What if you could sit down at your computer every morning, click open your documents, and have your work simply flow? Maybe academic work can’t be quite that effortless, but there are simple things you can do to increase the odds of focus and flow happening. First point to note is that focus doesn’t happen spontaneously. It requires the right conditions. Ironically, academic culture with its insistence on working long (and even longer if you can!) linear days does not foster these conditions. Working past the point of diminishing returns is how our energy dwindles and focus is lost, and academic work is all about harnessing the power of focus! It can be a bit scary to go against the grain and creating a shorter, but more intense workday but it will pay off. Take a leap of courage and try it (this is the most difficult part of all, the rest will follow). A few ideas to get started:
1. Limit your work hours
‘Manage your energy, not your time’ is the best advice I got when I was finishing my own PhD, and now it is the advice I give others. You need mental energy for intense focus, and you cannot do it for more than so many hours a day. Three or so hours of focused work is achievable, perhaps a little more if you are up against a deadline. Trying to concentrate for an entire 8-hour workday doesn’t work! Your brain can’t do it. Less is more. You can get a lot done in even one (!) focused work session a day. Instead of counting hours, and feeling you have to work ‘more’ to achieve and feel good about yourself, try tracking the quality of those hours. Quality over quantity, and every focused work session counts!
2. Work in intervals
The same principle applies for how you work: intensity matters. Working in intervals ensures you stay focused… The key here is to stop before you get tired and distracted. For most people this means intervals of around 20 minutes to an hour. I recommend 45-minute intervals to start. Next time you sit down for a work session, use a timer and track when your concentration starts to wane. It means your intervals should be slightly shorter. In between intervals, take a break! Get away from your desk and let your mind wander. Mind wandering is key for new ideas and insights to emerge, and it also helps you replenish your mental energy for the next work session.
Taking a few minutes at the beginning of each work session to figure out what you should be working on is a powerful practice. Ask yourself: what is the most important thing to work on next to move my project one step ahead? And follow up with: and what is the next small step to take, and finish within the next work session? Achievable goals will propel your forward. Breaking it down like this will make sure you have your priorities straight (you are working on the ‘most important’ thing, not the most urgent one, or the most convenient one) and it will make is doable (you are focusing on something you can actually complete). Double win!
4. Plan for distractions
Take a moment to write down your top-3 of distractions. Is it social media? Checking the news? Your colleagues distracting you? Noise levels? An inability to concentrate when working at home? What takes you out of the zone? Is there any way you could plan for these distractions? There are apps to block the internet, you can block out your colleagues with head phones, you can switch your phone to airplane mode, and you can find a place to work where few opportunities to procrastinate are present. For a couple of hours a day, what would concentrated work look like? Dream it up, then find out how you could make it a daily reality. Make sure it’s doable though. An entire day without distractions is an impossibility. But an hour (or two or three, depending on circumstances) is doable.
5. Focus doesn’t always look productive
Academic work is messy, and it isn’t linear. Maybe you feel stuck and blocked, and you can’t seem to get anything done, despite your efforts. Don’t worry! Not all work is ‘active’ and visible. Sometimes the brain is working things out…on its own time. Trust this process, and know that during these ‘slow’ and frustrating times the important work of generating new ideas gets done. Research shows that the best way to find answers to complex puzzles is to think hard about the puzzle at hand, then completely relax and think of something else. The answers will come…when they do. Let yourself off the hook and allow yourself time and work sessions to simply ponder, and not ‘get anywhere’. It will pay off a few days, weeks or months down the road…
6. And repeat!
Making focus a habit is the key to success in the long run. Creating a work schedule can be really helpful to get there. What would your ideal workday look like? What time will you start, what time will you finish? (Remember: keep it short and sweet). How long will your work sessions be, what will you do during the breaks? How to plan for distractions? Go down the list of steps above. No need to overthink this schedule, just do it, and adjust as you go along, day by day. Once you find your rhythm, stick to it, and it will become almost effortless. You will want to keep working this way, and before you know it focus will have become a habit…
If you’re interested in building powerful work routines check out my brand new 6-week Stress-Free PhD Programme. It will increase your PhD productivity, re-ignite your inspiration and lower your stress levels. To celebrate the launch of the programme I have two free spots in class available. Join the Giveaway here (last day, today!).