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How I Write and Learn

How I Optimized My Work: A Mental Clutter Check

By Miranda, a Graduate Learning Coach

Setting the Scene: A Mindful Check-In 

As a graduate student trying to find the best ways to optimize my work, I have found that it is not as easy as just getting an excellent desk and the latest technology. I can have the ideal workspace and still find myself unable to focus. I may have my new laptop stand with Bluetooth keyboard and mouse ready, the office chair set to the perfect height, and the apartment all to myself, but still, my mind won’t focus. I was ready to edit my dissertation’s introduction. Nevertheless, I found my mind wandering, anxiety raising, and my shoulders tensed. I should have been editing, but instead, I was making a mental checklist of all the groceries I needed to buy. Feeling frustrated that I could not focus, I felt the tension in my body rise. Trying again to re-focus (usually, I start reading sections aloud to myself), I then remembered I had an upcoming meeting with a professor that I was nervous about. As I stared at my introduction, my brain calculated how to prepare for my meeting and compiled a list of everything that could go wrong within a twenty-minute meeting. Feeling the stress continue to rise that I was not focused on editing and now anxious about a meeting two weeks away, I felt like just giving up

I realized that my space might be ready for me to work, but my mind and body were not. I had sat down and hurled myself into work without transitioning into my work environment. This was when I started thinking about checking in with myself mentally to prepare for what needed to be done. I began to think through the idea of mindfulness productivity and how I could apply it to working and holding my focus. 

Mindfulness productivity is simply the idea that paying attention to one’s present moment can help connect one’s mind to their body. Mindfulness productivity means being intentionally present in the task at hand alongside handling your mental and emotional states. Applying this idea to an academic context, I think about how I can edit my dissertation while also being mindful of how I am doing as a person. This deeply resonated with me. I needed to acknowledge that I was stressed about the meeting, but that was something I could set aside time in the future to prepare for. To set myself up for work, I thought through a pre-and-during checklist for my mental status. 

Before starting work, I have started to play classical or folk music while I declutter and gather my work materials. I then sit down and do a check-in: 

  1. What is my goal for this work session? How long will I work on that one task? – SMART goals can help here (i.e., I will edit my introduction to my dissertation for one hour at my desk)  
  2. I then write out my goal on a sticky note that I have in eyesight of my workstation (i.e., edit my dissertation’s introduction for one hour) 
  3. Once I establish my goals, I take a deep breath (yes, this can feel silly, but deep breathing can release tension being held in the body) and ask myself, “how am I feeling? What are my mental or emotional states?” – This is the time I can acknowledge anything that is on my mind or if I am tired, stressed, upset, or cheerful. For me, this is not about changing my mood but being in touch with how I am feeling. I fill out the graphic below as a way to ensure I am being honest with myself about how I feel.

Now, I may look rather odd to my roommate as I light a candle, open the window, and turn on soft folk music only to sit down, close my eyes, and take several audibly loud deep breaths. I found this helps me transition into my workspace – it is my little routine. It gives my mind the time to re-adjust to my goals and a new mode of cognitive engagement – the dreaded editing. It also lets my body relax into my workspace. At this point, I have transitioned into my workspace and settled into my editing. No, it does not always happen that smoothly, but I at least know my goals and how I am doing as I begin to work. 

But, how do I check in and hold my focus while I work? I do two things that I have found really helpful to stay mindful of how I am doing and not let mental distractions take over (I say this with the caveat that sometimes they do, and that is okay.)  

  • I have recently started to get a blank piece of paper and pencil and set it next to my computer while I work. If I find myself distracted by my intrusive thoughts, I write those on this piece of paper. For example, if an email comes in that I want to respond to or a list of errands I need to run later that day pops into my mind, I write those down on the paper and tell myself: “it is now that piece of paper’s problem until my goal is done.” 

  • I also check in with myself as I work: How am I doing? How am I feeling? And, of course, take several big deep breaths. Suppose I notice I have pulled away from my specific goals. For instance, I suddenly start to read an article or edit footnotes instead of what I set out to do. In that case, I remind myself to return to focus on the task I set out (remember, I have my sticky note with my goal written out). To do this, I ask myself…Is this helping me complete my goal?…Do the actions I am doing advance my progress towards this goal? 

So, perhaps reading a new article and saving five additional ones to read later (even if related to my dissertation) does not help me complete my goal of editing …

My mental inventory is a way to check in with myself while I am trying to focus. If setting my space up for optimal work helps my focus, mindfulness productivity also helps focus my thoughts on my goals to complete them. When I find my thoughts wandering or feel the tension rise in my shoulders as I frantically type, I can tap into ways to acknowledge and release those distractions (i.e., by re-focusing on my task at hand and stretching my shoulders). The mind does funny things, so instead of working against it, I am trying to learn to work with it (intrusive thoughts and all) alongside my body to help me stay productive. 

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.


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