It’s not easy to buckle down and get things done- just ask Congress! But seriously folks, even after years in the professional world, we all still have days where we sit in front of the computer, the internal monologue of our brains sounding like a car that won’t turn over. We are trying our best to knock out that grant proposal, or powerpoint presentation, or poem- but we just can’t focus. And then, of course, it really does feel like time for a muffin…
Not surprisingly, students also run into problems with focus when trying to complete assignments, study, or write papers- problems that can be compounded when combined with issues like a lack of motivation or comprehension of the material, as is often the case with students who end up on academic probation or warning.
Right now, I have two students in particular who have been having trouble. For Jenna, the issue is both motivation and comprehension. Fernando, on the other hand, is genuinely motivated. He’s also a social butterfly, so for him, it’s about distractions. He will start his work in my office or a solitary corner of the library, but by the time he’s gotten back to the dorm to finish up, he’s encountered four or five better offers than another two hours trying to hammer out the next paragraph on the economics of social migration in ancient Mesoamerica.
Working with these two students has rekindled my interest in studying the ways in which students can optimize their ability to focus and be productive. Here are 3 “musts” for getting things done:
1. Make Space and Time
It was a recent interview (http://www.npr.org/2013/11/14/245222230/roald-dahl-wanted-his-magical-matilda-to-keep-books-alive)
with the youngest daughter of author Roald Dahl that reminded me of the importance of both creating a physical space conducive to work as well as mandating (and keeping to) a regular time commitment in order to do it. According to Lucy Dahl, “His hut was a sacred place…he sat in his mother’s old armchair and then put his feet up on an old leather trunk. His work sessions were very strict — he worked from 10 until 12 every day and then again from 3 until 5 every day. Even if there was nothing to write he would still, as he would say, ‘put his bottom on the chair.’ ”
2. Optimize your space for “Closed” and “Open” Modes
A few weeks ago, I watched a lecture on creativity by comedy icon John Cleese (http://vimeo.com/18913413). In it, he espouses the idea of two “modes” of operating- open, where we take a step back, brainstorm, look at the task at hand as a whole- and closed, where we hone in on specific decisions and implement them. This made me think of the different ways in which my students must approach something like a paper in its initial stages- choosing a topic, research, coming up with a thesis- versus the “closed mode” task of putting words on the page. Some of my students excel in the open mode and can tell me verbatim exactly what they want to do and how they plan to do it but have difficulty executing the work. Others have the capacity to write a really good paper in very little time…if they could only figure out what they want to write about. Consequently, I am continuing to look for ways in which students can create the kind of space and time optimal for each of these modes. (For example, another radio interview I heard recently http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2013/08/07/news/messy-vs-clean-workplace#.UogODwBcJ90.gmail
discussed a study that found that a neat work area was more conducive to structured tasks, while a messy one inspired more creativity.)
3. Remove Distractions
According to the American Psychological Association, multiple studies have shown not only that the idea of “multitasking” is a myth (we are merely switching back and forth between tasks) but also that our distracted, “multitasking” culture is actually making us less efficient, not more. It may be especially difficult to convince students who have grown up doing their homework amidst checking texts and updating their facebook status’ that they will be well served by trying their best to remove distractions, but…hold on, I just got a notice that it’s my turn on Words With Friends…ok, now what was I saying?
We’ve all had those times when we’re riding the wave. These are the spans of work time when thoughts and words flow easily, and when we consume page after page of reading with both speed and comprehension. Because we are focused and “in the moment”, hours can go by in what seems like minutes. Suddenly we’ve finished that insurmountable project without entirely remembering what seemed so daunting in the first place. We’ve also felt that terrifying sensation of, “my brain has gone inexplicably blank! This thing is due by tomorrow morning and I’ve got absolutely nothing!” These are the same feelings my students go through, and because they have less experience than many of us do, they’re doing it all like Ginger Rogers…backwards and in heels.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.