With spring starting this week, the season of research essays, final projects, and terms papers is also officially upon us. Interestingly enough, the time of year most closely associated with new beginnings, ritual cleaning, and fresh starts, also corresponds in the academic calendar to one of the most intense and pressure filled weeks for university students and faculty. A demand for creative production, ideas, strategies, and plain old “words on the page” is what it is all about. And without some sort of plan, this time of year can become both anxiety inducing and overwhelming.
Over the past few years, it is hard not to notice (and I include myself in this observation) that digital distraction has come to play a bigger and more difficult obstacle in seeing projects to completion. Beyond all of the information overload and trips down rabbit holes we have to deal with while on the computer, in terms of planning for success, it is not always as easy as turning off our computers and devices anymore, especially when so many of the tools we rely upon to complete our projects come to us through digital means.
What then are we to do? What follows are four interconnected ideas to counter the digital distraction issue that lies at the heart of both procrastination and unmet goals while trying to complete term papers, essays, and other creative projects. These are strategies that I have found personally useful, and I pass them along in the hopes that you too can find some productivity over springtime.
Internet blocking software—if you want to get serious about getting work done, you need to do away with all and any online distractions. It is not enough to close out Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and other social media apps, because who are we kidding, you can simply stop and open up a new window whenever a weak moment hits (every 3-5 minutes if you are like me with an especially bad bout of writer’s block). My hands-down favourite app for this is SelfControl. It is a simple but ruthless desktop application that allows you to block access to mail servers, social media, and any other websites that you designate on your tailor-made “blacklist” as distracting for a set period of time.
What is especially great about this app is that you can still use the Internet to access library journals, web research, and other web-enabled software on your computer. During the designated time you set, you cannot get to your blacklist even if you restart your computer or delete the app—this is hardcore and not for the faint of heart. Many of the Internet blocking programs out there do not allow for self-curated blacklists or serious blocking like this program and are thus useless to researchers and students. SelfControl is free, but for Mac only. A decent alternative for PC users is Anti-social, but it does come at a small price.
Use the Pomodoro Technique—I first learned about this tool when I was in the early stages of my Ph.D. dissertation writing and needed a way to balance writing with resting and recharging. Staring down the gun at several chapters, I needed a way to run the marathon of the project without burning out in attempting one long sprint. Many people indeed associate the writing process with a kind of vague notion of several set aside hours or days to get something completed after a protracted time of waiting, usually for some kind of inspiration (or finally, a looming deadline) to hit. But in reality, very few people can write on demand, and write well on demand, as evidenced by the hundreds of terrible all-nighter papers that I have had the displeasure of reading over the years (and yes, I have written a few myself).
In the time since grad school, I have come to understand the need to write early and consistently without distractions when getting papers and projects completed, and have used this time management technique to complete all kinds of tasks, big and small. Used hand in hand with Internet distracting software, Pomodoro is a simple and highly effective technique that uses a timer to break down an allotted goal of work time into smaller manageable chunks with set breaks. Back in the day, I used an actual egg timer, but today you can download free desktop apps to mark the elapsed time. I have included a great YouTube tutorial below. Just try it—it works.
Check Email, Texts, and All Other Messages ONLY 2-3 Times a Day—this idea is also very simple in theory, but requires some planning to execute. I know many of us wake up and fall asleep looking at texts, social media messages, and emails, but ask yourself how many of those emails , messages, and texts have derailed the best intended plans for writing, research, or time spent on focused creative production? Moreover, how many of those messages were truly urgent, and how many of them were just a distraction from what you could be getting done? During the week, I make a concerted effort to check my email, texts, and messages at only three points in the day: in the morning following breakfast and getting ready for the day; at midday following the completion of meetings or classes; and at night after dinner, but well before heading to bed.
The key to keeping to this schedule and overall plan requires that you deactivate all of your push notifications for email, texts, social media messages, and voice mail on your phone, tablet, and desktop. There is no point having windows popping up or devices vibrating to alert you to messages if your plan is to look at them when YOU want to look at them. Bottom line, you should be in control of time spent answering emails, texts, and messages, and not allow them to become the mental drain and distraction that they too often are. Back in the good old days of voice machines and memos, people had to be patient and wait for a response. No doubt, this is not an easy rule to maintain, but when I am consistent in reducing the amount of time I spend on emails, texts, and messages, my productivity shoots up and my overall anxiety and stress goes down.
Do One Thing At A Time—I know, I know, easier said than done, but at the heart of digital distraction is the corrosive behavior of multi-tasking. We’ve all done it—writing a paper, while posting on Facebook, watching Netflix, and listening to music. You may think you are getting lots done, but study after study shows the correlation between poor grades and digital multi-tasking. Slate produced a great article on this topic a few years ago where they discussed the simple act of doing one task at a time as a way to improve information retention and performance (in creative and academic projects):
Given that these distractions aren’t going away, academic and even professional achievement may depend on the ability to ignore digital temptations while learning—a feat akin to the famous marshmallow test. In a series of experiments conducted more than 40 years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel tempted young children with a marshmallow, telling them they could have two of the treats if they put off eating one right away. Follow-up studies performed years later found that the kids who were better able to delay gratification not only achieved higher grades and test scores but were also more likely to succeed in school and their careers.
Two years ago, Rosen and his colleagues conducted an information-age version of the marshmallow test. College students who participated in the study were asked to watch a 30-minute videotaped lecture, during which some were sent eight text messages while others were sent four or zero text messages. Those who were interrupted more often scored worse on a test of the lecture’s content; more interestingly, those who responded to the experimenters’ texts right away scored significantly worse than those participants who waited to reply until the lecture was over.
So to recap— the key to success in overcoming digital distraction appears to be in adapting some kind of Pomodoro technique where short periods of focused time to do one thing at a time, facilitated with the aid of Internet blocking software and set times to look at emails and messages, is followed up with breaks that can include the very digital distractions that we all in truth enjoy and look forward to. In other words, it is not an all or nothing proposition to survive this time of year. Productivity lies with keeping some sense of overall balance, control, and limits on the precious resource that is your time.