After graduating with my undergraduate degree in 2020, I took a year off from school. I had always wanted to go to graduate school at some point, and because of the pandemic and its effect on the economy, I figured now would be the best time. I have loved it so far.
One thing I’ve noticed in going back to school, however, is how scattered my thoughts are all the time. Part of it is my personality: I get stressed and anxious when I am too busy, so staying on top of things and keeping to-do lists (I have three in use currently) is of utmost importance to my mental wellbeing. Oddly enough, though, being organized can cause anxiety as well, as I am keenly aware of all I have to do, and often the mountain of responsibilities seems insurmountable. This necessary organization simultaneously keeps the anxiety at bay, while also causing me to feel overwhelmed, which in turn can cause anxiety of a different sort. I can’t live with it, and I can’t live without it.
My scattered thoughts and overwhelming to-do lists, I have found, have tremendous negative effects on my focus. I studied Professional and Public Writing in my undergrad, so I am no stranger to writing papers or reading boring-to-the-point-of-tears textbooks. What is new to me, though, is the difficulty I have had in focusing enough to write well. I think most people agree that quality writing is achieved with tremendous focus—it really is a state of mind. This first semester back to school, and especially the first few weeks of it, has been a struggle.
It’s the same with reading, too, and not just with the boring textbooks. I haven’t been able to really get lost in a book in a while. It’s hard for me to get through two pages without looking at the page numbers. Often, too, I’ll get to the bottom of a page and realize that I didn’t retain any of the information whatsoever—that I was daydreaming the whole time.
It was a few weeks ago that I really realized this and was able to articulate it. I set out to try and combat this unhealthy organization and assignment completion obsession that, ironically, was causing me as much or more anxiety than it was actually solving. I’m happy to say that I have a few techniques (oh no, I’m about to make another to-do list) that have helped me in my struggle. I hope that they can do the same for you.
- Find a distraction-free space to do your work. For me, this is the library. I can’t get anything done at my apartment, and I don’t even have roommates. So much of productivity is going somewhere with the express purpose of getting work done. Find a place like this.
- Set achievable goals. Don’t fill your to-do lists with only the biggest projects of the semester. This can cause you to feel even more overwhelmed and can ultimately be counterproductive. Put one big project on your to-do list at a time and fill the rest of it up with easy daily tasks, such as sending emails and doing a discussion post on Canvas. These small goals are extremely satisfying to cross off your to-do list and can lead to an overall more productive state of mind, which will translate as you get to work on your bigger projects.
- Lastly, and don’t tell your professors I said this, sometimes you have to let assignments go. Oddly enough, this can lead to a higher degree of productivity: you will end up focusing your mental energy more intently on the necessary assignments, rather than doing subpar work all around because you’re spreading yourself too thin. You only have so much mental energy.
I won’t pretend like these methods are foolproof. I still have trouble focusing, especially when I read and write, but it is getting better. I have found, too, that productivity is like a machine in that, once it is up and running, is tough to slow down. It’s the getting it up and running that’s the hard part. I know it’s week seven, but it’s never too late to start.