You are here

Staying Focused is Key: 7 Ways to Keep Your Eye on the Prize

UL Grad School -- 03/16/2021

The middle of the semester is here and it may feel like you’re just barely surviving grad school.

With all the late nights and looming deadlines, you may wonder, did I make the right decision coming to grad school in the first place? And is Zoom fatigue a permanent condition?

We’ve been there. Surviving grad school, let alone thriving, isn’t always easy—but we have some suggestions to keep your excitement and momentum going.

Here are some of our favorite ways to help you stay focused in grad school.

1. Take a day off—intentionally

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

Take a day to relax and recalibrate. And decide to do it beforehand. Spending a day or a weekend accidentally doing nothing for your thesis or dissertation is not the same as intentionally stepping away.

By scheduling time off, you’ll avoid feeling guilty or scrambling to get something done on Sunday evening.

Try to take a day or two away from your normal work environment. Venture out on a hiking trip or simply spend time in the kitchen trying out a new recipe.

Experiencing something new will refresh your brain, broaden your perspective, and boost your creativity and focus when you get back.

2. Block unproductive sites or apps

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

This is one of our favorite ways to focus in grad school, because so much of your work happens on a computer with your phone nearby.

Install a browser extension like Freedom to block the sites you know will distract you, like social media, shopping sites, or Wikipedia (we’ve all been down that rabbit hole at 2 a.m.).

There’s a little work up front, but once you have the extension set up, it prevents you from opening those new tabs and you can really get down to business.

For apps, we suggest Forest. When you want distraction-free time, plant a tree in the app, and it grows while you work. If you reach the end of your scheduled work time, then your tree matures. If you touch your phone during the “off-time,” the tree dies! Nothing like a little incentive to keep you focused. For other apps to help you focus, check out our favorite apps for grad students.

3. Set small goals

When you’re in the thick of the semester and just trying to survive grad school, you may have trouble remembering why you’re slogging away. Take a step back and look at the big picture.

Remember your main goal this semester: maybe it’s to finish a dissertation chapter, or maybe it’s to submit the first draft of your thesis.

Break down that big goal into smaller goals that you can accomplish each week until the end of the semester. Then break that down further. Step by step, identify what you can do to move towards your goal for the week.

Now write it down! It’s easier to keep yourself accountable to those small goals after you’ve committed them to paper (or made a list on your desktop or phone).

Aim for progress over perfection. What can you do today that will make tomorrow easier? The confidence you’ll gain from completing one small thing will go far in keeping you motivated.

4. Stay active

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

Studies show that regular exercise releases brain chemicals that are key for memory, concentration, and mental sharpness.

Again, perfection isn’t the goal here! Start by finding a quick exercise video on Youtube, doing some simple stretches between meetings, or taking a walk around the block in the evening.

Keep up the habit, and you’ll find it easier to focus once you sit down to get your work done.

5. Put on some white noise

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

Music can help you be productive, but the interrupting ads on streaming services can yank you right out of your focus zone. Find a super long YouTube video of nature sounds or white noise, and you’ll be able to tune out most things happening around you.

For those craving the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop, sites like Coffitivity help you reproduce that ambient noise from the comfort of any desk in the world (but you’ll have to make your own cup of joe.)

High-quality, noise-canceling headphones help, but are not necessary.

6. Work for 15 minutes

Sit down and commit to doing something related to your work for just fifteen minutes. Once those fifteen minutes are up, re-assess and decide if you can go for another fifteen minutes.

Chances are, pushing through those first fifteen minutes is exactly what you need to get focused, and you’ll be ready for a productive work session. Every fifteen minutes, you can decide whether it’s worth working for another fifteen.

For help structuring longer work sessions, study alongside our Pomodoro Pal video series!

7. Talk to somebody

Grad school can feel isolating, but it doesn’t have to be! Connecting with a peer in your lab or a professor, or getting involved with a student organization, can all help you find more meaning in your work.

Talking with someone who is passionate about their work, whether they’re in the same field as you or not, is a great way to bring back your motivation. You can then encourage others, and the effect snowballs!

Let the camaraderie of grad school be a positive force that pushes you in the right direction: graduation.

Still feeling like one big ball of stress? Check out some additional resources from the Counseling and Testing Center. Remember, counseling appointments are available for free for all current students.