help! I can't concentrate!
December 26, 2010 4:21 PM   Subscribe

What do you do to snap yourself out of a completely unfocused, unproductive state?

I was on a roll for weeks getting some freelance work done from home. Now I need to rewrite/edit some things. I meant to work on this a little each day since last Thursday - but Christmas kept getting in the way! Now I've lost my focus entirely and feel overwhelmed. I'm procrastinating as a result (writing this question is just one of the ways I've managed to avoid this all day - not that I don't actually need the advice, I do!). I'm also exhausted and vaguely "ill" due to eating and drinking all the wrong things during the holiday. Can I salvage this? I want to be able to send something via email to my boss in the morning. I am not adverse to staying up all night to accomplish this.

My question is: What do you do to snap yourself out of a completely unfocused state when you absolutely must?
posted by marimeko to Work & Money (25 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you could benefit from some exercise. Go for a walk/run/bike ride in the light and fresh air for about an hour. It'll clear your head, burn some calories, get your blood flowing again.
posted by hollisimo at 4:29 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

for stuff like this? do it anyway. you'll forget about your current state of mind in short order.
posted by rhizome at 4:30 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a full-time freelancer, I can tell you that this is a battle that never gets easier. My first line of defense is to say "Okay, I will make a cup of coffee, and then I will charge through my work! LIKE BULL!"

Sometimes this works. More often it doesn't. Frequently it is defeated by "... after I see what's rockin' on AskMe..." (n.b. like right now.)

My final line of defense is Pomodoro. I use a free timer application to which I have added two settings: 25 minutes and 5 minutes. I set the timer and work for 25 minutes, then set the timer and goof off for 5 minutes.

It's surprising how effective this is. And it's dismaying to see how much work you can really get done in 25 minutes if you focus.
posted by ErikaB at 4:32 PM on December 26, 2010 [19 favorites]

Get out of your house.
I go to Starbucks and hang out there for four hours.
Every day. Whatever works.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 4:50 PM on December 26, 2010

I'm not claiming my method is the best, I'm just letting you know what works for me.

Step 1, If you are, like me, located somewhere where it's a cold dark winter, vitamin D gummies. It might be legit, or it might be placebo, but as someone located in the northeast I feel like the vitamin D helps get me out of that non-productive funk, plus some other helpful stuff.

Step 2, I break every task down into the smallest, easiest pieces, and then reward myself after them. For example, if I go through rows 1-25 on a spreadsheet, I get to watch an episode of community. Sometimes I'll find myself on a roll, once I get into the swing of things, and keep going on past my initial goal.

Step 3, If none of this stuff works I take a shower and reflect on my uselessness. This is often pretty motivating.

Step 4, I make the work I need to do more appealing by making it what I will use to procrastinate another larger, bigger, more scary thing in the distance. This is sort of hard to explain. But basically, if I need to do some research for a project and I don't feel like doing it, I'll tell myself that if I'm not going to do my research project that I have to clean the house. I have now fooled my mind into thinking "man I really don't wanna clean the house, I'm gonna put it off by doing this research stuff". I don't really understand why this works.

posted by ejfox at 4:56 PM on December 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

My hat trick might help you. It doesn't need to be a hat, it can be a special scarf or whatever. It just has to be something designated that you don't wear at any other time. For me, the more flamboyant it is, the better.
posted by Ashley801 at 5:09 PM on December 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

I love Ashley801's hat trick. I've mentioned it before on AskMe as a productivity godsend.
posted by amicamentis at 5:34 PM on December 26, 2010

If I need a burst of intense focus, I do a tea and plain whole grain toast diet for a day. I don't know why it works, but the clarity is amazing.
posted by figment of my conation at 5:37 PM on December 26, 2010

Write something to toss. Just do a line, one line.
posted by sammyo at 5:44 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good Lord, I'm going to be watching this thread for answers cause I go through this state of mind for.... months! Weeks! Since college? :-) I do not think I was designed to freelance. Which is a shame, now that magazines are kaput, what's a features wonk to do?
posted by SaharaRose at 5:44 PM on December 26, 2010

Response by poster: sammyo Write something to toss. Just do a line, one line.

Serioulsy, I just dove in as you said. Thanks! I'm employing all of these suggestions from NOW on.

