Once you’ve finished properly preparing your body, the next step is to ensure that your mind remains focused on your work and doesn’t get distracted.
Prepare Your Mind – Eliminate Distractions
- Never start working without first knowing what you want to accomplish.
For each work session always try to have at least one set, concrete goal. For larger tasks, try and break it down into smaller, well-defined chunks and work on one chunk at a time.
- Focus on one task at a time.
Studies show that multitasking leads to reduced efficiency. Every time you switch between tasks, your mind goes through the stages of goal shifting (changing what you want to accomplish at that instant) and rule activation (changing the set of mental structures required to perform each individual task). Each switch takes a distinct amount of time that can quickly build up when constantly going back and forth between tasks.
Another ramification here is that, before starting to work, you should always
- Clear out your workspace, both digitally and physically.
Remove all non-work-related distractions or activities from the picture. This means silencing your cell phone, disconnecting from chatting programs, and closing all webpages or programs non-essential to the current work at hand.
Similarly, if you sit down to work at a table that is covered in empty food containers, papers, or any other bunch of random clutter this actually reduces your work efficiency. The more items in your field of view that your brain has to process the harder it is to focus on the task at hand. A clean environment is also mentally associated with ‘getting things done’ just because cleaning itself is so often procrastinated that just being in a clean room makes you think that you’ve already started working.
- Set aside a specific amount of time for a given session.
Use a timer.
If you have a large, indefinite amount of time to accomplish a task it is often difficult to really get into the flow of working on it. It becomes easy to let yourself get distracted. This is generally what happens when people “pull all-nighters.” They viewed staying up all night as an option and therefore failed to work efficiently from the start. If instead you set a smaller, specified amount of time to work with and a clear goal for what to accomplish you will find yourself moving through tasks at a very satisfying rate.
I went to sleep at 5am last night!”
“I never have time for anything but work!”
“No I don’t procrastinate!”
These are three claims that I often hear all coming from the same person. Yet, if the third one is be believed, do the first two really make sense? Can anyone really be that consistently busy?
I’m sure that in some isolated cases the answer really is yes. They really do have that much work.
For the vast majority of people this is not the case, with the problem lying with an inefficient workflow stemming from improper physical and mental preparation.
Over the next few posts I’ll be talking about various techniques to use to prepare your body, your mind and your workspace to get the maximum amount of focus and productivity out of a given block of time.
Many of these points may seem like simple common sense but it is really amazing how many people don’t seem to follow a single one. If you get into the habit of creating a study checklist for yourself that you go through every time you start to study I guarantee that you will start seeing a significant boost in productivity.
Prepare Your Body
- Prepare food or drink ahead of time.
If you start working hungry you will constantly be shifting focus from your work to your stomach. Make sure to eat a full meal before any serious work session and you will find that you both can maintain focus longer and get tired less quickly. If you are the type of person who simply must snack all the time (I am certainly guilty of this trait) then makes sure to have snacks prepared ahead of time so you can’t use that as an excuse to get up and stop working. Ideally any such snack should be some sort of bite sized finger food that doesn’t leave any mess. This will minimize the distractions caused by the constant eating.
- Learn what time of day you study best.
Some people are night owls. Others can’t work without sunlight. I know that as soon as the sun goes down I have a hard time working and so try to plan all of my work-sessions accordingly.
For those times where there is too much work or your schedule is to inflexible for such luxuries, the next best thing is to trick your body. Go somewhere indoors with bright lights and no windows. Get a solar lamp if need be. This will help fool your body into losing track of the time of day and therefore help to bypass any biological time preferences.
- Keep a regular gym schedule.
I have said this before on several occasions, but going to the gym really is one of the single best ways of boosting your productivity in every area of life. Often when people sit down and try to work for hours at a time they start getting a build up of nervous energy the takes it hard to keep focused. Going to the gym before a study session will keep this from happening whilst simultaneously fully awakening your mind.