Finding Focus in a Distracted World

As a graduate student, it sometimes seems immensely difficult to be able to find focus for our work. Facebook feeds, email pings, requests from colleagues… How, then, do we find focus from all of these?

I think that the solution isn’t only about specific techniques. It’s about the orientation of our minds. We have to move to the other side of the spectrum. I believe that the most important thing is to be driven by a mission and to have a vision that were developed over time – and then focus comes naturally with practice. Otherwise, it’s forced focus – which is unsustainable.

In terms of things that have worked for me, I have drawn inspiration from the 99u website for these ideas, which I have successfully implemented for myself.

Here they are:

1. Think win-win: Say yes to only the best things.

Assuming you know your priorities and have them straight, then there’s no point futzing around with things that are not of the highest value to yourself and the people around you.

Therefore, if my colleagues ask me for help, I agree only if I know I can deliver positive value to them and it delivers value to myself too or others around me. If it doesn’t fulfill this criteria, then I would elect not to do it.

For example, given that my line of work involves a heavy amount of coding, if I’m asked by my colleagues to write a script to help them with something, I only say yes if I know it will be something useful for the lab in general as well.

However, if I see an opportunity to do an analysis that helps me advance my career work while also delivering value to my colleague, then I will agree to do it. Things that advance my career work include:

  1. Establishing positive control data sets for some of my ideas for analysis methodologies.
  2. Giving me test cases for analysis methodology.
  3. Opportunities to test coding skills on an alternate problem.

If I say “no” to all the good things, and “yes” to only the best things, then I’m giving myself the mental space and time needed to deliver on my best work.

2. Block off large stretches of your calendar and seclude yourself during those high productivity stretches.

At the beginning of your week, allocate time for yourself before you allocate time to others. If you know your body rhythms, then even better! Allocate time for yourself to do your most important work at the times that you have the most amount of energy.

Based on aggregate data recorded by RescueTime, my peak productivity comes between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Between lunch time and coffee time, I am actually better off doing low mental energy activities, such as dealing with unimportant emails.

During peak energy times, though, my time is best spent on important things – high-value strategic items that include coding, sketching research ideas, and writing papers. During those times, I will find a way to block off all other noise – which can include using headphones + music, or going to a secluded place like the library, or going to the nearest Starbucks, in order to focus.

3. Let unimportant activities slough off.

If you resist saying “yes” to unimportant things, over time, they will stop coming to you. In turn, that will free up your mental space for important activities.

I have been asked to do many things that aren’t aligned with my most important goals. Sometimes I ignore them, sometimes I forget about them, and sometimes I simply reject politely. Ultimately, the only things I ought to be dedicating my focus to are things that will fulfill my own personal mission while also delivering value to the people around me. Everything else is cruft.

4. Stop being on-call.

This idea is directly lifted, but I think it bears repeating. The moment I make myself “schedulable” but not on-call is the moment I gain back my ability to control how my time is spent.

If my time is spent at the beck-and-call of others, soon enough it becomes a convenient option for them to get me to do things. While in the short-term it makes me valuable to them, in the long-run it becomes an addiction for them that I get implicated in. That kind of situation is no longer win-win for everybody, it is win-lose.

Therefore, I consider it very important for us graduate students to protect our time. This means letting others know that our time works on a schedule, that our time has to be booked in advance, and that we are not available at others’ whims. It means being extremely disciplined in saying “not now, please schedule” when others’ requests begin to roll off their tongue the moment they ask for your attention.

It comes with responsibilities too, though. If I agree to meeting with somebody at some scheduled time, I do not make changes to that schedule if possible. I also do not commit to meetings that I cannot have 100% confidence in committing to (e.g. other moving parts in my life have not settled).

5. Measure progress by milestones, not by hours.

This idea is lifted indirectly. Graduate students should really not be focusing on deadlines. Graduate students really should be focusing on hitting progress milestones, rather than measuring progress by hours put in.

I have experienced this personally. If I am not delivering on my own progress milestones, then no matter how much I re-run old analyses or run old experiments, I am not inching closer towards my final thesis goals. If I am only measuring the hours I put in, then I can very easily find myself distracted by other things simply to fill the hours.

On the other hand, if I am hitting progress milestones, then regardless of how many (or few) hours I have put into the work, I have made measurable progress, which matters much more than the hours I’ve put in. (Sometimes the time required depends on the scope of progress, so it’s okay to take a longer time, as long as one is comfortable with it and one’s advisor is as well.)

For those of us who have tasted research as undergraduates once, most of the time we have been drafted on by other graduate students and post-docs to help them with repetitive work that needs to get done. However, that’s not the case in graduate school. In graduate school, our duty is to get creative work done, leveraging our advisors’ expertise and our lab’s research environment to accomplish that.


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