This is a re-post of an article I wrote for my alma mater’s blog a few weeks ago. Focusing on time management (my arrow to the knee) was difficult. My mind goes a thousand miles a minute, making multi-tasking a natural go-to. However, multi-tasking isn’t always the best approach. Below, I talk about many of the tricks and tools I’ve learned over the years.
Midterms are over, finals are almost here, and your mind is a battle ground between the necessary productivity, and the completely unhelpful spring fever, senioritis, or the age-old “summer-is-so-close-i-can-taste-it” restlessness- or all three at once, which is always a trip. When I was working towards my Bachelor’s degree, I was definitely one of those kids that had caffeine being pumped into my body via an IV (no, not literally…unfortunately)-which is something I heartily do NOT recommend. I was on track to graduating early, worked full time at a local coffee shop, had a student job at our library, and was in roughly 6-7 musical ensembles, all on top of my course load. In grad school, I worked full time on top of full time classes. Now out of school and in the professional workforce, my time is still a rare commodity. Work, various volunteer & semi-professional musical groups, roller derby training…I’m still one of those people who doesn’t like to turn down an opportunity. (or, doesn’t say “no” enough…it’s still up for debate.) Regardless of what your life & schedule looks like- because i’m sure I’m nowhere near as busy as some- making time for everything that needs to be done is never a fun, or easy task.
Time management, working/writing on the go, finding time to research, was difficult in college & grad school. Thanks to some great mentors, smart friends, and the occasional Buzzfeed article (no, not the one about the corgi beach party), I made it through, adding bits here and there to my bag of tricks. That’s why I chose this subject for my third article. I wanted to highlight tips & tricks I’ve collected over the years, which made balancing a full schedule without sacrificing sleep, social time, or sanity seem a whole lot easier. Just remember that everyone has different tricks to keep them motivated, whether it’s the carrot on a stick mentality, or the complete lock-down strategy, so if none of these work for you, don’t worry! I hope I’ll at least share some online tools that prove to be useful. (And to make it easy, anything I like to in the article I’ll also provide in list form at the end, so you don’t have to scroll through the whole thing just looking for a single link.)
At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card (or your grandmother), an uncluttered desk makes for an uncluttered mind. The less distractions are on your desk, the harder it is to get distracted. Whenever I have a huge project to get done, a lot on my plate at once, or both, the first thing that helps is to re-organize. Take 5-10 minutes, declutter, reorganize, and streamline your work area.
- Lists! I love lists. I have lists on and about everything, everyday, all the time. I’m a list-maker. I’m not suggesting that you fall off the cliff side and join me in list-omania, but a to-do list can be your best friend for organization. The reasoning behind this is simply that when you can see everything that needs to get done, it’s easier to see the finish line approaching, and it’s harder to accidentally forget a task. I start with a list of everything that needs attention, prioritize it, and those with the closest deadlines are the ones I tackle first- they’re the red letter days. Then I’ll organize my list in decreasing importance from there.
- The Kanban method
- Recently, I’ve started to use this method of scheduling my to do list, and it’s made a world of difference. It helps me visualize my workflow, and see my daily progress as i tackle the tasks on hand. (It’s also very easy to put up and tear down. Currently, mine is made up of 3×5 cards & scotch tape above my keyboard.)
- Since most of my work has to be done on the computer, an easy way to keep me on task is this app. Available (for free!) on all platforms, Pomotodo is a great way to break up your tasks into manageable bites, as well as make it easy to track your productivity level and workflow. Have you ever sat at your computer for hours on end and feel like you’ve gotten nothing done? Based on the Pomodoro technique developed in the 80s, Pomotodo breaks up your work sessions into 25-30 minute time slots, setting off a quiet buzzer when it’s time for you to take a 5 minute break. This helps your focus to stay fresh, and your mind to avoid that mentally exhausted sludgey feeling that always happens after you’ve been straining and concentrating on one task for far too long.
- Minimizing distractions is most of the time impossible with the daily bustle of life, but your work space should be familiar, comfortable, and clean. I don’t mean physically clean all the time- my sister’s metal smith studio is a whirlwind of organized chaos- I mean clean of unimportant or potentially distracting things. Television, cell notifications, internet sites, etc., can all occupy focus that could be applied elsewhere. (I actually just put my cell phone on night mode before writing this article.)
- Internet blocks
- Sites like Cold Turkey, Freedom, Dark Room (for Windows), and WriteRoom (for Mac), are great sites that block access to pages you don’t want to distract you. This is great for assignments where the internet is necessary (which is essentially all assignments), but you don’t want to risk the pull of social media. Google Chrome several extensions like StayFocusd and Site Block in their app store, as does Firefox (called Leechblock)
- There’s an increasing amount of studies that have to do with the mind, focus, and music or background noise. Personally, I prefer ambient noise, instrumental music, or a combination of the two as I work.
- My newest find and now favorite background noise generator, Noisli has ambient noise that range from the classic white/black/grey noise to a babbling brook, thunderstorm, train tracks, and the clinking & murmur of a busy coffeeshop. I have this app installed on my Chrome browser both at work and at home, and typically play this in the background in addition to some mood music.