Excellent advice thus far, please keep 'em coming!
posted by marimeko at 7:09 PM on December 26, 2010

I wash some dishes. The warm soapy water is soothing, the bubbles are lovely, and the feeling of accomplishment, reinforced by the stack of shiny clean dishes, makes me feel virtuous, industrious, and capable. This feeling of productivity usually lasts long enough to get me started on whatever it is I've been avoiding. And once you've started, the hardest part is over.
posted by Corvid at 8:08 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

This may not be a great idea for everyone, but I find one glass of wine is right about perfect for getting rid of the negative or critical voices that tell you work is going to be boring or too hard, and it is also a nice reward (if you tell yourself you can only have that drink while you are working).

So when I get where you are, I pour myself that glass of wine, open my work files, and start sipping. By the time the wine is gone, I am in the zone.

YMMV. (Seriously. For some people this is probably a really bad idea.)
posted by lollusc at 8:24 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hat trick is effective! I usually wear a headband with a giant bow. It makes boring tasks slightly more whimsical.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 8:47 PM on December 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I drink coffee.
posted by Xany at 10:31 PM on December 26, 2010

You could literally 'snap out of it.' There's the rubber band trick for when you find yourself drifting off course yet again.

Take a few days to make this a habit:

- Wear a loose rubber band on the wrist of your mousing hand when it's time to work.

- When you notice during worktime that you're back on MetaFilter or whatnot, say "It's worktime" aloud and give the band a snap.

- Repeat for about 6 weeks and it becomes an anti-distraction distraction that's also a good habit.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 5:44 AM on December 27, 2010

If a rubberband isn't enough to snap you out, use a hair elastic. It really stings!
posted by rhizome at 9:52 AM on December 27, 2010

Response by poster: The consensus seems to be to change locations, get some air/exercise, take mental breaks using other less demanding tasks (dishes), and add wine or coffee (I did add both, btw, alternately) and set up a means to establish workflow w/ built-in reward (pomodoro) ...while reinforcing better habits via rubber band snapping.

I want you to know I did most of these things. I got a lot of work done. Thanks, everyone!

(any more ideas out there..?)
posted by marimeko at 11:45 AM on December 27, 2010

I'd favorite Ashley's hat trick a jillion times if I could. Getting yourself to focus is only part of the battle. The real challenge is to teach yourself to stay focussed in the first place. Ugh. Boy do I know this from experience, and I'm not going to lie and suggest I've conquered the distraction monster by any means... but the hat trick is brilliant. It's a positive reinforcement mind-game. And it's brilliant!
posted by 2oh1 at 3:06 PM on December 27, 2010

Make a list of what you need to do, then go somewhere - anywhere - that is not your home and then sit down and do it. I go to a cheap local coffee shop and don't bring my laptop cord. I then have the list of things I know I need to do, no distractions, and a very real time limit with my battery.
posted by bradbane at 3:22 PM on December 27, 2010

I also find a change of location really helpful. If i have to stay home (aka, in my dorm room), I spend a few minutes making sure my workspace is really clear. I de-clutter my desk, make my bed, and put away the clothes that are inevitably draped over my couch.

It also helps to have a concrete idea of what you want to accomplish.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 5:09 PM on December 27, 2010

Clean/tidy your desk and workspace and remove all distractions from your field of vision.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:06 PM on December 27, 2010

What about temperature? I find a warm room can make me sluggish. Try setting the thermostat just a little lower than is comfortable and see if it affects your productivity.
posted by the latin mouse at 10:42 AM on December 28, 2010

Just take 5 minutes to do something that will move you closer to being done (Don't think about finishing. Just think about making some progress). Once you do that you have generally overcome the starting friction.

The other trick is to use Premack's Principle and use the most likely behaviour to reinforce the least likely. Specifically, use a reward like surfing or whatever it is that distracts you to reward yourself for doing work. So do twenty minutes of work then give yourself 10 minutes of browsing.

But generally the trick is to establish a bit of momentum first thing.

As a freelancer I'd suggest something like doing at least ten minutes of work first thing in the morning before letting yourself have breakfast or coffee. That is motivating!
posted by srboisvert at 6:52 AM on December 31, 2010

Response by poster: Since all of your responses are great, I haven't highlighted any. Thanks so much for your advice!
posted by marimeko at 9:05 AM on January 27, 2011

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