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PhD: Focus, Flourish, and Finish

Aktualisiert: 22. Jan.

Master your focus for PhD success


The ability to focus is crucial when doing a PhD. In a PhD, you have to manage a multitude of goals and tasks at the same time and stick to your research for several years. You have to deal with challenging situations and overcome motivational gaps. Maintaining focus throughout your PhD journey is significant to your academic success and completion.


Focus can be compared to using an axe to cut down a tree. If you hit the tree with the axe in many different places, you will not succeed. The tree will not fall. If, on the other hand, you hit the same spot on the tree over and over again, the moment will come when the tree will fall. This means that if you focus enough on one thing, you can achieve almost anything. Or put differently: Focusing means saying ‘yes’ to one thing while saying ‘no’ to everything else.


What is focus

There are three different forms of focus:

  • Long-term focus: your vision, your future goals, your why or purpose

  • Transitional focus: your planning and daily routines to keep you focused on your long-term goals and moving from one task to the next

  • Short-term focus or concentration: your focus on one task without getting distracted, ability to concentrate, state of flow

You need all three forms of focus to move forward and make progress in your PhD. Your vision of the big picture (long-term focus) helps you plan effectively and establish routines (transitional focus) that ultimately improve your concentration (short-term focus). As a result, you can get more things done. You are more creative and productive. You can motivate yourself better and find it easier to tackle even tedious tasks to reach your goal.

But how can you improve your focus?

The good thing is that focus is a skill that you can cultivate. Just as you can train your muscles to become stronger, you can train and strengthen your ability to focus. And just as you cannot expect to build strong muscles overnight, consistent effort is the key to improving it.

training the ability to focus

These three steps can help you sharpen your focus: 1. Be clear about your WHAT & WHY

  • Develop a clear vision for your life.

  • Know your goals and the reasons for them.

  • Be clear about your strengths and core values.

By knowing what you want and what is important to you, you will be better at setting priorities in your life. A strong why keeps you motivated and helps you to align your daily actions with your overall vision. This will help you to put the pursuit of your long-term goals first and not give in so quickly to short-term gratification and pleasure.

"When the why gets stronger, the how gets easier" – Jim Rohn

2. Plan effectively

  • Set yearly, 90-days, monthly, weekly and daily goals

  • Break down your goals into more easily achievable goals and tasks

  • Prioritise tasks

  • Set time blocks

  • Schedule breaks

Based on your vision and goals, the next step is to develop an effective plan and divide your goals into smaller steps. Making a habit of planning will help you focus better, reduce distractions, reduce the risk of procrastination, better assess your progress and avoid overwhelm. Prioritise and embrace the power of less.


A habit of planning

Note: There is no such thing as multistasking. Studies show that switching back and forth between different tasks comes at a cost. We need more time and make more mistakes. According to a study by the University of California Irvine, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task (Mark et. al. 2008). If you want to learn more about prioritising tasks, dividing tasks into smaller chunks, working with time blocks and scheduling breaks, read my blog post about how to better plan your daily tasks and time.


3. Work efficiently

  • Implement conducive daily habits & routines

  • Pay attention to the fundamentals: hydrate, eat well, sleep well, exercise regularly

  • Ban distractions

  • Organise your workplace

  • Celebrate your successes

To help you focus, it is beneficial to establish a morning and evening routine that sets the right tone for the day. For example, it is advisable not to look at your mobile phone first thing in the morning, but do some meditation or journaling instead. Research shows that 13 minutes of daily meditation over an 8-week period can improve the ability to pay attention and remember information as well as reduce negative mood and stress (Basso et. al. 2019). Of equal importance is taking care of the basics: drinking plenty of fluids, eating well, sleeping and exercising regularly. Sleep in particular is essential to stay focused throughout the day. The design of your workplace is just as important for your concentration. Numerous studies provide information on the optimal design of your workplace: e.g. screen at nose level or above, bright light (especially in the morning, less in the afternoon), alternating standing and sitting (Huberland 2022, 31 Jan). It is also advisable to remove all distractions from your work environment (e.g. mobile phone) to minimise the risk of distraction. To keep your motivation up, don't forget to pause every now and then and celebrate your big and small successes. It is also the small steps and tasks that bring you closer to your goal.

Every step in your journey is something to celebrate. So be proud of everything you have already achieved.

Focus for PhD success

As you have seen, you can improve your focus and attention on different levels and with the help of different techniques. Step by step, and with more motivation, you can get closer to your goals on the way to your PhD. And just as distractions from your smartphone or putting off tasks have become a habit over time, you can also make a habit of planning, prioritising tasks and eliminating distractions.

What is your next step?

What will you do to improve your focus?


 

In the process of becoming aware of your vision, goals and values, targeted questions and external feedback can help you to gain greater clarity. In my PhD coaching you will receive tailor-made support and the necessary tools to work towards your vision, goals and values. The coaching supports you in establishing and sustaining new habits and routines in your everyday life, in order to increase your focus and motivation. Together we will take a closer look at what is preventing you from making progress and bring you step by step closer to your goals. Arrange your free 30-min discovery call to discuss your challenges and find out how you can benefit from coaching. Let's connect.


 

References:


  • Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural Brain Research, 356, 208–220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2018.08.023

  • Crenshaw, D. (2008). The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done. Jossey-Bass.

  • Huberland, A. (2022, 05. Sep). Focus Toolkit: Tools to Improve Your Focus & Concentration | Huberman Lab Podcast #88 [Video]. YouTube. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yb5zpo5WDG4

  • Huberland, A. (2022, 31. Jan). Optimizing Workspace for Productivity, Focus, & Creativity | Huberman Lab Podcast #57 [Video]. YouTube. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze2pc6NwsHQ

  • Madore, K. P. & Wagner, A. D. (2019). Multicosts of Multitasking. Cerebrum. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7075496/

  • Mark, G., Gudith, D. & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, Florence, 107-110.

  • Meurisse, T. (2019). Master your focus. A practical guide to stop chasing the next thing and focus on what matters unitl it‘s done. Independently Published.

  • Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.

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