As someone who has struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, since kindergarten, continuing distance learning this semester was quite honestly my worst nightmare. Friends and coworkers thought I was crazy for attempting to sign up for in person classes, but personally -- for better or for worse -- I was more concerned with setting myself up for academic success than my health or safety this semester. Be it fortunately or unfortunately, I, along with many other Mason students, have found myself in all online classes yet again.
While I’m still trying to adapt to this new normal myself, I do have some tricks of the trade that are bound to set you up for success this semester.
1. Set boundaries with your family or roommates, but don’t shut them out.
Personally, I can’t have anyone talking to me or trying to get my attention while I’m working -- especially if it’s not something I want to do. Background or ambient noise is helpful, but I simply can’t talk to someone -- or even listen to someone talking -- and also be able to keep my attention on my task. Sometimes it can be difficult to make other people understand this and set that boundary, but it’s very worth the effort when I’m able to barricade myself in my room or set up shop on the kitchen table without being disturbed.
At the same time, it can be extremely helpful to involve them in what you’re doing. These are people that care about you and want to help you succeed -- so let them! Even if it’s just a zoom study session that you keep on mute or talking about what you have to do for the day over breakfast, having a study buddy to hold you accountable can be a game changer.
2. Forcibly remove distractions and ~set the mood.~
Sometimes the temptation is a little too much to handle -- especially when you’re working on something you aren’t particularly interested in doing. I find it helpful to leave my phone or Nintendo Switch outside the room where I’m studying, don’t keep any social media logged in on my computer and create that mental boundary between school, work and the things I do for fun. Beyond just studying, I find this particularly helpful during long, virtual lectures that are easy to tune out of.
Some people find it distracting to study with music on, but I personally find that it helps me stay focused when it’s songs I know well. Learn what’s going to best help keep you ~in the zone~ and incorporate that into your environment. Whether you need a snack or a glass of water next to you or if you need a show on Netflix or a study playlist, make an effort to keep that as part of your routine, even if you wouldn’t have been able to on campus.
3. Try and create a space where you’re free to move -- either to stretch or simply to fidget -- and take breaks when you need them.
I’m notorious for not being able to sit -- or stand -- still. When standing, I’m always doing some sort of modified step-touch or shifting my weight from one foot to the other. When I’m sitting, my legs are always bouncing and I’m always shifting my position every few minutes. The one advantage to distance learning for me is that I’m free to design my space around this habit and enjoy a little more freedom of movement. As weird as this sounds, sometimes I need to just get up, walk in circles and mentally bounce ideas off of myself to be able to recenter my focus. I find sitting still for hours at a time *extremely difficult,* so it can be surprisingly helpful to take the time to stretch my legs rather than try and force myself to continue to sit.
I’ve also found it extremely helpful to let myself take breaks when I need them, as long as I don’t let the break take over my day. You know when you’ve reached your mental limit, attempting to force yourself to continue processing information or working past that limit usually won’t produce anything of quality. To regulate myself without completely ignoring this, I try and set timers or pick short videos to watch that will naturally force me back to work when they’re over.
Related: Study Tips for How to Stay Focused
4. Don’t neglect your planner and try and stick to a schedule.
Especially if you have a large number of asynchronous classes, it can be difficult to force yourself to operate under a “normal” schedule. While I don’t advocate for keeping a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule if that’s not what works best for you, I do advocate for picking a time to work on school and sticking to that throughout the semester. Personally, I work best later in the day than in the mornings, so I prefer to work on schoolwork in the afternoons and evenings.
My planner has also been my saving grace. Even when I don’t find myself religiously checking it (or even looking at it at all), I find that the act of simply writing down what I have coming up on my plate makes it easier to remember things and mentally order my priorities. Plus, I can be a little scatter-brained from time to time, and it has the added bonus of being an easy place to make sure I *actually* know what’s left to do.
5. Confide in someone you trust about your situation.
I’ve always found it incredibly easy to keep everything I’m dealing with to myself rather than opening up and letting the people close to me in. While that might be the easiest thing to do, it keeps all of your relationships at a surface level and you never quite feel that your friends know the real you -- even when you know the real them. Through bouts of intense anxiety and depression and struggles with my ADD or eating disorder, I’ve kept the burden to myself and put on a mask around the people I care about. While *I* thought I kept up appearances, I usually ended up turning into a person I don’t recognize and certainly wouldn’t want to be friends with.
I have such an intense desire to be “perfect,” that I’ve always had a hard time being my authentic self -- who is certainly not perfect. Throughout the last few months, I’ve been making a concerted effort to be open and vulnerable with my friends and family. It’s taken a lot of the mental strain away to simply say when I’m having a hard time with online classes and that I’m really frustrated with my brain sometimes. While this might seem like the easiest change to make, it has been the most impactful and beneficial change -- one that I’ll take with me far beyond 2020, distance learning and this pandemic.
For me, the key to distance learning has been learning to listen to my mind and body and what it naturally wants to do rather than force myself to act “normal.” While many parts of this situation are difficult in ways that can’t be easily controlled or managed, we do have control over how we treat ourselves. No matter how difficult this semester may be, we’ll come out the other side stronger. Keep your heads up, collegiettes!