- Another ambient noise generator, this is great if you want the feel of a bustling cafe, but could do without the visual stimulation (or the money spent on coffee and pastries- a personal weakness). Being able to choose from several different noise types – lunch time bustle, early morning stillness, etc., is really great.
- 8tracks is a very old favorite of mine. I strictly used 8tracks playlists when I was writing my undergrad thesis. (I actually still have that collection of playlists.) On 8tracks, users are able to upload playlists that they’ve created. They range from pop & rock, to focus and creativity. You can customize your search down to an extreme, which is fantastic. Be careful though, it’s easy to get caught up in finding great music. I’ve found that happening to me many times.
Organizing your mind is just as important as organizing your physical workspace. I’m talking to myself as well as you when I speak of the importance of mental organization. I am one of the worst at this part of organization. My thoughts often look like the room of keys from The Sorcerer’s Stone, zipping and flying about at no pattern at all.
- Often times, it’s easy to get caught up in the franticness of meeting your deadlines, and this, in turn, will hurt your productivity and focus. Before I sit down and start a project- however large or small, I take anywhere form 5 to 10 minutes to stretch and loosen my body. Being physically uncomfortable is distracting, but so is being too comfortable. I’ve accidentally fallen asleep during an assignment far too often for me to like to admit.
- I didn’t discover how helpful yoga was to both my mind as well as my body until after grad school, unfortunately, so I’m going to join the cacophony of voices singing the practice’s praise in hopes that you don’t make the discovery too late. Engaging my muscles requires my mind as well as my physical strength, and elongating my ability to focus has everything to do with elongating your body, so to speak. There are hundreds, if not thousands of focus enhancing yoga videos and stretches available, but my absolute favorite is this one, from Yoga by Adrienne. Only 10 minutes long, it doesn’t take a chunk out of your day, nor does it require lots of experience in yoga. (I am the furthest from being familiar with the exercise, and I’m also probably one of the least stretchy people on this planet.)
- Meditation is fairly hard for me, honestly. As I said earlier, my mind is a beehive of thoughts, so quieting it is a bit difficult. There’s an app called Headspace that is amazing at introducing the practice of meditation into your life. Unfortunately, it isn’t free, but signing up gets you 10 free sessions to help introduce you to the exercise of meditation.
- Momentum is a free (yay!) and easy way to keep up your momentum throughout the day. Instead of the “new tab” page on your browser, Momentum greets you, displays the time, weather, an inspiring quote, and your main goal for the day, all set against the backdrop of a breathtaking photograph. You can also add a small todo checklist that you can update and change throughout the day.
- When I was in college, I’d frequently battle headaches, back aches, and sometimes insomnia during or after a project. Restlessness and stress induced anxiety were plagues, and it was only til I started working with my body instead of fighting against it that I saw results.
- One of the first things I changed was the amount and type of light I worked in. I made sure that my area was well lit with either natural or warm light instead of the harsh blue light that is emitted from your computer screen and some lightbulbs. A free app called Flux is free and downloadable on your computer- Mac or PC- to help reduce the blue light coming from your monitor. Immediately, I noticed that my eyes weren’t getting as tired as quickly during an assignment.
- Just like resetting your body with a quick yoga session before beginning, taking breaks intermittently to stretch, take a quick walk, or just move will help keep your body from being restless. I usually try and take a 5 minute walk or stretch break every 45 minutes to an hour.
- Write it down
- Far from making yet another list, if pesky thoughts keep popping into your head and interrupt your productivity, write them down. This will make it easier to wipe them from your mind and focus on later.
- Wake up!
- I am THE furthest from a morning person. In fact, my sister posted a meme about the terrors of me before my coffee just a few minutes ago. However, I’ve noticed that over the past few months, I’ve been waking up naturally around 6, 6:30. On the days where I feel lazy and go back to sleep til my alarm goes off, I found myself dragging, unfocused, and lackadaisical. The days where I listen to my inner clock and wake up, I’m more relaxed, focused, and productive throughout the day. Part of this I blame on my cat, who promptly meows for food at around 6:15, but I also give credit to a great alarm clock app that I found. Called “Progressive Alarm Clock,” It’s in the app store for around $3, and is the best purchase I’ve made for my iphone. Instead of jerking you awake with a song or harsh sound, it uses Tibetan singing bowls to gradually lift you from sleep by increasing the volume, making for a much more welcoming morning alarm.
Articles, Sources, & Quotes:
When compiling resources and first beginning this article, I talked to a couple of the busiest women in my life on how they were able to keep focused on the job, at home, or on the go. I know that my way of keeping myself focused is unique to me, so I wanted to get other perspectives as well.
Articles & Resources:
Increase Productivity-Buzzfeed- Tactics, methods, and tricks for keeping the drudgery of the work week at bay. This article is more focused on work methods and mental tricks than helpful resources and tools.
Apps, Apps, Apps-Buzzfeed- While a few of the apps and sites I mentioned are on this list, there are many I didn’t mention that could be extremely helpful! I was actually recommended a few of them from various friends and acquaintances over the past few years.
