It’s finals time.
That means a lot of things (among them: grinding the gears, burning the midnight oil, and lighting both ends of the candle for the next few weeks).
If your life is like my life, then inevitably when you become the busiest is when everyone suddenly decides that they would like to be social with you. And, while I do love my friends and family and do need occasional breaks from aforementioned clichés of business, it can be really frustrating sometimes that busy season of necessity means “the season in which I ignore people”.
I’m not doing it maliciously, it’s just the only way I can get anything done.
Distractions come in two varieties: the long-form distraction, and the momentary distraction.
The long-form distraction is by far the simpler type to avoid. If I don’t plan well in advance for a night away from my desk, I don’t spend a night away from my desk. As much as it kills me to miss the various parties, social functions, and gatherings that inevitably occur right before the holidays, it would kill me more to neglect my work and do poorly on my finals. Wise researchers take note: this policy works. Understanding friends will understand; this is what your job entails at the moment and, thereby, any declarations of “lameness” on account of it should be systematically ignored.
For that, a break is a break and it’s important to remember that the world doesn’t revolve
around nineteenth century circus clowns performing Shakespeare. Make sure you budget time for drinks, dinner, or some fun activity at least once a week or you will wind up an overwrought bucket of stress by the time things are said and done. Also, human eye contact is good for the soul.
So long as you can balance work and play, the long-form distraction shouldn’t prove too much of a problem.
The momentary distraction can come in several forms: an e-mail, a text, a facebook message, a gchat, or a well-meaning person (your landlord, your roommate, etc.) poking a head into your workspace to bring you news from the outside. While this may seem the less innocuous form of distraction, for me it’s deadly. I find that, reliably, for every thirty seconds I have spent being momentarily distracted, it will take me at least five minutes to get back to where I was in my stream of thought pre-interruption.
For me, the problem is several-fold. I have a hard time in general with my attention span, especially if I’m not yet into “the zone”. Once I hit the red, I can go for hours; but getting there is particularly difficult for me. I blame modern technology; I am truly a product of my generation who would rather have a constant influx of disparate information to keep my mind chewing than go deep-diving on any one thought. How I wound up a professional academic with this particular personality quirk is a giant question of the universe. In addition, I am extremely sensitive aurally and have found that external words in any form (music, TV, talking, etc) will completely take me out of the internal mind-tempest that research requires.
The best way to avoid these problems is (I have found) to turn off (or at least silence) my phone, keep my browser windows open to library resources ONLY, and work during the day when there’s no one in my house but myself. If I wind up working overtime (which is extremely frequent during finals crunch), I either try to arrange to work when my roommate is out of the house, or arrange a schedule with her that involves noise-canceling headphones (I am fortunate to have a very understanding roommate). Alternately, working after the household has gone to bed is something that I have found to be extremely soothing and productive (though you do have to plan for it so that you make certain you get your much-needed finals-time sleep).
A great way to improve the quality of your finals life is to make your nearest and dearest aware of these distractions and what they do to your work. If those people most likely to distract you understand that encouraging text messages are best left sent between the hours of 9 and 11 PM, they are less likely to inadvertently interrupt your stream of thought with a mid-day friend-crisis. If those people can fathom that when you say “I’m buried in mountains of work”, you literally mean that your book fort is actually large enough to cause a deadly avalanche, they are less likely to give you a hard time for skipping Friday night beer-o-rama. Give them concrete examples of how their actions affect yours in this volatile, stressful time. If they really love you, they’ll let you go crawl into your cave and re-emerge sometime after December 18th.
So… what are you waiting for? You have finals to write! Heck, I have finals to write! Go stop procrastinating and get your butt in gear! (…unless it’s your pre-planned night off in which case have fun, relax, and get enough sleep. Drink lots of fluids, eat right, and we’ll all get through this together somehow, I just know it).