One of my New Year's resolutions was that I would be working hard towards a better concentration and focus. My attention span is extremely short, and I have never been able to stretch it longer. I am not sure if this is because my brain just functions like that, or if it is because I could always get my schoolwork done in short amounts of time, and never got used to concentrate for longer than 20 minutes.
I've started to find what works for me, and thought it was time to track my process, and what I've learned from it so far. Here is a list of 10 insights I gained while trying to work on my ability to focus.
1. Set smart goals
If I want to concentrate, I need to know precisely what I am concentrating on, and how much time I plan to spend on it. If not, I find it too easy to drift off. If I tell myself that I am now taking the entire month to get some serious progress on my literature review, I am very tempted to let my mind float around. It helps to tell myself that I now am going to read this paper in this much of time.
Smart goals are a great way to stay realistic about your progress and your planning. Among other explanations, SMART stands for:
2. Tackle procrastination
Make today your no-procrastination day. Just say goodbye to it for once, and feel great about all the progress you can do. Imagine you are working towards a deadline.
If you really feel that you can't beat procrastination, then start keeping a little log. Write down when you went off the path, started procrastination, how you were feeling. You might start to see a deeper pattern (Do you procrastinate when you're hungry? Does it happen after lunch because you are too stuffed? When you haven't had enough sleep?). Just take the decision for yourself to change it. And then pat yourself in the back for every time you felt like going to wander off but stayed on track.
3. Know your "brain rhythm"
I've acknowledged for myself that I need to work in chunks of 20 minutes of concentration at a time. Even though I am trying to stretch this extremely short time span, I am now accepting this as the wave of my brain that I need to surf.
Just getting to know within which time I can concentrate already helped me to set that time as a fixed span of time to concentrated. After 20 minutes, I allow myself to look around and let my mind vent all its busy thoughts, but then I try to block them out again and focus for another 20 minutes.
4. Know your "body rhythm"
I've come to understand that I work best when I keep regular hours in my office, start at 8 am every day and go to sleep at 11 pm. I'm at my sharpest in the early morning, then I slack off towards lunchtime, and then I get my second peak around 3pm, until I go home around -typically- 6 pm. I usually have another peak in the evening, after coming from the gym, which I either use for additional reading or non-phd creativity bursts. Since I've discovered this (and I don't think caffeine can do much about this), I've been trying to place my heavy concentration activities during my peak moments, and wait for phone calls, e-mailing and the like for the moments of the day when my body is not at its fullest.
5. Clean desk
If you have a messy desk, all you need to do is to clear it out once. At the end of every day, I sort out what is left on my desk, and in the morning I can start on a completely fresh (or with my most important task for the day read) desk.
As a student, I used to work on the messiest desk you can imagine, and I even had piles with random papers and books around my desk on the floor. At some moments I couldn't even reach my bed without having to jump over the stashes of notes and homeworks. It took me so much energy to keep track of what was traveling around where, so one day I decided to change it.
It now really helps me to have only what I am working on at my desk, and not all possible shiny tings I can start playing around with.
6. Eliminate distractions
What breaks your concentration? For me it is a wide variety of elements: noise and other sensory impulses, wandering of my thoughts and -when I am working on my computer- the temptation to go and surf around the internet.
Once you know what distracts you, you can try to eliminate it. For me, that means that I've been using a blocksite tool for a while to block the website of the news and facebook from my browser. I've now disabled it, because I got used not to surf around that much anymore (although, I admit, I've been slacking off this week again). Eliminating distractions also means that I need to close my office door regularly, if not I just start following all conversations in the hallway.
I'm still fully experimenting with all this, as you can read here, here, here; here; here, here, here and here(looks like I've been writing quite some lines about my efforts and good intentions already, more than I realized).
I am convinced though that I can train my mind with this, and that it will result in a better focus.
8. Sleep enough
You can't concentrate when you're sleep-deprived. Even though our entire society is in a constant zombie-mode, it is important to discover how much sleep you need and make sure you get it.
9. Take time to unwind
I've discovered that I really need to relax on a daily basis in order to keep up with my PhD progress. I benefit a lot from going to the gym and sweat it all out, and from my choir practices. Sometimes I feel guilty about taking time for myself, while I could be reading another paper, but I've started to understand that for the quality of the hours I spend in my office, it is important to relax and get the most out of those hours.
10. Don't get frustrated
Whenever you do start drifting off, or can't concentrate, don't blame yourself (provided that you did an effort to focus). I've had a week with a lot of tension because of the situation with my housemates, and I got all upset because I wasn't making progress on my literature review. It only made it worse. I've decided to let the pressure loose for a while, and that helped me relax, take a deep breath, and get ready to concentrate again.
What are your ways to find a better focus? Please share them with me, I'm still trying out how to concentrate better...