Published: Sept. 12, 2019 By

Graduate student with headphones concentrated on laptopOnce I actually sit down at my desk, I often have a hard time getting anything done. I’ll clean my desk, browse the New York Times, skim the Twitter headlines, respond to messages on my phone, organize my email, make a to-do list, alphabetize my files, and on and on. I pretend that I’m being productive; but in reality, I’m just avoiding my work.

Inspired by this Reddit post, here’s my handy guide for staying focused while working.

Before You Sit Down to Work

Try these one day prior to your workday, even the night before.

  • Write down your three most important tasks (MITs) for the day.
    • Use an old-fashioned post-it and pen.
  • Break everything down into manageable tasks.
    • Again, use a post-it and pen to make a hierarchy of concrete and manageable tasks. For example: MIT #1: Write a resume.
      • Find and read articles on best practices for resume building
      • Write down components of my resume: education, experience, skills
      • Create rough draft
  • Write an hour-by-hour task list for the day and include time for breaks or administrative tasks (e.g., checking your email or getting a flu shot).
  • Use Freedom or other similar apps to block access to Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube and adjust according to your addiction status.

When You Sit Down to Work

  • Have a pen and blank post-it next to you to write down any other “to-do” tasks that come to your mind.
  • Chew on gum or suck on a cough drop or other hard candy. I heard once that there was scientific research saying that chewing on gum improves your concentration.
  • Turn off your phone, or put it on airplane mode, or put it in another room. Don’t even let it vibrate. Make it completely silent.
  • Close your email. Yes, close it; no one is going to die if it takes you two-plus hours to respond to their email.
  • Shut down your chat windows. That means Skype, Facebook, iMessage and Gchat. The messages will still be there when you get back, I promise.
  • Write down all the endless chatter happening in your brain. Keep a document on your desktop titled, “distractions.” When you find yourself thinking about your ex-boyfriend, or how much you hate your neighbor, or whatever other drama is happening in your life, open that doc and get it all down. Then, get back to work.
  • Tell yourself, “I’m just going to work for five minutes and then I’ll take a break.”
    This tricks your brain, every single time, into working much longer.

While You’re Working

  • Turn your Toggl timer on.
  • Break up your work into 25-minute chunks with 5-minute breaks or 50-minute chunks with 10-minute breaks (pomodoro technique).
  • Turn on music. I listen to classical or instrumental music with no lyrics.

If You Find Yourself Getting Distracted

  • Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself something motivational like "you got this."
  • Focus on a motivational image or think about obtaining something you desire: imagine yourself on the day you graduate with your PhD, or the day you pass your comps— anything that will motivate you to get back to work.
  • Close your eyes and imagine myself succeeding in what you are doing.
  • Think of a reward when you finish your task, like watching a favorite episode of your favorite show or treating yourself to something decadent like a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks.

Sarah Tynen is the graduate program manager at the Graduate School. She completed her PhD at CU Boulder in geography in May 2019.