Who doesn’t love finals week? See-sawing between cute food, astrochemistry, texting and Nietzsche is what college is all about. But since you’ve been procrastinating all weekend and your last few exams are close approaching, time is running out to read all those books you forgot to buy and memorize all those facts you weren’t awake to learn. We’re all quick to point fingers at technology, the enabler of mass procrastination and counterproductivity.
But we’re here to tell you it ain’t so! Don’t throw your phone in the Hudson River or lock yourself out of Facebook. Now is not the time to suddenly change everything about how you learn. Sure, eliminating gadgets will help you concentrate on working for a little bit, but the craving won’t go away and eventually you’ll go mad. Plus, most of your study materials are electronic—you can’t run from them.
Here are five rules to help you stay focused during finals. You’re already breaking a few of them by being on NYU Local, but we’ll assume it’s a break. Break on.
Rule #1: Balance work and play
There’s a reason we get the temptation to sneak off to webpages and texts while studying: Those things make us happy immediately, whereas studying rewards us in the future. To work like a champion, you must find a balance betwen rewards in the “now” and the “later.”
We highly suggest giving the Pomodoro Technique a try. It accepts that working for hours at a time is draining, and instead pushes you to work in bursts followed by short breaks. Every 25 minutes, you earn a 5 minute break. Work four of these sessions and you can take a 20 minute break. It works because (1) you become conscious of how productive you’re being, (2) it structures temptation, (3) it’s named after tomatoes which are delicious and go great with fresh mozzarella and basil, and (4) there are lots of books about it.
Even better, there are several applications you can download to automate the process while working. For the Mac, check out Pomodorable, Focus Booster and Time Out. If you’re running Windows, try Tomighty. There are also numerous Pomodoro timers for iOS and Android, if you prefer that.
Rule #2: Pick the right music
Everyone reacts differently to a soundtracked cram session. Many say they can’t concentrate with music, but too often those people have only experienced S.U.I.C.L.M., or Studying Under the Influence of Catchy or Lyrical music (pronounced “SOOK-lem” or “SWEE-clam,” depending on your preference). That’s a real shame, because there’s nothing worse than an orchestra of sniffles, coughs and pens. Try blocking it out with a pair of in-ear or noise-canceling headphones tuned to something with a roaming or ambient melody. Listen to a curated playlist or download a huge-ass torrent of classical music, some electronic or even Brian Eno. If that doesn’t work for you, there’s always white noise.
Rule #3: Control yourself
If you suck at self-discipline, download an app that will do the job for you. Self Control is a popular choice that prevents your computer from contacting specificed websites and mail servers. If you want to micromanage, Concentrate is a great option that will block access to applications and websites, run scripts and even set your iChat status based on your focus preferences. (Plus there’s a 60-hour free trial.)
For an app-less solution, consider creating a new user profile on your computer. Use the parental controls to block websites, applications, etc. Reduce the dock to the applications you absolutely need and make a wallpaper in Photoshop that says “Do your work, bastard.” Whenever you need to focus, switch logins and life is quiet again.
Set your phone to Do Not Disturb or rethink throwing it into the Hudson.
Rule #4: Isolate your work
It’s a lot easier to get distracted when your onscreen and real-life workspaces are cluttered. The author of this post would never have accomplished a thing during Writing the Essay if not for WriteRoom, a full-screen typewriter environment where you can forget about fonts, styles and page numbers and JUST WRITE. For cheaper alternatives, check out IA Writer (half-off in the app store right now) and the fullscreen mode of Word. (Actually, fullscreen mode is a great way to focus on anything.)
Rule #5: If you’re not interested, get interested
Sometimes you’re not in the mood to memorize which naked statue was created by which bipolar sculptor, and that’s understandable. If you’re uninspired, find a YouTube video about the topic, draw something related, write a poem about it—channel your boredom into something you love. Think about how fun it would be to learn those statues if you had a rainbow of Play-Doh to make them with. Or if you memorized them by their celebrity look-alike. (David looks like Matthew McConaughey, amirite?)