Struggling to focus at home? You’re not alone
For many people, the next few weeks will be their first sustained period of working outside their normal working environment and the routine it imposes.
So how can we resist the distractions of 24-hour news and get some serious work done on that article or book? There are a number of free strategies and tools that I have been using for years to help me sustain focus at home. These employ some of the same techniques as the successful Academic Writing Group that I set up at the University of Oxford in 2015 to make early career academics feel less isolated and more accountable, through group motivation and peer support.
1. Find a Skype writing buddy. Once or twice a week, I meet my writing buddy at an assigned time to work together on Skype (FaceTime or Zoom can also work). We keep chatter to a minimum and encourage one another to focus.
Although there are a number of Twitter writing groups where you tweet your writing goal for a session with a hashtag, such as #suaw (the acronym stands for “shut up and write”), I have found that the visual accountability of seeing someone else there working with me is what works.
Rather than long sessions, the well-known pomodoro technique works best for us. This consists of short bursts of 25 minutes, measured by a timer (it doesn’t have to be shaped like a tomato), during which we aim to achieve one clear, predefined goal, such as writing a difficult email, drafting 200 words or marking two essays.
Of course, your audience needn’t be confined to one person, and some online groups for isolated writers are already being set up.
2. Use Focusmate.com. This is like having a Skype buddy, but your buddy is actually a stranger who could be anywhere in the world and most likely isn’t an academic. Sign up for a free account and note your availability (sessions begin every quarter of an hour); you’ll be paired with someone for a 50-minute Zoom session, where you share your goals and then mute for the remaining time, before checking in briefly at the end. In the past, I’ve been paired with medical students cramming for exams, tech guys working on building apps, and even someone who meditated on camera for the entire session.
Having a complete stranger beamed into your home might sound intimidating, but this system particularly helps with accountability: you’re less likely to cancel an appointment with a stranger, and there isn’t room for small talk. The online scheduling can provide a sense of routine and achievement. Plus, you realise there are millions of people all over the world trying to focus, which provides some camaraderie.
This system is free for three hour-long sessions per week, or you can pay $5 (£3.70) per month for unlimited sessions.
3. Try ‘Study with Me’ videos on YouTube. Inspiration doesn’t even have to be live. It can also be surprisingly effective to watch pre-recorded videos of people studying. YouTube is full of them, often featuring a student revising for exams, usually at home or in locations such as the New York Public Library. They typically incorporate a timer, and music or background noise (obviously you can turn this off). Some livestreams are already being posted of people working in self-isolation.
The enormous viewing figures of these videos are testament to their effectiveness. If you can get past the starting adverts for how to pass your GCSEs, they offer some accountability if you don’t like the idea of being scrutinised by a live human being.
4. Experiment with time management apps and internet blockers. There are thousands of time management apps available. If you like pomodoros, you can simply do the original method using a kitchen timer. But apps such as Be Focused or Focus To-Do allow you to keep a record of completed pomodoros, which can itself be motivating (my ancient app has a list going back to 2011). More fun apps such as Forest grow a tree as you work (it dies if you break your focus).
Well-known internet blockers include FocusMe, Cold Turkey and RescueTime – all of which have specific prices and capabilities (blocking certain websites, limiting time on specific sites, tracking internet usage). I use Freedom, which makes it impossible to access the internet for the times I have specified (9am-1pm), even if I turn the computer on and off again. I like the routine this enables. The first seven sessions are free.
5. Try creating a sonic working space. There are number of noise apps and websites that aim to boost concentration. I use Rainy Mood, and I have trained myself (Pavlov style!) to associate the sound of rain with concentration by turning it on every time I start a pomodoro. Other people use Noisli (which allows you to put together your own sounds, from trains to birdsong), Coffitivity(which provides the background noise of a coffee shop), Spotify “Music for Concentration” playlists or even YouTube videos of crackling fires. It’s about figuring out what works for you.
Alice Kelly works at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford.