let’s stay quiet about random (class) tests and the one school project I still haven’t finished even if the dead line was a month ago.
    so thanks a lot for this, you see, I am a procrastinator.

  • I W May 5th, 2013 3:33 PM

    Rookie is one of my number one procrastination methods… Otherwise, these are really useful tips. I always get really cold when I’m revising, is that just me? I was revising today and everyone outside was in shorts and t shirts while I had a duvet and about six jumpers :)

    doxographies.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Nikilodeon May 11th, 2013 2:34 AM

    i really needed this! thank you stephanie! :) very ironically rookie is a distraction. i will go shut down my internet for a while so i can focus studying for my next biology exam.