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How to Focus When You Just Don’t Want To

If there’s one thing about university exhaustion, it’s that it’s consistent. Without failure, most of us feel burnt out at the end of January, midterms, and the weeks leading up to finals. During these times, it can be particularly difficult to focus. Finding the motivation, or rather, being disciplined enough to push through your work is tough. Being a student who has dealt with her ups and downs in the world of academia came with some important tips that I’d like to shed some light on. 

Just Get Started.

Seriously, it’s the simplest advice to give, yet somehow, the hardest one to commit to. Most of the time, we tend to build up a situation in our heads, making ourselves incredibly overwhelmed. Rather than spending time emotionally draining yourself, sit down, crack open your book, and just start reading. Now, our ability to do this is often affected by our surrounding environment. Is your phone nearby? Turn it off and put it in another room. Notifications popping up on your laptop? Turn on Do Not Disturb. Tempted to open Netflix and TikTok? Use apps that block them for the length of your study sessions. I recommend SelfControl.

When we’re feeling lazy, it’s extremely easy to become distracted. Your best bet to navigate those tough moments is by creating an environment designed for your success. 

Effectively Use YouTube

If you’ve never used ‘Study With Me’ videos on YouTube, you’re missing out. I for one am disappointed that I only discovered these videos this semester. Loneliness has been a growing issue during the pandemic. Prior to the lockdown measures to slow the spread, I frequently visited my local library. Being around other people who are also working creates a sense of community and encourages me to be productive. Obviously given the circumstances, I’ve had to take another route.

There are numerous study videos created with the intent of offering background noise for viewers. Speaking for myself here, it’s often easy for me to get distracted by my own thoughts. When I use these real-time study videos, it offers background noise that mimics the feeling of studying with a friend while ensuring that I stay focused on my tasks. Plus, it encourages a sense of accountability. 

Time Blocking

Parkinson’s Law tells us that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. We’ve all experienced it; think back to your assignments that you had weeks to finish, yet somehow only completed the night before. Without failure, humans have a tendency to elongate tasks if there’s no sense of urgency. It’s a common error we all make, and yet we all fail to change the behaviors that cause us stress.

I’ve been implementing time blocking in my study routine, forcing myself to sit down for about an hour to focus on a specific task. It’s been useful in ensuring that I stay updated on my work, while allowing me to produce higher quality assignments. The thing about time-blocking is that it’s not meant to be a strict measure; rather, it’s meant to serve as a guideline. If you have an essay due in 3 weeks, chances are, there’s a great deal of research to be done. Here, you can block off sections to dedicate to sourcing articles or critiquing your own work. Just remember that an hour doesn’t have to strictly be an hour! The whole purpose of time blocking is to remind us of the importance of having a goal to work toward. 

Clearly Define Goals 

In conjunction with time blocking and effectively using YouTube, I highly recommend you clearly define the goal of your study sessions. Breaking down large tasks into smaller tasks ensures that you’re not overwhelming yourself. A major source of procrastination comes from staring at the mountain of tasks ahead of you, unsure of how to tackle your work. If you have 4 chapters to read, an easier way to look at it would be to state that you’re reading 20 pages during this time block, and you’ll read another 20 pages during the next session.

When we break up large tasks, it motivates us to continue and helps us get into something called the state of flow. This state allows us to focus for longer periods of time, while retaining more information than if we were distracted. For instance, as I write this article, I’ve managed to enter this state and have written a large chunk of it without losing focus! I blocked off a time for myself, 7pm to 8pm, and clearly outlined my objective: complete the introduction, 5 tips, and conclusion of my article by the end of the session. 

Reward Yourself 

I’ve saved this as my last point since it’s probably my most important one: you need to remember to have fun. All work and no play makes for a very frustrated individual. This is another reason why time-blocking has been so effective for me — it ensures that I can remember to take breaks. I’ve traced that when I fail to set times for my breaks, I subconsciously allow myself to use that as a way of procrastinating. While I’m trying to read, my mind begins to wander and I’m left pondering when I can take a break, if ever (a bit dramatic, but you get the idea). Rewarding yourself is essential to ensuring that you don’t burn out during your sessions either. Facetime a friend, take up a hobby, or spend time with your family during these breaks.

As a student, it’s always reassuring to hear that others struggle to focus as well. It’s an inevitable part of everyone’s academic career. While the objective of this article was to offer insight into methods that can be beneficial in mitigating our inability to focus, it is imperative that we remember to be compassionate with ourselves. We aren’t always able to operate at max productivity and that’s okay. Just remember that productivity isn’t meant to be toxic, and we should never aim to work for 16 hours a day without allowing ourselves a little breathing room. It simply isn’t sustainable. 

Kamesha is a rising junior at the Schulich School of Business, majoring in Strategic Management & Responsible Business. She is the Co-Campus Correspondant for Her Campus at York University and is a writer for Artichoke Magazine. Kamesha is an aspiring lawyer, hoping to use her voice for those who aren’t afforded the same privileges as her. She is thrilled about the upcoming year and the chance to run her team alongside her incredible Co-CC!
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