I once had an OU tutor who said this a LOT. ‘You need to focush on the question’. She was Greek, that’s why she said it a bit funny. It was her favourite word, I still use it a lot when I’m telling myself to concentrate on stuff.
Well, doing a PhD requires quite a bit of focush. Some days dealing with ideas and theories and trying to pin them down into words feels like wrestling dragons. And on days when you wake up tired and you can’t seem to find any focush, what are you supposed to do? It’s really hard making yourself write when you’re knackered, you’ve had 2 coffees already and you don’t want to fritter the day away stressing out about things you Ought To Be Doing.
One tactic I’ve used quite a bit in the past is using white noise, I have an app on my ipod and it plays rain or crashing waves or similar continuous noises at you. Sometimes this white noise can be just the ticket for helping to block out the neighbour’s dog barking, or the people drilling on the road outside (why do they always seem to pick those times when you’re feeling most harried?). Sometimes the noise just irritates me as much as the distracting noise though, it depends. Occasionally I listen to classical music, it can be helpful in the right place at the right time.
Making a cup of mint tea is a bit of a study ritual. I used to suck mints all the way through every exam I’ve ever sat since I was 18. Mint has become a bit of a go-to focush flavour for me now. If I have some fresh mint growing at the allotment I use that, otherwise it’s those fancy Teapig teabags. An expensive ritual but worth it for the focush! And it stops the caffeine jitters, you can’t focush with too much caffeine coursing round your arteries.
Exercise is brain glue for me. If I don’t exercise most days, I can’t focush at all. Besides, I do most of my best thinking when running outdoors. Read a few papers, ponder a few questions and then go for a run is a great strategy for getting through some tricky thinking. Not to mention the stress-relieving aspects. Running by myself is good for mulling over theory and coming up with new ideas, but running with other people is even better for talking about your research and getting input. I have three main running buddies at the moment: the time I spend with them is very precious and the feedback and inspiration they give me is…well, it’s beyond rubies. I see running with friends as being as valuable to my research as time spent on the computer. If a run isn’t possible, even a quick walk round the block is good, too. Or one of those 7 minute exercise apps!
My latest strategy though has been to use a meditation app. I had a really bad day back in December. I had had a late night out visiting participants the night before, and I come home buzzing after all that excitement. Got to sleep far too late, got up early as usual, sorted the kids out and off to school and then sat down to write. I have a proposal to do, the deadline is approaching, I really need to get some solid work done on it. Brain says no. Brain says I’m not even thinking about thinking about writing, can’t I go back to bed instead? (As an aside, a 10 minute nap can sometimes be an ideal focush boost, if it gets to the afternoon and your eyelids are drooping then quick, set an alarm, shut your eyes, wake up 5 or 10 minutes later and bingo, much better focush!) This time though a nap was out of the question, and anyway, naps are strictly for afternoons. I had recently downloaded an app called Headspace onto my ipod after reading about it somewhere on the interweb. People absolutely raved about the app and about Andy, the chap who does the guided meditations for it. I thought I might as well rest my tired eyes and give it a go, it might work.
Andy is amazing! His voice is so soothing yet friendly, he has a familiar, comfortable way of speaking and an accent which is somehow just right. No daft visualisations, no silly instructions, just Andy telling you how to go about relaxing and focusing your mind. The first few sessions are only 10 minutes, so they take very little time. I opened my eyes at the end and felt quite spaced out. But full of focush. A productive morning ensued. I’m not sure it’s something I’ll use every day, but I’ve used it on bad days since where nothing seems to feel quite right and the writing is difficult, and it seems to help a lot.
If it’s proving hard to get started because your ideas are in a mess, it can be useful to focush with a bit of mind-mapping. I get a big piece of paper and cover it with squiggles and arrows until I have a structure for what I’m doing. This is good for when you have something discrete to write, like a proposal or a talk or something which needs some sort of narrative flow. Or where there are lots of different titbits of literature to feed into a larger section of writing and you need to work out what goes where. Sometimes you might have already planned a structure but have to go back and rework it, and doing this visually is an easy way of moving ideas around without having to move words you have already written. Moving the actual words is much easier though with Scrivener, as it’s such a modular software for writing compared with something rubbish like Word.
A final focushing method is one I’ve acquired recently from a book called ‘Write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day’ by Joan Bolker (aside: I like to read writing books and books about how to write your thesis when I’m feeling in need of inspiration, think of it as a literary kick up the bum). I haven’t finished this book, but I really like the way Bolker pays attention to the emotional aspects of writing, I approve of psychological approaches to getting things done. Bolker recommends free-writing your way forward. Lots of other books also recommend this approach, but for some reason her explanation is particularly good. Basically, you write whatever comes into your mind and let your writing guide your thinking rather than the other way round. I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount and difficulty of my transcription pile recently, so haven’t done much work on them. I sat down with Scrivener and typed about my anxieties and the reasons for them, and suddenly 5 different strategies for approaching the transcriptions and the wider task of analysis appeared on the screen. Quite miraculous! Now I just need to take some of those strategies forward so I can start making progress again. I think this is a tool I’ll use a lot when I get into that stuck place which is the enemy of focush.
I’m sure there are lots of other methods people use for getting and keeping focush, I think that, as with exercise, it’s valuable to have as many different strategies as you can think of, what works one day may be useless on another. Do you have any good suggestions?
PS I actually wrote a draft of this post back in December and it’s been sitting neglected ever since, but this blog post https://annikacoughlin.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/focus-its-the-only-way-to-get-things-done/ by Annika Coughlin on the same subject inspired me to go back and tidy it up and hit Publish. Annika’s post is useful because it shows the importance of breaking things down and not being too much of a perfectionist about your work. Her honesty is very refreshing too!