Whether you are a student or already in the workforce, various distractions pose a serious threat to your learning productivity. While a couple of minutes here and there spent on social media or other activities seems innocuous at first, the amount of time you actually spend on things that are not essential to your studies add up yearly to precious hours — maybe even days — that you could have otherwise spent productively on your learning tasks. In fact, a 2005 Basex study cites that U.S. businesses lose $588 billion per year due to interruptions.1 On a smaller scale, diversions such as games and social media represent major roadblocks to skill acquisition and mastery.
To help you tune out the noise and focus on your studies, we’ve put together this helpful list of tricks and tools.
1. Develop a routine and stick to it.
Whether we like it or not, we live in an ADHD world. Without a set schedule, life can become chaotic rather quickly. To prevent chaos from overrunning your priorities, a Harvard Business Review article suggests adopting rituals in our daily and weekly routines.2 By closely following the rituals you have set, you can maintain focus and work better. As you progress in your course work, you can evolve the rituals that make up your daily routines using different techniques and practices that work better for you.
Quick Tip: Sync all of your course milestones with Google Calendar or other mobile calendar apps. Don’t forget to set self-study time into your schedule.
2. Find the right place to study or work.
Picking the right place to study is crucial because it has a major influence on the efficiency of the learning process.3 While you might like to study in your room, you’ll easily be distracted by TV, video games, or fashion magazines lying next to your bed. A coffee shop might seem like a good option but it can be noisy at times, and if you live in a place like New York City, you’d be surprised at the amount of crazy people that cause commotions in public areas on a daily basis. Be sure to find a quiet and well lit place. If you are planning on spending long hours working or studying, it’s a good idea to make sure that your chair and desk are ergonomically designed for greater productivity. A bad physical setup can mess up both your posture and your work efficiency.
3. Turn off all electronic devices.
While we all love our tablets and smart phones, these gadgets expose us to a world of distractions. Ironically, many of these devices were meant to save us time but end up wasting valuable time instead. For many people, cell phones have become a “new best friend” that enables them to see what everyone is up to, a highly appealing feature especially for people who lack real human connections. Even if you aren’t actively trying to access your smart phone, you’ll be distracted by notifications, texts, and incoming calls. The bottom line is that your mobile device is the enemy of productivity and you should declare your study space and time a gadget-free zone.
4. Establish priorities via the CEO & Worker Bee modes.
Our friend Chase Reeves from Fizzle has a great theory on working. He proposes that within all of us are two modes of action: our inner CEO and our inner Worker Bee. Your inner CEO is the planner. He or she strategizes, prioritizes what’s important and plans the day. When the CEO is done planning, your Worker Bee comes to life. This is your inner “task rabbit” that carries out the activities set by the CEO.
In that vein, we recommend keeping not one, but two to-do lists. One is a master list of all of your high level priorities, and the other would be your daily to-do list. If you love lists, then you might even want to consider a “Not To-Do” list, that tracks time-wasting activities you should avoid. There’s a couple of cool and useful apps that can help you track multiple to-do lists: Clear (Mac/iOS) and Wunderlist (PC/Android/iOS). You can then get your tasks done one at a time. Remember, multitasking is counter-productive4 despite what every job description says. Don’t do it!
5. Visualize with paper.
In many contemporary classrooms and workplaces, tablets and computers are beginning to replace pen and paper for note-taking. However, you are better off ditching the keyboard and writing out your notes by hand. It keeps you more engaged and provides a means for visualizing ideas, and questions.
6. Shut down other windows.
When taking any online course and especially when learning a digital skill like online marketing, programming, graphic design and web development, it’s virtually impossible to avoid using your computer. While engaging course materials, studying, or practicing lesson concepts, it is of paramount importance to be diligent in blocking out the potential distractions that exist on your computer: news and entertainment sites, social media, video games, and instant messaging.
For those who lack the self control needed to ward off digital distractions, consider the following apps:
- Website blockers – Use SelfRestraint (PC) and SelfControl (Mac) to block distracting websites for predetermined blocks of time.
- Software blockers – Concentrate and Think are two very cool apps (Mac) that help you eliminate distracting software on your desktop.
- Time trackers – Rescue Time is an awesome app that runs behind the scenes and helps you figure out how you spend your time.
- Productivity-enhancing tools – Adopt the pomorodo technique, a method of breaking up your work into 25 activity blocks that you can manage and rotate easily. There are a number of pomodoro apps to help you get this done.
7. Know when to say “No.”
When you are learning something new and exciting, it’s easy to take on a lot of coursework, projects, and networking meetings that are relevant to what you are doing. Well and good, but doing so sometimes abruptly leads to situations wherein you find yourself intensely busy yet still facing the dilemma of whether to fit other related activities in your already tight schedule.
When taking on new work or meetings, make sure that these activities are part of your higher purpose. Start saying NO5 to activities that complicate your schedule, suck up your time, and create stress. On the other hand say YES to activities that simplify your life, reduce stress, and create more time.
8. Set reminders.
In any endeavor, it becomes very easy to forget stuff as you get busier and busier. If you are intensely involved in a project, for example, it often happens that you become so engrossed on what you are doing that you lose track of time and miss an appointment or an important phone call. Fortunately, Post-it and reminder apps exists. I am a big fan of physical Post-it’s but sometimes, even those fail to get the job done. If you are a Mac person, OS X and iOS have a simple yet effective Reminders app; otherwise, Remember the Milk is a great reminder app that works on any device.
9. Schedule distractions.
As the famous saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The fact is, working without breaks will do far worse than making Jack dull. It can get him real tired and burned out on studying the subject, abruptly preventing further progress in his learning track. To avoid burnout, set regular breaks into your schedule and think of them as rewards for hard work. When practicing Pomodoro, you’ll have a brief five-minute break every 25 minutes but you should also plan larger breaks every 90 to 120 minutes throughout your day to keep you fresh and alert. Make sure to also schedule “me” time or time with loved ones in the evenings and and on weekends.
10. Reflect and adjust.
You will want to closely monitor yourself on a daily and weekly basis and make adjustments. You should regularly ask yourself the following questions. While these are related to your studies and how to better acquire new skills, you could just as well use them in any work or life situation.
- What is my main goal?
- What is my goal for the week?
- What do I need to do today?
- Where am I at the moment?
- Is this technique/schedule/place/relationship/situation working?
- Is it worth improving? How can I improve it?
We hope you use these tips to improve your study and work efficiency. If you have any interesting suggestions, let us know in the comments section below!
- The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity. Basex[↩]
- The Value of Ritual in Your Workday. Harvard Business Review[↩]
- Finding the right study space. Study Guides and Strategies[↩]
- How Multitasking Is Making You Less Productive. Contactzilla[↩]
- How To Say NO To Simplify Your Schedule. Virtuallinda[↩]