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3 focus training exercises to help you write and research

Some people have no trouble finding their focus. They have rituals or habits that ‘just work’ for them. If that’s you, that’s awesome!

However, other people often say to me that learning how to focus is a real challenge for them. Sometimes an  old habit has stopped working or their routine has had to shift radically. Sometimes they admit that they’ve never found it easy to focus. Since academic work really does need periods of focussed attention, they’ve really struggled to consistently work the way they need to. 

Fortunately, focus is a skill you can learn, and there are some basic steps that can get you started! If you are supervising or advising someone who struggles with focus, you will also find this advice useful!

First of all, ignore all the ‘rules’ about focus. What matters is what works for you. 

Literally, every single time I ask a group of researchers about what they do to focus, I’ll get a total spectrum of answers. One person’s failsafe strategy will be another person’s nightmare. 

For example, you might find that you focus best in a noisy public area, or listening to music with lyrics, or music without lyrics, or to white noise, or to total silence. You might find that you work best surrounded by people not working (like a café), people working (like a library), or in quiet room by yourself. You might work best early in the morning, in the afternoon, or late at night. You might work best writing by hand, typing on a computer, or using your phone. You might focus best for short ‘pomodoro’ length times, for two hour blocks, or for three day blocks. You might work best at a desk, on the sofa, outside under a tree, or in bed. I’ve seen all of these!

Instead, reflect on your own personal experience and then start keeping a note of what seems to work and what doesn’t. If you can find a couple of different strategies, that will be the most helpful, just to give you options.

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Now you have some ideas about where and when you’d like to focus, you can get onto the focus bit. Often in academic work we go straight from focussing to the thing we are focussing on, getting into the zone and immediately trying to tackle an analysis or writing task. However, that’s skipping a step! 

Slow down, and just focus on focussing first. 

There are many ways to learn to focus, but one of my favourites comes from meditation traditions. I’ve been meditating for years, but I recently studied to be able to train others to meditate and it was really helpful to clarify what is going on here. Meditation is often used in spiritual practices, but the skill is the same skill we use in the lab or library, we are just setting our mind to focus on some academic problem rather than a higher power. 

You can learn to meditate on anything, or on nothing (which is much harder); so I’m going to suggest three exercises to improve your focus skills. 

Don’t worry if you are terrible at it, at first. Learning a new skill is always a bit messy to begin with. Keep it up for a few goes and see if you start to get better. This is not the only way to learn to focus, and it might not be the right one for you, but it does work for lots of people! 

Exercise 1: A mindfulness meditation to help you notice what’s going on for you and remove distractions

If you aren’t used to reflecting on your own personal experiences and preferences, then this is a good strategy to help you recognise what’s going on for you. 

One of the easiest ways to help you focus is to remove obvious distractions like hunger, discomfort or intrusions. This meditation helps you notice what distractions are in your environment and gives you a chance at the end to remove them!

Go to the place you think you would be most likely to want to do focussed work, at the time you plan to be productive. Set up the space so that you could start work immediately, but do not start working just yet. (For example, sit at your desk at 9am with your laptop open; or go to the library at 3pm and sit with your notebooks and reading material). 

Set a timer for 2 minutes. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and breath out through your mouth, three times; and then continue to breathe slowly in and out through your nose.

Let your mind wander. Feel whatever you feel. Notice the light, the sounds around you, any ideas or thoughts that pop into your head. Notice your body, how it feels. You might find it helpful to take notes, or just to notice what you notice. Do not judge, just notice. 

When the timer goes off, reflect. What did you notice? Where there physical, emotional or practical things that came to your mind that you might need to resolve before you start work? 

If they can be easily addressed, take a few minutes and fix them now! (I often find I need a glass of water, to close the door and turn on a desk lamp for example.)

If they are more complex to address, make a to-do list of what came up and follow up on them after your work session (do you need a new chair, or to talk about some feelings with your counsellor?)

Now get to work for at least 25 minutes. At the end of the session, were you more focussed? 

Exercise 2: A single point of focus meditation to help you recover from distractions

One of the most basic skills in meditation is to recover from being distracted. Even if there are no external distractions, our mind wanders off or we get tired or bored. This is absolutely fine, as long as we practice bringing our minds back to the point. 

This exercise uses a physical object, because it is so much easier to focus on. Any object will do. I have a small rubber duck on my desk which I often use, but a pencil, chapstick or stapler would be just as effective!

Go to the place you think you would be most likely to want to do focussed work, at the time you plan to be productive. Set up the space so that you could start work immediately, but do not start working just yet. Place the focus object in front of you. 

Set a timer for 2 minutes. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and breath out through your mouth, three times; and then continue to breathe slowly in and out through your nose.

Pay close attention to the object. Use your eyes to notice all the details. Do not look away from the object (but do blink!). 

If you look away, bring your gaze back to the object. Do this as many times as you need to. You may find it helps to touch the object, or to turn it around. But keep looking at the object.

When the timer goes off, reflect. What did you notice? Were you able to focus or was it very difficult? What made it easier to pay attention? Did your focus change over time?

I personally find it gets easier to focus the longer I sit with this exercise. The first 30 seconds are a mess, but by the end of the time I usually feel like I’m entering a calmer mind space. This helps me to know that I can safely ignore the messy start of any work session: if I persist, I will probably reach the zone! Your experience might be different, and give you your own insights. 

Many people use a version of this strategy to help them stay connected to their abstract project—pictures of the relevant people above their computers, or a meaningful object from their research or a scale model on their desk. Would having something to look at or touch help you get back on track if you are distracted?

Now get to work for at least 25 minutes. At the end of the session, were you more focussed? 

Exercise 3: A meditation about visualising your goals. 

Look, the main reason that focussing on academic work is hard is because a lot of it is difficult, fiddly or boring and the rewards are a very long way away. It’s much harder to get focussed on a day you are doing a task you don’t really enjoy, you aren’t inspired, and it feels like you are never going to finish (such as when you are in what Inger calls the Valley of Shit). But that is precisely when you need techniques to help you knuckle down and get some work done. 

Go to the place you think you would be most likely to want to do focussed work, at the time you plan to be productive. Set up the space so that you could start work immediately, but do not start working just yet. Place a sheet of paper in front of you, and have a writing implement to hand. 

Set a timer for 2 minutes. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and breath out through your mouth, three times; and then continue to breathe slowly in and out through your nose.

Image a moment in the future when you have achieved your doctoral goals. Where are you? What are you doing? Who is there too? How does it feel? Include as many specific details as you can. 

On the piece of paper, draw, write, doodle or diagram what this goal looks like and feels like. The lines and words may be representative or abstract, they may be neat or messy, they might make sense to your later self or not. It doesn’t matter. Let your pen move over the paper as you imagine that future moment. 

When the timer goes off, reflect. What did you notice? Did imaging that goal make you happy, motivated and excited?

Many people tell me they use a version of this strategy, where they imagine walking across the stage at their graduation, with their family in the audience clapping. They are wearing their doctoral bonnet and the Vice Chancellor shakes their hand. Imagining this movement gives them motivation when the going is hard. You may have a similar (or different) goal. 

Now get to work for at least 25 minutes. At the end of the session, notice if you were more focussed? 

If imaging the future goal made you feel itchy, unhappy or glum, then that is also worth reflecting on. Sometimes I do this exercise and realise I’m having trouble focussing on a task because I don’t like where it is all going. It can be helpful to realise your brain is sabotaging your productivity to help you escape a horrible future!
Maybe you need to change your goals, or your tasks. If that’s the case, maybe today isn’t the day to get to work, but the day to say no to the project, put things on your not-to-do list, or to rethink your priorities. 

 A final note on these focus exercises

These exercises are not the real thing. 2 minutes is very short, but long enough to practice the skills without exhausting your attention span, so you have enough focus left over to move on to your actual research. 

Don’t worry if you aren’t getting results immediately, do stick with it for a bit. It can take up to 4 weeks for the results to arrive, but it’s also common to notice small improvements in a day or two. However, meditation doesn’t work for everyone, and I’d definitely move on if I wasn’t seeing any change after 4 weeks!

Sometimes meditation, breathing exercises or mindfulness have been difficult or distressing for people. 2 minutes, in a safe and familiar place, with the chance to take notes or touch an object, should reduce the likelihood of these exercises making things worse. But do listen to your own body and mind, and stop earlier if the exercises are distressing. 

There is nothing special or magical about the details of these exercises. The elements of time, calmness, place, and training your mind are parts of many different strategies. You might use one of these breathing exercises in this post instead, or do a 10-minute generative writing warm up.

Alternatively, you might recognise your own idiosyncratic strategies as a form of focus training. I sometimes wander around the house with a cup of coffee talking to myself. It works for me, so now I honour that as a walking-talking focus meditation that helps me get my work done. These practices often look silly, but they also often work! 

Finally, no amount of focus training will help you focus indefinitely or under any circumstances. No productivity hack will turn you into a robot. If you have worked for too long, are in the middle of an emergency, are being interrupted constantly by children or coworkers… then it will be hard for you to focus however many breathing exercises you do! These exercises won’t replace medication or other necessary supports if you have an attention disorder or similar, but they might be complementary in helping you direct your focus once your biochemistry has levelled out a bit more. 

Overall, focus is a skill, you can learn it and practice it, and then you can use those techniques to help you work more effectively. It can also help you to be more aware of what helps and hinders your productivity, so you can build you own customised routines. There will always be internal and external distractions, but you can practice how to recover from them, and still do some work. 

I hope you enjoy these exercises, and that they help you focus. You might use them when you are on your own, or you could include them in your next writing class or Shut Up and Write session. May these practices contribute to greater happiness, focus and productivity  as you go out to achieve those research goals and contribute to extending knowledge and improving the world. 

Photo by Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

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