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Guest post by Brittany Peterson, Senior Executive Function Coach at Beyond BookSmart

If you’re reading this, it’s likely because you’re taking online classes or supporting someone taking online classes. No matter the reason, my goal is to offer you ways to tackle projects and introduce tools you can use to get focused and conquer assignments.

Let’s think about managing work in three ways:

  • How to get ready to work;
  • How to get a grip on your work;
  • And how to get down to work

Setting the Stage for Focused Work

Lots of students tell me, “When I get ready to work, I first pull out the assignment prompt.” Usually my reaction to that is, “Whoa, slow down!”

While looking at the assignment certainly feels like the right move to make to get started, consider first the significance of setting up an ideal workspace. Do a quick mental inventory of your ideal workspace, considering the following elements:

  • Does it have a clean desk or a more… “creative” zone of chaos?
  • Does it have total silence or some background noise?
  • Are pets and family buzzing about or are you in isolation?
  • Are you sitting or standing? (And please note I did not offer “lying down” as an option!)
  • Does it have snacks within reach (like my ideal environment absolutely must) or water or gum?

This inventory can help you set up your space and set up yourself for focused work. Once you’ve done your inventory and purposefully set yourself up, you’re ready to look at the task in front of you.

Getting a Grip on Your Assignments

In order to get a grip on the task, the first thing you should do is—obviously—read it. But the very next thing you should do is rephrase it. Imagine that someone asked you to explain the assignment to them and then describe it out loud. If there’s something you can’t quite explain or make sense of, this is a red flag to you to get some help. Whether that’s from a classmate or the teacher, now’s the time to ask.

Once you understand the task, the next move is to gather the relevant materials (books, tabs on your laptop, etc.). Now, you’re ready to get started!

Creating a Plan for Focused Work

There are three key steps to managing a project or lengthy assignment:

  • Identifying the steps you need to take;
  • Estimating the amount of time those steps will take; and
  • Working backwards from the due date to map them out.

One of the challenges with projects is that they have lots of component parts embedded in them. The task of, say, “write a research paper” involves identifying an area of focus, looking for sources, reading those sources, collecting quotes, outlining, and then writing. For most of us, that’s way too much to do in one sitting. Therefore, breaking down the project into steps, creating time estimates for how long each step will take, and then mapping out when you’ll do it, can go a long way to initiating working on the project and seeing it through to completion.

Let me show you how this might work with a research paper.

Research Paper Organizational Chart

You’ll see that we’ve listed a number of steps we need to take on the left side, and in the middle we’ve made some time estimates for those steps. If you’ve added it up, you may be struck by how long the process takes—16 hours in this particular example. Chunking these steps and then building in time for them makes it so that there’s no need for time-related rushing and worrying.

That’s where the right-hand column comes in. You can see here that the time estimates are broken further down into chunks across a number of days leading up to the due date. As you can see here, if we start working on a Friday and we work in 2- or 3-hour chunks of time, we can get this project done within a week—well before the due date. This kind of planning ensures you don’t start a project or assignment too late, that you don’t get burned out trying to do too much in one sitting, and that you have room to address other assignments between these working periods because, as most of us know, we’re usually not only managing one task at a time.

Having an awesome plan might make us feel ready to tackle the task, but we all know there’s a big difference between knowing what we have to do and doing what we have to do. So how do you get started?

Getting Down to Work

I have found myself cleaning my bathroom instead of sitting down to do work—and if that isn’t a clear sign that I’m a procrastinator, I don’t know what is. While I like having a clean bathroom, I also like keeping my job, so I’m going to share with you three things I do to get started on my work.

  1. Find your peak. Plan your work for the times you are most likely to be focused—we call this finding your peak. Some of you might have an intuition about this (night owls, raise your hands!), but others might be unsure. I recommend an app called RescueTime that tracks your productive and non-productive time on your computer and phone.
  2. Set really small goals. For our research paper example, you might set a goal of spending just five minutes looking for a source. Or, you might set the goal to find just one source. If it helps, set a five-minute timer as you plan and execute small, manageable steps.
  3. Plan out rewards. If you’re like me, sometimes getting a task done so I can get to things I want to do can help me focus on a positive end-goal. Having something to look forward to—and realizing that the longer you delay the work, the longer you delay access to your rewards—can help you convince yourself it’s time to get going.

Sticking With Your Work

Now for others, starting might be OK but staying on task feels like the challenge of a lifetime. We find ourselves midway through reading an article or writing an email, and then suddenly we realize we’ve lost 20 minutes to Twitter.

If you’re in this camp, there are lots of options!

  • Try working with timer tools. Apps like MagicWorkCycle, Cuckoo, and Pomodoro all allow you to set a time for work and time for a break. These tools have alerting sounds—from a gentle harp to a blaring horn—if you’d prefer not to watch the clock and have an auditory signal help you shift between work and break periods.
  • Bring in an accountability buddy. This could be in the form of sending a Snap to your friend of what you want to do and then another later when you’re done, sharing a to-do list with someone else who’ll see what you’ve checked off—like with Todoist or Microsoft Todo—or setting up a shared work room through an app like Cuckoo where you and friends can all start work and take breaks at the same time. It can help to have others involved so you don’t feel like you’re the only one slogging through tasks at home.
  • Set up some blockers if you find that fighting the temptation of apps and tabs and games is just too darn exhausting. Apps like Forest, Freedom, and Offtime create penalties for being on your phone and can lock you out of certain apps—thus giving you a much-needed break. Options like StayFocusd and Freedom can be used on your computer to block access to some websites or all websites, if you’re the kind of person who would click on just about anything to avoid doing work.

While all this advice might be a lot to take in, I urge you to isolate and focus on one approach, technique, or tool you might try now to increase your ability to focus and be productive with your online learning. The bonus is that whatever new strategy you try as a result of this article, you can be certain that it will continue to pay off even when this pandemic subsides and a more “normal” return to classroom learning occurs.

About the Author

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany’s experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.

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