'The Zone' and how to get into it...


Hi all

How do you get yourself into the zone for working on your PhD?

These days I often find that I'll sit down at my desk to work, but it'll take me a really long time to settle down into a focused frame of mind where I can work productively. I often feel like my thoughts are racing too fast to think clearly, or I'll be continually distracted by other things I have to do or plan for, and it seems like I waste a lot of time this way.

It's magic when I can tune out everything else and just focus on my work, but it happens very rarely, so I'd like to learn how to turn it on at will.

I'm wondering what other people do- can you just sit down at your desk and work straight away? Or do you have any rituals or things you do to help you settle down to work?


I try to make a task list for each day--and I try to make it at the end of the day prior so I have something to focus on straight away when I come in and get down to work. The first part of each day I seem to spend on what I call "administrative work"--answering or sending emails, checking this forum! etc, things that need to get done but are not research per se. This sort of eases me into working mode, and then within say 30-45 minutes I can switch over to the research work I have planned for the day. I try to check emails first thing and last thing during the day, and not constantly throughout the day, unless I am expecting something of great interest or importance ( or am just having a really off day!).

I like to ease into the day--often with a cup of coffee extra at my desk, to get going in the morning. The other thing I try to remember to do is take breaks throughout the day, not just say for lunch, but every 45-90 minutes, switch "off" from whatever I am doing, take a short walk down the hall, stretch, stare out the window, or stare into space.


same as Olivia, I write a task list and include even the smallest tasks on there coz it sure feels good to tick them off as I go along and motivates me to get on with some of the big tasks. Either that or I'll set myself targets, something like 30 more minutes and then I can go and have a drink. I usually find once I set myself that target I can work past it. I think the hardest thing to do is get started as I usually find that once I just get off my backside and start, I'm in the zone!


I bought a small whiteboard to write down task lists that sits on my desk. Also print out a timetable of deadlines and put it next to your monitor - that scares me into work!


I have started doing two things that have really helped my ability to actually get things done:

1) I work on my laptop as it isn't connected to the internet. I only go on the net in the evenings - well, after 4pm :$
This has helped A LOT.

2) I read the Joan Bolker book recommended on here (see thread on writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day). It has some great tips for getting down to work. I now set a timer for 45 minutes - work solidly and then do the housework for 15 minutes. I do this for most of the day although as I get into it I find that 45 minutes is not enough so I keep on going. Guess what? I have finished loads more and I have a cleaner house 8-)


I'm another one who relies on lists and deadlines. Without a list my mind can wander, and I don't make the progress I should. With a list I can break down harder tasks into more manageable ones and get on with things much quicker. Hey, even making a list can be productive in itself! Deadlines are also a major motivation for me and I work backwards from them to figure out how long each sub-task will take - again lists you see, which keep me moving. And I try to reward myself: do a bit of work before surfing. Or have a cup of tea and a biscuit after I've done a certain amount of work.


I have a firefox add-on called leech block that has increased my productivity hugely: I can use the net for research, but I've blocked pretty much everything else between 9 and 7. Classical music helps me sometimes (for a long time I listened to the same Elgar cd whenever I was doing hardcore working!) and wearing headphones is one more thing that keeps me on the computer rather than wandering about the house and cleaning. Getting enough sleep, water and exercise are key for me: if I'm tired or dehydrated my concentration is crap, and if I haven't been to the gym in the morning I get all restless and twitchy by about 2pm! I also have treats for about two hours into my work day (usually some nice fruit, but I also have special tea bags for this purpose!) because that's when my motivation drops off.

Even now, writing up and being way more productive than I have been before, I think I'm only properly in the zone about every other day: on my off days I end up just doing a couple of hours on my thesis and then checking my references, filing or doing a bit of teaching prep for the rest of the day. I'm not sure the zone is sustainable long-term for me - I'm an inveterate dabbler!


======= Date Modified 20 Oct 2008 22:06:16 =======
A few weeks ago I reached a bit of a crisis point where I pretty much shouted at myself:

"What do I have to do to stop myself from procrastinating?"

... and decided I needed to make serious changes which I've implemented and have made a big difference. As a result, I can get into the zone for long spells of most days. I've now found that if I get up early and cycle in (the incentive to get up is driven by the prospect of cycling in rush hour traffic, so I'm away before it), then I get to desk very fresh and very lively and this sets me up for a solid morning. It's noticeable how much more lethargic I feel if I drove the car in or walked.

Another vote for Leechblock here too, I'm only allowed on my procrastination sites at lunchtimes, evenings and weekends. I can't get at them in work hours and this has made a big difference to my productivity. As others have said, planning your activities for the day, set within your targets for the week, set in your targets for month and year. When I see the size of my task list and how long I reckon it will take to do them, it scares me into action. Lastly, I now keep a little diary inside MindManager which I'll write something in each morning to get myself going for the day.

All things considered, I've worked really well for the last few weeks. It'll need to continue if i'm to get this thing done!