Trying to stay focused and on track this year? Working smarter is about prioritizing your needs and strengths, and eliminating the obstacles and bad habits that can get in the way of achieving your goals. Retraining your brain is a matter of creating positive habits, like the ones below, to stay on track even when life throws a hurdle in your way.
Get specific about your goals. Setting clear, specific goals for yourself will make you more effective in your work and will prevent you from feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or disappointed if the first few tries don’t go as planned. Well-defined goals help you figure out what strategies work for you, and which don’t. For example, if you have a sociology paper due on Monday, set a goal to finish the concluding paragraph by 5pm on Thursday. This is a clear, well-defined, and achievable goal. Don’t set a broad goal for yourself like, “be more productive.” This isn’t specific enough and you won’t feel motivated to finish the paper early.
Set boundaries on distractions when working. Pick a quiet place to work, and if you’re in a public place like a library, use headphones to minimize distractions and signal to others that you’re not open to interruption. Turn your notifications off and don’t check your email; it will only derail you from what you’re actively working on.
Observe your own energy levels and plan accordingly. Not a morning person? Use that time to get necessary tasks that don’t require your full attention out of the way, like doing your laundry or tidying up your room. You can’t always control your class schedule, but if you know you have a window from noon to 3pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays and your focus peaks in the early afternoon, use that time to do your most challenging coursework.
Batch tasks. Switching between different tasks requires a lot of brain power. Try task batching to reduce the mental load of switching. Think of task batching like creating a theme for different blocks of time, and group similar tasks together. For example, in an errands batch, you might pick up your mail, return books to the library, and shop for snacks for the week.
Find a time management method that works for you and stick with it. Lack of focus and poor time management are what sidetrack productivity the most. We’ve covered a lot of time management tips and tricks on the blog and on our social media, but here are a few of our favorites: the Pomodoro Technique, the Ivy Lee Method, and Timeboxing.
Set early deadlines. Have you ever noticed that you can crank out an essay in an hour during a test, but if it’s assigned as homework, it can take you hours spread across the week to finish? For most of us, our perception of how much time we have to accomplish a task can influence how much time we need to finish it. Longer deadlines lead to procrastination; set your deadlines early or assign a specific and limited amount of time to a task to help yourself accomplish it faster.
Use a paper planner to stay on top of your schedule. Your prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that helps with what’s called “executive function” (planning, organizing, prioritizing, and managing time), is the last part of the brain to develop. Development varies from person to person, but most of us haven’t fully developed the PFC until our early to mid-twenties. A paper planner provides structure so you know what you need to accomplish and when. While there are plenty of digital options on the market, research shows that the act of writing things down encodes differently in the brain and promotes better recall. Unlike a digital planner, paper planners promote focus. If you’re looking to your computer or phone to check your calendar or add to your to-do list, it’s easy to get distracted by social media, an incoming text, or whatever notification catches your eye.
Take handwritten notes. This goes hand-in-hand with using a paper planner. Scrolling through a professor’s shared PowerPoint slides online is not going to help you learn and retain information the way taking handwritten notes will. Fun fact: this benefit actually increases with cursive or script handwriting.
Move your body. Exercise doesn't just work your body, it also improves the fitness of your brain. Even 20 minutes of daily exercise improves cognitive function and memory retention. But it’s not just that—exercise actually helps your brain create new neural networks, the pathways in the brain that allow us to store and recall information. Just by making a regular practice of moving your body, you can increase your alertness and learn faster.
Eat a well-balanced diet of nutrient rich foods. Food is fuel for your brain; a poor diet can set you up for fatigue and even increase your risk of depression. Look for protein from plant sources and fish, and choose healthy fats like those found in avocados and walnuts over fried foods. Coffee, in moderation, can improve mood, vigilance, learning, and reaction time.
We hope these tips help you stay on track this year, no matter what obstacles arise. Want more tips for becoming your best you? Check out our post on one-minute habit changes to implement into your daily routine.