Schedule Each Activity and Break
By creating time limits for each activity, you will be more focused as you work. Scheduling breaks gives you something to look forward to and ensures that your breaks don't extend beyond the time you've allotted for them.
Personally, I prefer to plan to work for the amount of time I expect an activity to take and then take a break or move on to another activity. However, there are other systems that people find useful, such as the Pomodoro Technique, in which you alternate between 25-minutes of productive action and 5-minute breaks. After two hours of working in this way, you take a longer 30-minute break.
Taking short, unscheduled breaks or trying to multitask (like watching TV while doing homework) can work against you in a few ways:
– An unscheduled break may last longer than you anticipated, prolonging your work time.
– The time spent on the individual breaks adds up. Even if you check your phone for only 3 minutes, doing so 10 times becomes a half-hour of unplanned break time.
– It's harder to concentrate when you need to because you aren't used to working with focused attention.
When you're working, work. Plan separate windows of time to check email and messages. Relax during scheduled breaks. By creating a clear distinction between time spent working and time spent relaxing, your work time will be more effective and your break time will be more relaxing.
The best way to stay focused is to limit distractions as much as you can. Because phones tend to be the most tempting distraction, leave your phone in another room, switch it to airplane mode, or use an app such as Forest to stop you from using distracting apps.
Write Down Distracting Thoughts
Even when you limit outside distractions, you will still have distracting thoughts. While you can't shut off your thoughts or move them to the next room, you can keep scrap paper nearby and write down thoughts that arise as you work. When you're done working, you can review your notes for anything that needs to be added to your to-do list, take any necessary actions, or simply throw the piece of paper away.
Do Computer Work Earlier in the Day or Evening
Because the lighting of computer screens can interfere with sleep patterns, plan to do work that requires a phone or computer first. Try to limit your screen time for an hour or two before you go to bed. Getting better rest will improve your focus (and immune system) the next day!
Make a Plan for Future Work
Before you walk away from an incomplete project, decide when you will return to it—the next day? in two days? next week?—mark your calendar, if appropriate; and write down your follow-up action steps. This will facilitate your ability to reorient within a project when you return to it and give you a greater sense of closure once you walk away.
Staying active is good for your mental and physical wellbeing. Whether you exercise before starting your work or use a break to stretch or walk around the block (or both!), it's important to not stay stuck at your desk. As I write this blog, people are being encouraged to practice extreme social distancing, which includes refraining from discretionary public activities such as going to the gym or yoga studio. That said, there are some great at-home exercise apps that are offering a free month of use.
Create an Accountability System
When you're on a school break or working on a self-directed long-term project (like the SAT or ACT), create an accountability system to make sure you stay on track. An accountability system may include deadlines; visible reminders, such as a calendar on the wall or phone alerts; or finding someone with whom to discuss your progress.
A tutor can serve as a great source of accountability, helping you ensure that you are on track to reach your test prep goals and making the most of the time you spend working.
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