Today, I want to talk about the state of focused flow. Have you experienced the type of deep concentration, where you simply work without getting distracted, and the rest of the world ceases to exist? Maybe you've experienced this sensation while reading a book, or while being fully engaged in a computer game. Perhaps you have experienced this feeling while studying for an exam and working through examples. Most of us are familiar with this feeling. Bringing back this state of focused flow when working on your research can be a bit more challenging, especially for PhD students faced with the daunting task of working on a research project for three, four, or more years.
Don't worry that you won't be able to get the feeling of focused flow ever back when you struggle with concentration. A meditation teacher once told me that the state of focused flow is always there. You can compare this state of our mind to a clear sky. When we have difficulties concentrating, our thoughts are like clouds that prevent us from seeing the clear sky. However, all we need to do is to clear away the clouds, and we will have access again to the state of focused flow.
Leaving aside the philosophical musings about our mind, and how it can get muddled, there are practical steps you can take to work in a more concentrated way. Here are some suggestions for you to try out when you find yourself going down the rabbit hole of the internet afternoon after afternoon:
In Dutch, we have a saying "goed begonnen is half gewonnen", which means something like "if you start well, you've already won half". For research, a good start is a planning of the work you need to do. I've extensively written about the topic of planning, including using smaller time blocks to fit in all my tasks, and tips for productive planning. For a given day, you should know what you need to be doing, and how much time you are expecting each of these tasks to take. You will be less likely to drift off if you only have an hour each day to work on a given task and then need to move on to the next topic, than when you set aside a few consecutive days to work on a single topic only (because, for example, the deadline is approach). So plan ahead of time to make sure you can meet your deadlines, and work in short chunks of time on a given topic.
2. Clear goals
Along with good planning comes knowing exactly what you need to do. Don't tell yourself that you will write on your paper between 8 am and 10 am. Instead, set a goal for this chunk of time. For example, aim at adding 1000 words to the draft, or make two drawings. Once it is clear for your mind what exactly needs to be done, you'll be less likely to start procrastinating.
The pomodoro technique consists of using a timer to time 25 minutes, and then you are allowed a 5 minute break. During the 25 minutes, you are allowed to work only on your task. No internet browsing, no phone calls - if you do get interrupted, your pomodoro is considered invalid, and you need to start over again. After three or four pomodoros, a longer break of about 30 minutes is recommended. When 25 minutes of concentrating seems too long for you, you can start with smaller time increments. The pomodoro technique is ideal to help you plow through tedious tasks, or to motivate you during writing.
4. Real breaks
When you decide to take a break, make it count. Don't just sit and browse the internet for the umptieth time. Read a book, do some drawing, have a cup of tea, go outside for some fresh air - whatever you need to break away from your task and refresh your mind. You'll feel more alert and with better concentration after a conscious break than when you just spend it liking your friends' pictures on facebook.
5. Know when to stop
If a day is not going well, don't force yourself to stay late and make up for the damage done during the day. Leave work as it is, and go do something fun and refreshing, knowing that you can revisit the problem the next day. Of course, I'm not giving you here a license to postpone everything always to tomorrow! The key here is to be honest with yourself. If you're having a bad day, chances are that your heavy number crunching research is not going to come together.
6. Ask yourself why you are drifting off
With being honest to yourself also comes to ability to learn why you have difficulties concentrating. I've written down an analysis of an afternoon when I had difficulties concentrating. When you find yourself fighting the urge to go and check your favorite news website about every 10 minutes, you should ask yourself why today you are having such an uphill battle? Is it because you are not feeling well? Then revisit point 5, and take a break. Is it because you don't have clear goals? Is it because you are forcing yourself on the same task for too much time? Figure out what is hampering you, and take this lesson for the future.
7. Clear away distractions
You won't be able to concentrate if you have your smartphone within reach, and the thing is buzzing and beeping and lighting up all the time. If your cellphone distracts you, lock it down in the cupboard or place it in your backpack, in silent mode. If there's too much noise, clear away the noise with headphones (I recommend noise-canceling headphones, if you can fork out the money for buying them). Close your door, let down the curtains, disconnect from the internet, clear away all unnecessary items from your desk - take whatever action needed to get everything out of the way that could distract you.
8. Enable getting into the zone
With all distractions out of your way, set yourself up for success. Analyze what works for you in terms of getting you into your deep concentration. I wrote about what works for me. Currently, if I am committed to working on a task with my full concentration, I will open all the files I need, and close all files and programs that I don't need. Depending on what I am working on, I may put a pen and a writing pad next to my keyboard. I will start tracking my words with the PhDometer if the task involves writing. I place my noise-canceling headphones on my head and start playing music. Finally, I hit the start button for a pomodoro and give it my full concentration. Know what your rituals for concentrated work are, and honor them - they will help you get going when the going is tough.
9. Mindfulness training
Mindfulness training helps for being able to concentrate. Admittedly, I'm always on and off with my own practice. Sometimes, I'll hit a 30 day meditation streak, and then I'll go to a conference, fall out of my regular schedule, and will have a hard time building up my habit again. Just know and acknowledge that mindfulness is a tool that you have if you need to train your mind.
10. Plan according to your body
Do you tend to get sleepy after lunch? Then don't plan your heavy number-crunching research in those hours. Know which times of the day are suitable for which tasks, and plan your days accordingly Don't try to force your way through when your body is feeling sluggish - be smart with how you spend your energy.
You can't concentrate if you are tired. If you are tired because your schoolwork is taking too much time, you need to change your way of studying - your current method is a downward spiral. Focus on deliberate practice - find the parts of your material that are hard to master, and focus your attention and energy on the hard work. Don't spend too much time dabbling in easy material. By all means, make sleep one of your non-negotiable priorities. If you can't find the time for enough sleep, you need to have a good look at your schedule, and decide which tasks are not a priority - your sleep, on the other hand, is always a priority.
Feeling sluggish and having a hard time to concentrate? Exercise can work wonders. If you have control over your schedule, and you start to have a hard time concentrating in the middle of the afternoon, you may want to go for a run or pump some iron, and then return to your task with renewed energy.
Nobody can survive on just pizza and soft drinks alone. Well technically, you can survive, but you won't be functioning at your best. Eat proper and nutritious meals, that can fuel you throughout the day. Beware of the spikes and crashes of energy that sugar gives you. Don't overdo the coffee - it will just make you jittery at some point. Consider your body a machine, and make the conscious choice to pour in premium fuel for optimal performance.
14. Practice and start small
If you are currently struggling to concentrate, not sleeping enough, and living on microwaveable mac and cheese, don't expect to change overnight. Take small steps towards a clearer mind, fuelled by a healthier body. In terms of concentrating at work, practice. Don't give up if you try the pomodoro technique one day and it doesn't work for you. Try several times, practice different techniques for a better concentration, and be kind to yourself.