Help me make myself do my work
October 22, 2009 7:18 AM   Subscribe

I am in graduate school after taking a few years off, and in those few years it seems I have lost the ability to pay attention to anything. Please help me focus.

I just started my graduate program (for City and Regional Planning) in September. I mostly love it. I am not bored by the subject matter, for the most part, and after having flailed about for a few years after college, I finally know that this is what I want to do.

However, I am suffering. I have never been a very good listener in classes. I'm a big doodler of silly faces and writer of my name in fancy fonts. I pay attention somewhat, but tend to zone out when presented with mainly auditory information and when I am not being directly engaged. This has been the case for most of my life--and no, I was never diagnosed with ADD or anything--but it was never that big of a problem, because I did well in school anyway by virtue of being able to concentrate well on the reading and perform well on papers and exams. It used to be that if I were actively doing something, I could focus very well, but if I were a passive listener, I'd zone out.

Things have changed, though. I'm not sure if it's because I took a few years off and I no longer remember how to be a student, or if it's because I have aged beyond some mythical ideal-student-age-window and my brain is duller than it used to be (I am not that old. I am 28), but now, I can barely even make myself focus on my copious amounts of reading. When I had a paper due as an undergrad, I used to be able to sit there with all my research and just write it in one fell swoop. Yesterday, I tried to do that, and I couldn't get beyond four pages and I kept losing my point.

I guess I just don't understand why I used to be able to concentrate on my schoolwork and now I have a very hard time doing so. This is especially panic-inducing because I'm paying for this myself.

Things I have tried:
-coffee
-lots of coffee (coffee helps at first)
-working away from my apartment (but new environments seem to make my mind wander more--in the library, every tiny sound distracts me, whereas in my apartment, I can concentrate a little better)
-working in my apartment and turning the internet off (this helps for a little while, but eventually I will go clip my toenails or decide to clean the bathroom)
-having a study babysitter (I often do work in the company of my sir, who is in the same program. Sometimes this helps--mostly with reading-based work that we are both doing--and sometimes it distracts further).
-small increments of study time (nothing gets done and I count down until there is a break)
-large increments of study time (daunting--more gets done, but it is hard to start).

I'm worried that, because I spent four years essentially goofing off mentally, having a job that did not require any critical thinking, I have forgotten how to be smart.

So far I am doing well in school, insofar as one can do well halfway into a semester. I've gotten good grades on the small assignments we've had. But I look at my google calendar with all my upcoming work on it, and I panic and think that I'm never going to be able to make myself do it all and I'm going to fail and I never should have gone back to school in the first place. It's the spiral of doom.

Help.
posted by millipede to Education (10 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
...and I panic and think that I'm never going to be able to make myself do it all and I'm going to fail and...


Fear is your ally, my young apprentice. You have merely forgotten, and now you are remembering.
posted by clarknova at 7:44 AM on October 22, 2009


These might be overly obvious suggestions but I didn't realize until I was 30 that exercise--even walking daily--made an enormous difference in my mental clarity and ability to concentrate. Also, drinking lots of water all day, and well-timed snacks.

Also, nothing in your post indicates this, but it's worth a try. Do you have allergies? I didn't realize how foggy allergies were making my thinking until I found the right medicine that completely stops them.

I've increasingly been thinking of my studying as athletic--maybe right now you're just stretching, warming up, and getting back into it.

Good luck!
posted by umbĂș at 7:48 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Many graduate programs have impossibly huge reading lists and thus many graduate students form alliances for a "divide and conquer" approach to the reading -- each person takes responsibility for a share, reads their share thoroughly, and provides good summary notes to the others.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:17 AM on October 22, 2009


When I had a paper due as an undergrad, I used to be able to sit there with all my research and just write it in one fell swoop. Yesterday, I tried to do that, and I couldn't get beyond four pages and I kept losing my point.

Allow yourself 10 minutes when this happens. Get up, walk around. Have an apple, then sit back down and try for another 4 pages. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I work from home and run into situations like you describe when I am not doing very engaging work. I work a bit, step away, come back and work a half hour, step away, etc. It gets done. Probably not as fast as I would like, but it avoids me getting distracted for an hour on MeFi and having no hope of finishing.
posted by chiefthe at 8:21 AM on October 22, 2009


Try not to feel overwhelmed. Just like you, I was scared that I was stupider when I went back to grad school. But I was way smarter.

You could try taking glucose, the brain needs oxygen and glucose to work really well, maybe why umbu's suggestion would work, too.

Have you tried scheduling your study time? Like maybe time x to time y every day is just for studying, or something like that?

Another suggestion for lengthening the amount of time you can listen is to get some talking books. I used the strategy of reading aloud for increasing amounts of time with my 6th grade students to try to expand their attention spans and it was pretty successful. Maybe talking books could work for you?

The internet may be a hidden enemy. Try and schedule your internet time, if possible.

Good luck.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 8:27 AM on October 22, 2009


It sounds like scheduling your time is also an issue so you don't get overwhelmed by assignments. Get a wall calendar that goes month by month and pencil in all your due dates. Have a list of things to do that are short term, medium term and long term and do them. I suspect part of your problem has to do with poor self discipline/regulation. Either hire a coach to help motivate you or find a way to do it yourself. This is something that can be learned and practiced and you will need it all your life.
posted by bfoster at 11:26 AM on October 22, 2009


These might be overly obvious suggestions but I didn't realize until I was 30 that exercise--even walking daily--made an enormous difference in my mental clarity and ability to concentrate.

Check out the book Brain Rules. That's one of the main points: exercise while learning increases how well you learn the information. (We evolved as hunter/gatherers, not as sedentary beings, after all!)
posted by StarmanDXE at 12:36 PM on October 22, 2009


Also consider that you have (presumably) been away from school for 4-6 years. You spent from age 5-age 22 or thereabouts being a student. The last six years was your first break from being a student, so many of those habits have probably disappeared. You just need some to time to re-learn what being a student is about. It'll come back.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 12:47 PM on October 22, 2009


I tend to zone out in lectures too. Or fall asleep. And I get fidgety. So I tend to chew a lot of gum...the minty flavor energizes me, and the chewing makes me feel less fidgety. I also make sure to sit in the front, and vary my gaze.

Sometimes part of my problem was having too much time. When I had some combo of school + job/internship/volunteering + social life, I found I got a lot more done.

I never have much success with calendars, but I'm pretty good at keeping a list in my head. Seeing my work in graphical calendar form always freaks me out. Being diligent about keeping my notes and syllabus organized helps, and when I'm doing work, I only refer to one syllabus at a time. This breaks things into smaller tasks for me. Hiding all the books except the one I'm reading is another tactic.
posted by shinyshiny at 6:01 PM on October 22, 2009


If you have other older students who have gone through this program, ask what to expect in the course and how they structured their study material.
posted by proficiency101 at 1:17 AM on December 28, 2009


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