Tuesday 25 October 2011

When concentration wanders off...

This blog post came out of a conversation on twitter about the difficulty of motivating yourself / getting work done when your concentration is bad for whatever reason (fatigue, anxiety, distraction etc). This is either going to make me sound hideously preachy, or militarily organised. I am neither. These are the techniques that I have learned over years of brainfog and depression, for actually managing to get anything done. In this way I am having quite a productive day despite the fact that my sensory processing today is simulating being wrapped in cotton wool underwater.

They give me a framework in which I don't need heroic amounts of motivation to battle through the fog. They might seem intense at first, but structure has really helped me, so it's worth a try. If you've got someone to help you hold yourself accountable for what you get up to over the day, all the better.

The very first thing on the list is to give yourself the best basis for concentration. As far as you are able get plenty of rest, eat enough and healthily, get some fresh air in your lungs, manage pain and anxiety etc. We are not machines, and as such to stay active our body and brain needs varied stimulation (why not switch between cleaning the bathroom and studying infectious disease for the ultimately engaging Saturday morning?) and regular periods of rest (every 90 minutes for me) and re-fueling (leave your desk to eat lunch and you combine the two).

Also identify your primary distractions, and deal with them. For example, when I'm writing a blog post, my natural inclination is to hop between tabs to twitter or my blog reader, where I inevitably forget was I was doing in the first place. To manage this, I have this open in a separate browser window, and every 10 minutes I give myself 5 minutes of browsing time, with an alarm that goes off at the end to remind me to start again. I find silence causes me to wander off into my brainbox, and I can't resist the urge to sing along to music, so I am writing this to a background of radio 4. If your distractions are worries, or anxieties, try taking 5 minutes to write them all down before you start work, as a symbol for setting them aside.

Realise that different days / moods suit different tasks. Today's brainfog means that anything creative / requiring sustained thought is out, but practical target-driven tasks are fine (email this question to such-and-such, book cinema tickets, write blog post from these notes, bullet point mobility issues for DLA application).

Make a to-do list, split into topics (such as current placement / revision / audit). Separate any big jobs into sub-tasks (such as write essay plan / draft introduction / run journal search). Assign each task to the category now, soon or sometime (I do this by highlighting each category in a different colour). Write a date/time to complete for everything in the 'now' category, and write a date/time to review the list.

Don't let this take any longer than 10 minutes. You can always add things later.

If you have a period of time (say an afternoon) and you have several tasks on the list for that time, there are a couple of ways to approach things.

Think about balance between activities - sometimes it's easy to group similar activities together, like getting several phonecalls out of the way in one go, but sometimes you need to break things up - so writing an essay in half an hour bursts interspersed with 10 minutes of cleaning the bathroom

Are you particularly dreading anything on the list? if it's a short activity (e.g. a phonecall) do it first. Then give yourself a reward - a piece of chocolate, or 15 minutes rocking out to the Beatles. If it's a longer activity (like cleaning the flat or writing an essay) spend 10 minutes assembling everything you need, then 20 minutes doing something else on the list. Then come back to it and spend 20 minutes doing an overview (writing an essay plan or doing a quick tidy round of the whole flat) and 10 minutes doing something else on the list.

Take a break, make a cup of tea, and then spend an hour getting as much done as you can (imagine you only have an hour to do the whole thing). If you find yourself getting too bogged down - spending ages tidying one little drawer, or over-policing and re-editing one particular sentence - take a deep breath, move to a different room / paragraph and keep going. You can come back to the detail later.

I know that it sounds brutal, and impossible, but getting into the habit of finishing the big picture first makes tasks seem so much less daunting.

If it's an essay, aim to have a general draft of the essay done within the hour, even if some paragraphs are only sentences or bullet points. Then work out how much time you have left to work on it, and split that time up between each paragraph / section, filling in the detail. Again, if you get too bogged down, stop and come up for air.

If you get to the end of the time period, and you haven't finished the tasks on your list, don't panic. Think about the now/soon/sometime model, decide when to do it, and then mentally set the task aside until then. Use this as a learning experience - it will help you to be more realistic about what is possible to get done in a given length of time. If you are constantly running out of time for the tasks you have to get done, you need to have a serious think about whether you have taken on too much.

Remember, it's always better to tell people early on that you won't get something done, rather than in a panic at the last minute - this goes for uni deadlines, jobs lists on placement, cooking dinner for your flatmates.

For studying, rather than writing, I use a slightly different technique. This is much more personal, and depends a lot on what you're learning, and how you best absorb / remember information. I'll write about that a bit tomorrow maybe.

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