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

UL Grad School -- 03/07/2018

The middle of the semester is here and it may feel like you’re just barely surviving grad school. You’re excited to be here, but perhaps you’re struggling and looking for ways to focus in grad school and keep your excitement and momentum going.

We’ve been there. Surviving grad school, let alone thriving, isn’t always easy—but we have some suggestions. Here’s some of our favorite ways help you focus while you’re in grad school.

1. Take a day off—intentionally

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

Take a day to relax and recalibrate, but you have to 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.

When you set that intention beforehand, you’re prepared for the separation. That way, you don’t feel guilty and aren’t scrambling to get something done on Sunday evening.

If you have the time, consider taking that day or two days away from your normal environment, like on a hiking trip or at-home spa day. Experience something new—it can provide some much-needed clarity 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 StayFocusd 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 you 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

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

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, day in and day out. Take a step back and look at your big goal for the semester: Maybe it’s finishing a dissertation chapter, or maybe it’s submitting 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: What can you get done today or tomorrow that will make accomplishing this week’s or next week’s goal easier? This applies to smaller goals, too, like projects or literature reviews.

This is a key part: write it down! It’s easier to keep yourself accountable to those small goals after you’ve committed it to paper (or keep a list on your desktop or smartphone).

Seeing the small pieces that make up your big goal may help you stay focused on why you started this journey in the first place. Doing something today will make tomorrow easier and 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—and your body does that for you!

Make time for a walk around the Quad or spend 20 minutes in the gym at Bourgeois Hall. Keep it a habit, and you’ll find yourself focusing better once you sit down to get your work done. For many grad students, their elevator access has become a security blanket. Take the stairs instead whenever possible: Nothing gets the blood flowing like scaling Mt. Griffin.

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 airplane noise or something similar, and you’ll be able to tune out most things happening around you. For those that love 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

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

Sit down and do something related to your work for just fifteen minutes (but you have to actually commit to doing it). Once those fifteen minutes are up, re-assess and decide if you can do it for another fifteen minutes.

Chances are those first fifteen minutes are all it took to get focused, and now you don’t want to interrupt your productivity. Every fifteen minutes, you can decide whether it’s worth working for another fifteen.

If you want to work a little longer than 15 minutes, try the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a favorite of the Graduate School Dean, Dr. Mary Farmer-Kaiser.

7. Talk to somebody

Staying Focused for Grad Students is Key

If you’re really stuck, talk to somebody. It can be a peer in your lab, a mentor, someone outside your department, or a professor. Talking to other people who are passionate about your work can help, or even people who are passionate about their work. Seeing someone else getting work done can motivate you to do more. On the flip side, once you start moving along with your work, you can encourage others, and then it snowballs. Let the camaraderie of grad school be a positive force that pushes you in the right direction: graduation. Need someone to talk to, but can't find anyone? We're always there and available to chat on Facebook or in person