More Apps!- Buzzfeed- Seeing a trend? I love Buzzfeed’s listed articles because of the quick and easy to read format that they’re shown in. This article is less focused on productivity, and more of an app-based show and tell, but there are a couple listed in here that are pretty fantastic tools!
Study Music – Growing up on the “Mozart Effect” for studying had its pros and cons. This article provides a brief overview of a few instrumental-based music genres and how the brain reacts to them.
Music & the Mind. In contrast to the article I mentioned above, this study breaks away from the previously praised school of thought (such as the Mozart Effect) where it was said that music with words is distracting and inconducive for productivity.
Kanban method – An easy, visual way to see your to do list, prioritize your workflow, and a great encouragement to get things done. It uses a production flow method that was first developed by the Toyota company, and applies it to every day tasks.
Pomotodo – An app that uses the Pomodoro technique to optimize your time and focus by breaking down your work day into 30 minute segments.
Cold Turkey – There’s a free and a subscription based version for Cold Turkey. It allows you to block out different kinds of sites for certain periods of time, although you can only schedule blocks of time if you buy the second tier of the subscription service. Still, this is a great app to streamline your internet use if you find yourself getting too distracted by clickbaits and social media.
Freedom – This is free, available on all platforms, and makes it very easy to block any potentially distracting websites, apps, etc., from your internet browser without needing to get rid of your internet access altogether.
Dark Room – This is the perfect tool to fight writer’s block with. DarkRoom clears your screen and monitor of distractions, making freewriting clean, minimalistic, and at the center of your bullseye.
WriteRoom – WriteRoom is the Windows compatible style of the DarkRoom site & app.
Noisli – A simple, minimalistic ambient noise generator. You can create combinations of sounds (such as rain, a crackling fire, an ocean tide, or coffeeshop noises), or just stick with one sound.
Coffeetivity – Another ambient noise generator, this has sounds that are usually associated with more social settings- the clink of silverware and dishes combined with voices murmering at a coffeeshop, the bustling sounds of a streetside cafe, etc. If you excel at working with the sounds of people around you, but get too distracted with people watching or those really great scones in the pastry case (I am SO guilty of both of these), this is a great sound tool.
8tracks – A playlist based website where users can upload and make their playlists public. It does away with your need of spending time tailoring a playlist to what you need, because you can combine any amount of descriptions, criteria, etc. to find your perfect playlist. (ie- “instrumental” “study” “classical” or “traditional celtic” “instrumental” “focus”)
Yoga for Focus – Yoga by Adrienne is one of my favorite youtube yogis. She uploads videos regularly, and best of all, you don’t have to be a veteran to follow her sessions. This 10 minute video is perfect for getting your body stretched out and set for a study session.
Headspace – This app is great for learning how to meditate easily, without the frustration of trying to do it on your own or in a class. Unfortunately, it isn’t free, but signing up gets you 10 free sessions to help introduce you to the exercise of meditation. The audio sessions usually last around 10 minutes, which is perfect for a pre- or post-study session.
Momentum – This app replaces the ‘new tab’ page with a calming photo and a daily reminder of what you want to get done. So, every time you open a new tab, you’re greeted with the Scottish countryside, the sunset over the Sahara, instead of the blank, grey screen.
Flux – Flux dims or lightens your screen according to the time of day. The later in the day it is, the less blue light is emitted from your screen, being replaced by a warm pink or orange tinged light. It’s not as harsh on your eyes, and you don’t find yourself getting a splitting headache after staring at your screen for 8 hours a day. It’s free, and works on both Mac & PCs.
Anna: actress, tarot reader, woman-of-all trades- “Well, I have ADHD so the best one I’ve found is keeping a notepad or post it nearby so I can write down things that pop into my head in the middle of a task. Otherwise, I go off to do them instead and forget all about the original thing I was working on… My planner also has a to-do list section where you put 3 that you need to get done to move yourself forward and then the rest are additional. So you can prioritize instead of getting overwhelmed. I’m using Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map planner…her whole philosophy is focusing on how you want to be feeling and building your schedule around that rather than thinking about what your goal is like, make your goals to feel ____ and then build a system to get yourself there”
Jenn: event organizer, actress, social media fiend- “I definitely keep a to do list, as well as write stuff on my calendar so I don’t forget and I can prioritize/know deadlines. I like the to do list with the check boxes because checking stuff off makes me feel more productive. Our database at work has an alarm feature so if I’m remembering to contact a customer about something months later, I can set a digital alarm reminder. Declutter is a big thing too. I don’t keep my desk cluttered (especially at the end of the day. If it gets messy throughout the day, I make sure to pack everything up neatly so I come in to something other than chaos in the morning). I have trays specifically for different things I’m working on so I can prioritize that way. I make sure to clean out my email every so often to make sure only the important things stay (so things are easier to find). I like to focus on one task at a time (I can multitask like a pro but in terms of finishing something, I like to finish one project before I start another – because my boss is always throwing things at me to do. Most of which are not time sensitive. I do spend like the last hour of my day on something else if I’m in the middle of a project, just to mix things up and to make sure to get at least a chunk done of the other thing)”