Jeremy Côté

Boundaries and Focus

As a student, I see a ton of different work styles. Some people enjoy working near a deadline because it gives them a sense of urgency. Others like myself do things way in advance because they don’t want to stress about due dates.

One common thread is that most students work with plenty of distractions.

It feels like you can do several things at once. What’s the harm in solving some homework problems while simultaneously surfing online? You can do both without giving up any sort of productivity. In fact, doing both allows you to get things done more quickly.

I’ve operated under this assumption for a long time. I would tell myself that I was okay because I didn’t do things that were obviously distracting. Instead of watching a movie or a video, I would listen to a podcast while working or keep some tabs open for articles I wanted to read. Surely these weren’t as bad as the “real” time wasters? After all, I was being responsible by doing my homework in advance!

The issue was that I didn’t fully appreciate was how fractured my thinking was. When you’re doing multiple things at once, the reality is that you are quickly switching between them. Your mind needs to perform a quick calibration each time, which increases the friction and your ability to get into a flow. At least, that has been my experience.

The fix was simple, and I knew it: focus on one thing, and remove the distractions. The more I let into my life, the more I would get distracted from the work that was important to me.

Of course, I didn’t want to do this. I enjoy listening to podcasts and reading articles. It doesn’t help that I can justify these to myself as “learning opportunities”, which makes them seem less bad. However, I now recognize that this is a dressed-up excuse.

How long can you do one thing without distraction? If you’re anything like me, your threshold is low. It just so happens that everyone else is distracted too! Therefore, while we might not be outliers, we’re definitely not as focused as we could be. Right now, I can say that the activity in which I remain focused for the longest time is during my running. There, I bring no other distractions. No music, just my thoughts as I run through nature.

What I realized is that I was losing time by trying to do several things at once. Even though it felt like a good idea to do homework and listen to podcasts or read articles, both became worse as a result of trying to do them simultaneously. I was being distracted by each activity, and this resulted in taking longer to complete my homework.

On the other hand, while it may be boring at first to focus only on homework, I was able to get a lot more done by just sitting down and working on it without other distractions. The best way I’ve found to do this is to physically remove the devices that distract you. It’s much easier to focus when you don’t even have the possibility of distracting yourself.

What’s interesting is that this has helped me in my creative pursuits as well. When I write for the blog or draw for my webcomic, I only allow myself to set some music. Furthermore, once I set the music, I try not to touch it anymore. This second requirement helped me from deciding to “just change the music” and ending up scrolling on a device.

The point here isn’t to throw all of your devices away and live in a cocoon. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that we aren’t doing better work by taking on multiple things at once. It’s only when we decide to focus on a single thing that our best work emerges. As such, I think it’s worth reflecting on what we can do in our lives to facilitate working in a space that is free from distractions.

It’s also good to mention that I am not better than anyone else. I still listen to podcasts or videos from time to time while working, and I suffer for it. I’m working on this as much as anyone, so don’t take this essay as an admonition to be more like me. Rather, see it as a challenge for doing your best work.