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Finding Motivation: How to Stay Focused in the Age of Distraction

(This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue of Paper Jam: authored by: Annie B., Madelinne D., Stephanie D., Tiffany G., and Dylon R.)

This article's theme is Finding Nemo.


Are you feeling a little lost at sea? It seems like we have waves of discussion boards, essays, quizzes, exams, and more all hitting us at the same time. But since we are home, we should have plenty of time to accomplish these tasks, right? Well, not exactly. Being home can be a bit distracting and a kitchen table does not have the same effect as a desk in a classroom.

So we have assembled some tips on how you can stay focused, find motivation, and just keep swimming.

Finding Concentration (Tiffany G.)

Without distractions, you can focus easier! So here are some ways you can eliminate distractions.

  • Close unnecessary tabs - having a cluttered screen will also make your mind feel cluttered!

  • Have a reward system and take breaks - I do 50 minutes of work and then rest for 10 minutes so I can refresh and not overwork myself.

  • Download helpful apps like Forest, Study Bunny, and Work and Rest. Forest allows you to grow a digital tree while staying focused; if you use a "banned" app, your tree will die. With Study Bunny, your bunny can get sad if you do not study consistently. Also, you can earn coins while studying to buy pets, backgrounds, etc.

Finding Organization (Stephanie D.)

"Where did I save that study guide?!" "Where's the syllabus posted?" "Where's Nemo?!" Wouldn't it be nice to be able to find your class material (and your fish son) quickly and easily? There are a couple of ways to organize your material depending on what you prefer - a physical format or a digital format?

  • Physical format - print class material (on recycled paper if you can), including the syllabus and organize it into binders that you have easy access to! I recommend keeping the syllabus and schedule at the front of the binder and then organizing the material by week. Add some page dividers for a colorful effect!

  • Digital format - make individual folders for your classes in the Documents section of your computer. Folders can be made by right-clicking an empty spot in the Documents section, clicking New Folder, and then giving it a title. Inside those folders, you can create separate folders for different projects.

  • Keep your notes all in one place - my go-to notetaking app is Microsoft OneNote (which is free with your student email account). OneNote can be downloaded to your computer, phone, and is accessible online. I like to create a notebook for a semester where I add sections for each class, and within those sections I make pages for the syllabus, the schedule, different weeks' assignments, readings, rough drafts, etc. You can import PDFs into your pages, add photos, videos, digital stickers, and you can even draw on the page.

Hopefully, this will help prevent you from getting lost in the sea of downloads and assignments!

Finding Connections (Maddie D.)

Just like the tank gang worked together as a team in order to help Nemo escape and find his dad, we may also need the help of others when faced with certain tasks. Nowadays, being able to build connections with those in our online classes is more important than ever but at the same time it could be a challenging thing to do. Luckily, there are a couple of ways that could help you start building connections with your peers.

First, you can send a quick message to at least one student in each of your classes and ask them a question that you may have about an upcoming assignment. Asking a student before asking a professor could be a faster way to answer your question since a professor has to go through many emails in a day. Doing this can also be useful if you missed a class because they could fill you in on what you may have missed and possibly share their notes with you.

Another way you can start to build connections is by simply typing in the chat of an online meeting and ask if anyone would like to be added to a group chat. Chances are, you will get positive feedback because everybody is as nervous as you are during the start of the semester.

While building connections with your peers can play an important part in having a successful semester, it is also beneficial to build connections with each of your professors. If asking a student for help on an assignment does not go as planned, then you might have to reach out to your professor through email or during their office hours. Professors are always willing to help their students if there is any confusion, so I suggest taking this into consideration. If you do end up contacting your professor, just make sure to properly format your email. Most of the time the way they prefer to receive them is posted in their syllabus. This makes a big difference because you will appear more professional and it demonstrates your interest in the class.

Overall, building connections with your peers and professors can help you become more comfortable in this new online environment and get rid of any confusion that you may be having.

Finding Time (Dylon R.)

Here are some time management strategies for managing your workload!

  • Making lists - the simple act of writing down what needs to be done can work wonders for productivity. Once written, these tasks become more concrete in one’s mind. There is also the responsibility associated with the list. Whereas, if one never wrote down what needs to be accomplished, there would be no evidence of laziness!

  • Avoid multitasking - multitasking can be very tempting because it seems like one is cutting time in half. The problem is that one cannot give 100% to two tasks at once. Because of this, the final products will suffer as they do not reflect one’s best work. Multitasking can actually take longer because one cannot reach that flow state achieved with a singular focus.

  • Prioritize what needs to be done first - prioritizing can be very difficult. It is tempting to put the major items at the top of the list. However, this is not always the best strategy. The major items generally take longer, and when time is a factor, prioritizing may mean getting done the most amount of tasks possible. Because of this, knocking out the little ones first can be more effective as, in the end, one is left with fewer tasks overall.

  • Review what you completed to easily track progress - this may mean checking off the items on the list. It may also be writing a new list of what was accomplished. This review helps orient people on where they stand with their work.

Finding Mindfulness (Annie B.)

When things become overwhelming and you puff up in panic, remember these steps:

  • Allow yourself to react - bottling up your emotions is not the way to go. When you feel defeated and sad, allow yourself to cry it out. When you feel fed up with frustration, go ahead and scream into a pillow if you must. Allowing yourself to react and express your emotions may feel like a weakness, but remember you are only human.

  • Reflect on the Issue - think about what is making you feel overwhelmed. What is making you feel stressed out? What about the issue is so stressful?

  • Acknowledge your efforts. We often have strict and high expectations for ourselves and we are not able to meet those expectations we are very harsh on ourselves. It’s important for us to remember that we are working under difficult conditions and it is impressive enough that we have held in during these times. Give yourself some praise for trying so hard.

  • Practice relaxation. Lay down for a bit, take a bath, go for a walk, practice breathing exercises, do some yoga, etc. Remove yourself from the things making you feel overwhelmed for a moment. Take some time to do whatever makes you feel relaxed.

Start a game plan to tackle the issue(s):

  • Set up a schedule for yourself to work on assignments and take breaks - what times of the day do you feel more focused to work on tasks? Set up a schedule for yourself based on whether you work better in the morning, afternoon, or evening to work on your tasks.

  • Know your goals - think about your short-term and long-term goals. Your short-term goal is obviously to finish the tasks at hand but what else are you trying to gain from finishing these tasks?

  • Reward yourself for completing tasks - think about what rewards would keep you motivated to make progress on your tasks. Make sure these rewards are evenly spaced out; you cannot reward yourself an hour of playing a video game for writing two sentences on your four-page essay.

For a revised version of this article aimed more towards reading and writing tutors and tutees, view our presentation below:

Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, scholarship, education, and research.

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