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Getting Rid of “Monkey Mind”: Focusing and Getting Work Done in Graduate School

Being productive by setting limits and paying attention to your fidgeting.

October 19, 2017
 
 

Florianne Jimenez (@bopeepery) is getting her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Before I started writing this article, I washed a glass, petted the cat, checked my phone, and texted a friend. I sat down, wrote a sentence, erased it, and then thought Hmm, I probably should send that email I’ve been putting off…

Sound familiar? If you also take forever to start a task or constantly interrupt yourself with electronics, emails, and snacking, then you might not be getting the most out of your time. When I’m constantly interrupting myself, a task like an email which should take five minutes can stretch on indefinitely. I also feel like I’ve been working on it indefinitely, and that makes it even harder to start a simple task.

I’ve heard this habit called monkey mind, and it’s a great description of what goes on in my brain and many other grad students’ brains when we struggle to get work done. When you have monkey mind, every little thing except the task at hand seems urgent, from a crookedly hung picture to the cereal bowl sitting in the sink. It cuts down on productivity and takes energy away from your work.

The earlier in graduate school you learn to recognize and quiet your monkey mind, the better. I’m in my fifth year and I’m only unlearning my monkey mind habits now, after years of late nights, unproductive days, and unfinished work. It’s a long, continuous process of unlearning and in this article I document the strategies I’ve adopted to be more productive without burning out.

Plan out your work sessions

Plenty has already been written about to-do lists and bullet journals, which are great tools for keeping all your stuff together. However, if you’re not approaching the time you set aside for work with a plan, you’re much more likely to succumb to your monkey mind. It’s not enough to set aside time to work: you also have to have a realistic plan for getting things done.

To plan out a work session, first set definite time limits on your work. I used to think that the longer I sat at my computer, the more I’d get done. Not so true: telling myself that “I’ll sit here until I finish!” made me much less likely to start a task, since I could put it off indefinitely. Instead, when I have a day or an afternoon to work, I set a start and end time and hold to those times no matter how much (or how little) I get done or whatever comes up.

Next, think about what you want to accomplish in that time frame. Given your time and energy, what can you actually do today? You may want to think about prioritizing timely and urgent tasks, or pairing heavy tasks (grading, writing, annotating a book) with light tasks (updating class records, sending emails, transferring handwritten notes to a computer).

Finish what you start

People with monkey mind tend to have a lot of little tasks to fiddle with because they leave little tasks to fiddle with. I used to have a bad habit of saying “I’ll come back to this later!” for the simplest tasks and moving on to another. The result is that at the end of a work session, I’d have multiple half-finished lesson plans, emails, and student feedback and, despite all the time I’d spent working, no finished products. Take a step beyond making your time finite, and make your tasks finite as well. If you can define what the finish line of a task is, it’s much easier to get it done and move on to another task.

Old hacks, new tricks

When I started graduate school, everybody swore that the Pomodoro method would change my life. A few years later, everyone started talking about bullet journaling, then time tracking and “deep work,” and it seemed like there was always a new productivity hack or app coming into vogue.

Productivity hacks are neither inherently bad or good: you have to test them out and be willing to set them aside when they don’t work. Despite my affinity for the Pomodoro timer, it doesn’t jive with a lot of the tasks that I have to do this semester. For example, when I’m writing comments on student papers, the 25-minutes of work / 5 minutes of play structure of a Pomodoro interrupts my groove, and makes me feel like I’m spending much longer on the papers than I should. I would rather get through an entire section all in one sitting instead of forcing myself to keep taking breaks, which means the Pomodoro isn’t right for me.

As you work on improving your focus and attention, remember that letting go of your monkey mind doesn’t happen overnight! It’s also a fickle creature, and will occasionally come back depending on your energy, the tasks you have to do, and your emotional state. Sometimes, the monkey mind might be indicating deeper anxieties about work, or a sign that you might be burning out. Try to tame it, but also listen to it – the monkey mind might have something to say.

[Image by Flickr user Michael Pardo and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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