Seven smart tricks to stay focused on schoolwork and projects

Each new school year brings new challenges -- and new distractions. It's harder than ever to stay focused on work or on studying, but there are old and new tricks to help keep our mind on the game.

Whether you're a freshman noob, a gray-haired grad student, or even a long-term member of the professional elite, you most likely have trouble focusing on your tasks at times. Modern tech is lovely, but it's also a nonstop parade of distractions that can tear down the resolve of the strongest wills. Here are some tricks to help you overcome electronic distractions as you study or work.

  • Wear headphones. This is especially true if you have to work around other people, but even if you're on your own, this helps you focus (as long as you have the right music playing, of course). Not only are people less likely to bug you with trivia, you should find that your sense of space narrows to a small shell around you and keeps your attention focused on whatever is right in front of you. Even white noise can help if music is in itself a distraction for you! 
  • Turn off anything you don't need. Be ruthless! Unless you have a family member at the hospital or someone who needs a ride from the airport, you can turn off your phone. Same goes for e-mail, instant-messaging apps, Facebook, and anything else that might ping you. Even if you ignore it, the signals are shaking up your attention. If you can turn off your Net connection entirely (for studying or some writing tasks, for example), so much the better. 
  • Monitor your time-wasters. RescueTime is a great, free service that will keep track of the sites and apps you use over time, then tell you about it in excruciating, possibly embarrassing detail. (Don't worry, your information is all kept strictly confidential.) This can be enlightening, as you might not realize how much or how little time you spent on any given distraction. Some may be harmless! 
  • Block distracting sites. If you need the Net for research or communication with study buddies, you can still keep yourself from wandering over to Reddit or that one Tumblr with pictures of animals wearing socks. LeechBlock is a Firefox add-on that lets you set up sites to block and times to block them. StayFocusd is a Chrome extension that does much the same thing. You may feel weird spending time setting it up, but you are almost certain to save time in the long run. 
  • Use multiple machines or desktops. Not all of us can afford multiple computers, but if you have some extra cash, buying an inexpensive computer (maybe running Ubuntu Linux for extra savings) that is dedicated to work can pay off. Load it only with the apps you need to get your work done, then take it somewhere nice and quiet for work. A cheaper, but less effective, trick is to use multiple desktops. Macs have Mission Control built in, and Windows users can use the free Dexpot app to run multiple desktops. 
  • Use multiple accounts. Another great, cheap trick is to log out of your computer, then log back in as a guest. You won't have nearly as many distracting bells and whistles, and it's so easy that pretty much anyone can do it. Of course, you'll need to keep yourself from just logging back in every few minutes, but inertia is the best friend of willpower. 
  • Set up a reward system. This is somewhat advanced and requires extra willpower, but is also completely tech-independent. Set up a system that lets you goof off (or plow through e-mail, or tag your music files, or whatever) for 10 minutes following an hour of uninterrupted work. Of course, you may need to vary the times somewhat to suit your needs, but try not to let your work period fall much under a half-hour or so, especially if you're working on a large, complex project. If you try it and still find yourself checking Twitter every few minutes, this one isn't for you, so scroll back up the list until you find something that works. 

Some combination of these should help you channel your inner monk and get that big project done on time. Good luck!

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