Being sent home for an indefinite amount of time and switching to completely online classes mid-spring semester was apalling for students nationwide. Personally, it felt like my world had been flipped upside down. Trying to adapt to an entirely new learning environment was hard enough, not to mention navigating life totally alone and unable to see the friends I normally would to keep myself sane. I was totally frazzled and unconfident that I could still successfully finish off the semester.
Now being back on campus we are presented with entirely new challenges and uncertainties: navigating in-person, socially-distanced classes and/or taking Zoom classes from a dorm room, hitting up the once beloved dining halls (which now feels more like a chore), finally being reunited with friends but not in the way we wished we were, and so much more. All of these stressors certainly contribute to the overwhelming feelings that I and (I’m sure) everyone else is feeling right now. Consequently, it’s no wonder that staying motivated feels like a challenge. Luckily, I am discovering some strategies to increase my productivity and motivation to get things done.
- Take breaks
When trying to accomplish many assignments in a short period of time, I tend to feel like I need to just “sit down and crank it out.” So, in the past, I’ve told myself that I can only take a break when I’m finished. I’ve come to realize that this way of thinking is actually quite counterproductive, though. It was all too common: after grinding out work for an hour or two straight, my mind would begin to wander off and I’d eventually, somehow, find myself scrolling through my Instagram feed or analyzing Tame Impala’s entire discography. Then, I’d realize I was wasting time, feel discouraged, and typically would give up on the task altogether. Does this situation sound familiar to you? Then you need to know that the solution to this problem is probably not trying to “improve focusing skills,” but rather to just allow yourself to take breaks (and the right kind of breaks) so as to not lose momentum!
Implementing the Pomodoro Technique—in which one basically commits to work for 25 minute intervals and break for 5 minutes in between each interval—has transformed my workflow entirely. The reason for this, according to The Muse, is that working in increments “creates a sense of urgency.” After cycling through four 25 minute work sessions, I take a longer break. Even though I technically know I am working for 100 minutes, breaking down that time into smaller chunks makes it feel much more doable. To keep track of the intervals, I use an app (which specifically measures Pomodoro sessions) called Focus Keeper.
- Schedule your days with a mix of work time and free time
If there is anything that quarantine taught me, it’s that structure is vital for keeping productivity high. It is also important to recognize the times in which you usually feel the most motivated and schedule your days accordingly. In my case, I feel more inclined to work early in the day, so I try to get up and begin my work before I have to hop on Zoom, but will also work during breaks in between classes. I usually complete most of my homework earlier on as a result, which allows me to have more free time at night.
Even if I do have work left in the evening, though, I will still give myself time to decompress and I make it a goal to do something fun each day for a few hours (whether that be eating a ~socially-distanced~ dinner with friends on the quad or taking a long walk around the lake). I will admit that it can be hard to enjoy yourself in these moments when all you can think about is the paper waiting to be finished on your laptop. But, you must realize that taking time for yourself is integral to maintaining your happiness and decreasing chance of burnout (which will increase productivity in the long run)!
- Create checklists with feasible goals for yourself each day
In the periods you set aside for work and leisure, also write down what you want to accomplish in that time. I keep a running list on the Notes app on my phone of all of the tasks I need to complete each week organized by day, and I remove an assignment as soon as I’ve completed it. It is super rewarding to see the to-do list shrink as the day progresses, and it makes me feel super accomplished by nighttime. Remember, feeling/believing that you are a productive person is half the battle in actually staying motivated.
- Pick up a new hobby, find a job, or join a club
While it might seem counterintuitive, I find that when I have a lot to do in a day, I end up getting more done. This reality is probably explicable by the same reason that the Pomodoro technique is effective: having limited time makes tasks feel more pressing. Since we all have a lot more free time on our hands in the age of COVID-19, now is a better time than ever to start a workout regimen or apply for a campus job, for example. These are productive ways to spend your time (which you can easily schedule into your weekly planner) that will add even more structure to your life.
Being back at school right now is confusing; there’s so much excitement simultaneously met with much disappointment. It is undoubtedly difficult to stay motivated when many of your classes are online, but nevertheless, it is possible (even if you have to adopt novel and unconventional strategies). Further, I think it is also important to be forgiving of oneself if you are not always on your "A game," especially now. We cannot always be outrageously productive because we are not machines. We are constantly having to change and adapt and take things one day at a time, which has been unsurprisingly draining. Be proud of yourself for what you’ve accomplished already this year and for all that you’ve endured!