When it is Tough to Stay Focused… How to Motivate Myself

It can be tough to stay focused when learning or working at home. What can you do to keep yourself motivated? 

This is not an easy problem. All of us from young to very old have to do stuff sometimes that we would prefer not to do. How many of us get excited about cleaning? About grocery shopping?  About doing taxes? About reading a very boring, uninteresting Ukrainian novel for a class or a book club. Or about reading history, chemistry, physics, or nutrition textbooks? Some reading has engaging, enjoying, interesting ideas, characters and plots; others don’t.  Some of our writing assignments can be really tough to get started on and then to do. For teachers, reading essay after essay after essay can vary from uplifting to stimulating to discouraging.    

So how can you motivate yourself to do tough, difficult or maybe boring tasks? Try one of these techniques:  

  1. Set a very specific do-able task with a time appointment for yourself. I keep coming back to the value of making a list with a check box next to it.  Then when I finish even a small task on my list, I can physically pick up a pen and check it off! That feels so good.   
  2. On a longer-term project, such as daunting reading assignments, a challenging writing or problem-solving assignment, or review of student projects, a two-step process helps. 
    • First divide the task into smaller segments of 25 to 50 minutes and put each of those segments on the list.  (Some people refer to this as the Pomodoro method.) 
    • Put a date and time next to each item, being realistic and practical about when and where you will do these tasks.   
    • Remember this saying, “If you can do something anytime, it usually means it never gets done.” Only things you schedule and plan for and generally write down on a list actually get done. 
  3. Take regularly scheduled breaks from your “screens.”  It is important for eye health to rest your eyes by looking at horizons and getting away from the blue light of our screens. Getting away from screens is also good for our brain health. Our brains need oxygen. Deliver oxygen to your brain by moving.  Breathe deeply, do some push-ups or a little yoga, walk about the block or your apartment or somewhere for 5 minutes.  Do a simple chore. By increasing oxygen flow to our brain cells, we make our next thinking tasks easier, and thus shorter. (I don’t like exercise, but I have audiobooks on my smartphone, so this means changing my attitude about exercise from something “I have to do” to something “I get to do.”) You might enjoy a music break as one of my granddaughters does. 
  4. If at all possible, put your worst most dreadful, awful task at the top of your list.  This means you can start with this task when you are at your freshest.  One of the books I enjoy says it all in the title: Eat that Frog. The author – Brian Tracy — named his book after a quote from Mark Twain, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”  So, too, with your very worst task. Start your work/learning/reading session with the worst task and your day only gets better. 
  5. Make use of our human desire for novel or curious happenings. Create jeopardy-like challenges for yourself. 
    • For students, take titles and headings of your assignments and turn them into questions. Then read a little, and see if you can answer them.  Or after solving problems, create new problems of your own. Or find examples of new ways of solving problems on YouTube or see demos of math problem solutions with Photomath
    • For parents or teachers, take assignments and turn them into game-like challenges. Curiosity and novelty cause our brain cells to wake up and make new connections and patterns. Vary those assignments.  Practice math and speech-making in the kitchen or in the garage or in the car.
  6. Study or work or talk with a buddy or a friend. We can often learn something more easily when we try to explain or review an idea with another human being.  In fact, it often happens that when we are stuck on a problem, and start explaining our problem to someone else, that an answer or a path forward suddenly occurs to us. Try it!  It is amazing.  

Remember, the good news about learning — and working — at home is that you have more control over when and how and where you do your work. So, find a way to take advantage of the increased control over your particular work.  Imagine doing things that you couldn’t do before when everything was ‘normal.” 

Note:  Here is a link to a YouTube Video on the Pomodoro Method by a high school junior that you might enjoy. 

Savitsky, Y. (2019). How a student changed her study habits by setting goals and managing time TEDxLFHS. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7e7gtU3PHY

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