Updated: Aug 26
So you’re stuck at home because of a global pandemic. You’re not used to learning online, and you’re finding it hard to focus on schoolwork and stay engaged with your online classes. On top of that, you miss your friends and the outdoors, your family is driving you nuts, and you’re bored out of your mind 35-75% of the time. Now they’re telling you that you might not even go back to school this year! Remember, this is weird, inconvenient, and a little scary for all of us, but by staying home we are saving lives. There’s no reason why you have to let your academic focus slide just because the way you’re learning looks a little different than what you’re used to. So take some deep breaths, and let’s figure out how to make the most of a difficult situation.
When it comes to focusing, there are two different types of distractions: internal and external. Since you and your whole family are home right now, and you’ve probably got a lot on your mind, you’re likely struggling with both of them. This post will cover just the external distractions, and I’ll post some tips to help with internal distractions soon.
These are distractions that come from others. You don’t have much control over whether your little sister comes over to bug you while you’re working on your homework, or if your mom wants to check in on you every 30 seconds to make sure you’re working. You also don’t have much control over your cat jumping up on your keyboard and erasing the last 45 minutes of work you’ve been doing, or that your friend keeps texting you freaking out and you feel obligated to reply right away so he knows you’ve got his back. But your education is important, too. Most people won’t ever have a second shot at high school, so now is a great time to learn how to set boundaries with your family, friends, pets, and smartphone and level-up your focus skills.
Schedule time without them
Let your family know that you have an online class, or that you’re going to be working on a project, and you need the time to yourself in order to focus. Remember, these people love you and want to support your studies, but they might just need a little reminder of what you need.
Give them a visual reminder
If they forget when you ask them to leave you alone, you can always hang up a sign on your door to remind them (or on the back of your computer chair if your study-space is in a common room). Let them know what time you will be available again.
Schedule time with them
Especially when we are stressed out or uncertain, spending quality time with family can be a great way to let off steam and stay motivated to reach for your goals even when you’re not sure what tomorrow looks like. So ask your parents, siblings, and any other family members who live with you to schedule some time together playing a board game, watching a movie, cooking a meal, or working on a project. You’ll all build stronger relationships and resilience to get you through quarantine.
Animals do not communicate with us as well as family members, despite what you think about your little brother. So, your options here are pretty limited, but let’s see what we can come up with anyway.
Close the door
Your best bet to avoid being distracted by pets who roam free in your home is to not let them roam free while you are working on something important. This might be as simple as closing the door to your study space and leaving them outside. If they whine, play some music or put on some noise-cancelling headphones to drown it out.
Quarantine the cat
If your pets cause a major disruption even through the closed door, or if your study space can’t be closed off from the rest of the house, you may ask your parents if they can be let outside or kept in a closed-off room for a set period of time while you need to focus.
Enlist backup support
You can also enlist the help of a family member to keep the pets distracted while you work. Chances are good that the other members of your family could use some peace and quiet to work on their own projects, and if you offer to keep the dog distracted for them, they’ll be willing to keep the dog distracted for you.
Even when we’re keeping ourselves isolated, the outside world has an easy way in through our smartphones, tablets, and computers. But just because these devices send us constant notifications from friends and apps, doesn’t mean we have to respond to every little *ping* immediately.
Do not disturb
Every smartphone and tablet has a Do Not Disturb setting. Use it. No excuses – most phones let you schedule DND time so you don’t even have to remember to make yourself available after your online class or work session.
You do NOT have to be available to all of your friends every moment, and it does not make you a bad friend to read their texts more than 30 seconds after they send them. If you’re not being a good friend to yourself, you’re not going to be the best friend you can be to your friends.
Flip the script
Stop being a slave to your phone and computer, and start making them work for you! There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not screen addiction is a real psychological disorder, but experts agree that our glowing rectangles suck up more than their fair share of our attention. The good news is that there are many app developers who are fighting back. Below are some apps which can help you be more productive in a variety of ways:
Temporarily blocking apps you select
Temporarily blocking your whole phone (but gamify the experience for you)
Timing productivity sessions and encouraging appropriately timed breaks
Tracking and showing you how you’re spending your time on your phone and your web browser
Providing additional focus training tools (like guided meditation/mindfulness practice, helpful articles, and whitenoise/ambient noise generators)
Providing social components so you can challenge your friends to become focus gurus as well
I’ve focused this list on highly rated apps that are free or have a free/basic plan option. But this is by no means an exhaustive list; there are many more out there for you to explore. Just, don’t fall down a rabbit hole and spend hours researching. Check them out and find one that works for you.
You have more control than you think
Learning at home is not the same as learning at school. Your home environment is optimized for your family’s recharging activities, but now you’ve all got to learn how to optimize it for both recharging and getting work done. You may need to work on communication with your family even more now than ever before. By working together, you will find all kinds of creative solutions to the new problems you’re facing as a family.
In my next post, I’ll discuss what to do about internal distractions – the ones that have more to do with your own personality and self-discipline.