How do I focus on academic/creative work within short blocks of time?
November 7, 2017 9:27 AM   Subscribe

I have a couple of creative and academic projects that I would like to get done by the end of this year, and one project that urgently needs to be wrapped up in the next couple of weeks. I have a 1-2hr block each weekday, at best, to try and get this work done -- but when I get to this block of time at last, I find my mind is all over the place and I can't get focused or achieve much. What can I do?

I have some new responsibilities at work that mean a lot of my time every weekday gets swallowed sitting in 2hr committee meetings and/or putting out urgent-but-not-important administrative fires over email each day (on top of teaching). So I no longer have 3-4 hour blocks of time to write in during the week, let alone whole days I can spend in the library and this is messing with my already-not-that-great productivity. I usually depend on having a full morning or afternoon in the library to (slowly) get any writing done at all, and now I'm managing subzero amounts. Are there tips or tricks I can use to focus quickly in those shorter bursts? Or do I need to just wake up 3 hours earlier in the morning and to do some writing then before going to work? Or give up on my theoretical commitment to taking Sundays off work?
posted by Aravis76 to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I have a hard time getting going on projects. One thing that helps me a lot is taking some time at the end of a period to write down notes or to dos for the next period, so I don't have to spend time remembering what I was doing and spinning up my brain.
posted by quaking fajita at 9:36 AM on November 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

I suffer from this too, the odd hours in between teaching and meetings and, and. Right now, in fact, I should be writing two paper reviews, and it should be a task I can accomplish in the hour that I have to do it! But I've been trying to get these done since yesterday morning! And here I am on Metafilter again!

Anyway. Sometimes it helps me to have a very concrete, small, accomplish-able goal or two in mind for that hour. For me that might be a methods section of a manuscript, or to write three figure legends, or to knock off the administrative components of a grant, or to write a paragraph on method Y. That often works (just not right now), and the process of breaking the bigger task down into small subsets is also a useful exercise.
posted by Dashy at 9:59 AM on November 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

The key to good management of a project is breaking things down into workable chunks, scheduling them, and then checking them off. Quality and time are planned in, not found.

Your self-imposed timeline of end of year means you have 38 workweek days, or 76 hours, with which to accomplish something. Chances are that you can only accomplish your urgent thing with that amount of time, so mentally defer the other things until the new year which can help you focus on the task at hand. Your scope is now the one thing vs. all the things you are trying to do at once (which never works and can be the cause of being unable to focus.)

Now - with that urgent thing - break it down into component parts. Things like:

- Writing theme A (5 hrs)
- Background research on B (30 mins)
- Background research on C (30 mins)
- Background research on D (45 mins)
- Develop outlining of findings from research for writing (1 hr 15 min)
- Expanded writing of section A based on outline (2 hrs)

This allows you to schedule the work based on the time you have and set "chunk" goals vs. having one completion goal. It may seem tedious to break creative work down this way, but it is actually how most good writers and people producing deliverables actually manage their time - by taking amorphous deadlines, blank pages, and deliverables and breaking them down into parts that are easier to actually focus on and do for short periods.
posted by notorious medium at 10:22 AM on November 7, 2017 [10 favorites]

Personally speaking, I can't just turn on the creativity faucet and creative things come out. What I do is carefully make notes of all stuff that crosses my mind might be worth developing. A phrase, a drawing, a bassline, doesn't matter. It goes on a post-it or a audio note, and when I have the time or the right inspiration, I already have somewhere to start.
posted by lmfsilva at 10:53 AM on November 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am a big fan of stopping when I am in the middle of something interesting — it makes it much easier to start up again.

For me, a lot of my projects are code, so that means stopping when I know what the next step is (and leaving a note to that effect sometimes). When I wrote my thesis, it would be stopping with some partial phrases that outlined where I knew I wanted to go (this is often how I write, when my brain rushes ahead of my fingers).

So I wouldn't say, research A one day, then start on B the next. I'd do all of A, start B, and then stop. Presto: much shorter runway.

Good luck!
posted by dame at 5:44 AM on November 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I agree with the suggestions above about breaking the task into chunks and ending the session with something that you can use to jump-start your next session.

In order to transition your focus more effectively at the start of your time block, I would develop a five minute (or less) ritual that you can use to mentally signal, "Now I'm going to focus on X." For instance, when I was working on my dissertation, I would take a minute or two to take deep breaths and calm myself, then spend a few minutes re-reading my paragraph-length summary of my dissertation project. That helped me quiet the other issues on my mind and set the context for the rest of my work. I've used that technique successfully for work projects, mentally preparing for meetings, and creative work.
posted by philosophygeek at 9:42 AM on November 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, really think about whether there's anything - anything at all - you can do during very short breaks in your day (five minutes or less). Can you format 3 entries in the bibliography? Double-check quotes? Proofread a page you wrote last week?

I find that doing this on huge projects helps me keep a feeling of momentum and maintain interest in the project.

(Note: these should all be must-do tasks, not busywork. If you genuinely don't have ANY little tasks like this to do during short breaks, then use the short breaks to take a deep breath and clear your head.)
posted by kristi at 8:47 AM on November 10, 2017

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