Coping with distraction

Trying to study at home presents a whole range of challenges. Read up on some tips and tricks that may help.

Eirian Perkins is a Science ‘Teaching Assistant’ who has shared their own experiences of studying from home as a doctoral student returning to study after working in industry.

"I don't know about you, but working from home has been a rough adjustment for me. It's not so much the 'at home' part as it is the 'everyone is here and distracting me' part. Although it's a new situation, and we're all adjusting to 'the new normal', I did complete my master's online and believe this means I can provide some useful insights.

In addition, I have worked several years an in open-office environment, and feel that there's a lot of similarities between this and the at-home distractions. So, I will try to combine these different experiences and give you some insights...

Working in a distracting environment

Fight bad habits

  • The more we look at our phones, the more we form a habit. At first, it might be a quick glance, but with enough repetition, hours will go by and we'll wonder where the time went.
  • Schedule a time to look at your funny internet cat pictures. Quitting social media "cold turkey" is too hard for me, so I only indulge during my morning coffee, during lunch, and before bed in the evening. By scheduling time in, I do as much as I like, and I actually spend less time overall. I think it's more to do with "intention" than getting lost in a distraction.
  • The more comments you make, the more social media sucks you in because you get those little red dots you just have to check. So enjoy your news feed, but practice commenting less. You'll be surprised how much less you get "sucked in."

Create white noise

We're all working in noisy, distracting environments. It's possible to drown out some of this with white noise, like "healing tones" on YouTube, classical music, or

  • If you have noise-cancelling earphones, these will help out a lot
  • Don't listen to music you can't resist singing along to - this will become a distraction in its own right.

Keep your desk clean

Maybe not applicable to everyone, but the messier my desk gets, the more distracted I feel. Keeping it clean makes my environment more professional. It also feels like a "blank canvas" I get to fill in every day before I clean up when I'm done.

Practice the Pomodoro Technique

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on one task and one task only. If you're writing a paper, your task is to get one specific paragraph done. Everything else is a distraction. You'll be surprised what kinds of things pop up!
  • Take a break after each 25 minute focus session
  • More here

Politely let people know you're working

It's easy to hurt people's feelings when you want to be left alone. "I'm busy!!!" doesn't always go over well, and creating disharmony at home or in the office means creating more distractions -your co-worker, loved one, or yourself may end up in a bad mood, and that will take a lot longer to sort through than putting in effort to be courteous in the moment.

Try this instead: 

  • "Let me finish this thought, then I'll be right with you."
  • "I want to answer you, could you please give me 5 minutes?"

Studying at home

Be prepared before you watch lectures

  • Get reading assignments done before lectures. I know as well as anyone that lectures are useful for helping me understand what content to focus on, but now we're in a situation where we can't ask questions during a lecture.
  • Lectures won't seem to move "too fast" if you've already seen the material. It's OK if you don't absorb or understand everything you read. Repetition will lead to mastery.

Get your questions answered

Learning asynchronously means you need to be your own advocate. In my personal experience, I couldn't easily attend office hours or get responses to emails.

  • Accept that advocating for yourself is uncomfortable and do it anyway. If your instructor doesn't respond to Piazza, try messaging on Canvas or email. Different people prefer different methods of communication, and not responding probably doesn't mean they're ignoring you - they're just monitoring a different communication channel than you used. For me personally, I prefer being tagged on Piazza like so: @Eirian Perkins

Learn how to Learn

This was the hardest thing I had to learn during my masters. In my undergrad, I noticed my lecturers did this work for me, and identified the "main points" I had to pay attention to in lectures.

  • Practice identifying the "main points" on your own. Create outlines of the reading with just topic sentences or a one-sentence summary of each section.
  • Write down your questions as you go. You may find you figure them out as you go, and if you don't, you've already prepared your questions to ask your lecturer
  • If you don't understand what your textbook is saying, keep reading anyway. Then when you've finished, read it through again once or twice. You may only see the "main ideas" the first time through, and that's completely fine. Remember that repetition is key, and the more you repeat, the more you'll digest.
  • Form virtual study groups! Even if it's uncomfortable, do it anyway. You'll be glad you have friends to study with and support you.

Manage your time

Do a little bit every day. I wasn't able to sit down and do homework all the way through because I was working full time during my degrees. If you have a week for an assignment, do one or two questions every day instead of the entire thing.

  • Breaking homework down over multiple days means your subconscious will keep working. I had a lot of "aha" moments when I least expected them!
  • Good enough is good enough. Working from home made me want to polish everything, but what actually happens if you polish, is you do one question perfectly and stuff up the rest. Put in a good amount of effort and move on. Nothing's ever perfect, and partial credit is much, much, much better than no attempt. Eventually, you'll find that you're doing multiple "iterations" for a problem, and every time you work on it, it will get better. In this way, "good enough" becomes "better than I did it before."

Don't play "catch up"

If you're chronically short on time, there will be no way to catch up. Do your best to keep up with lectures and readings.

  • If you get too far behind, work on the current homework, readings, and lectures. It may just be the case that you miss a lecture. Missing a single video is better than having an ever-growing backlog to work through.