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Illustration of woman sitting hovering above desk looking distracted by numerous items including a phone and a clock floating above

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How do you concentrate when the whole universe seems focused on distracting you, pulling your mind away and sinking you in a stew of unwanted thoughts? I wish I meant thoughts such as, “Lemme pick up the iPhone and watch another 4,000 reels before I get back to work.” TikTok and its imitators, memes and social media have been easy distractions for a few years now. But peoples’ minds are on so many other things right now, so the intrusive thoughts are compelling: The rising cost of groceries and rent. War. Is COVID coming back?

Norman Mailer described obsession as “the single most wasteful human activity,” because it involves turning the same question over again and again without approaching an answer. Disruptive thoughts are easy to stumble into even in the best of times. Who has not been distracted by jealousy and insecurity in a relationship that has not solidified, or been caught up in a workmate, roommate or friend’s interpersonal drama when they rebroadcast the play-by-play? Add that to the drumbeat of doubts and fears that come with working toward a graduate degree, and it’s a wonder you can hear yourself think.

How can you learn to settle down your runaway thoughts so you can focus on doing the reading, hands-on work and writing that are needed to complete your graduate degree?

Start With What’s On Your Mind

Some kinds of thoughts can run away with you. In the basketball-obsessed Research Triangle area of North Carolina where I live, friends and strangers will ask you about your bracket, your 64-team outline of who will win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Many people here are fanatical about this bracket and will check it, fiddle with it, cry over it and redo it constantly over the weeks of the tournament.

This kind of runaway thought it easily thwarted using methods like block-scheduling your day so that you work when games are not being played and then can guiltlessly enjoy your obsession when your favorites, anti-favorites and long-shots are, in fact, competing. It’s only a few weeks: Why not have fun?

For those who can’t resist the urge to read sports news, study the box scores, or talk about the tournament, the pomodoro—a favorite technique for defeating procrastination—can help. With that technique, you use a timer to push yourself to work for a short amount of time—for example, 30 minutes—and then take a 15-minute break during which you can attend to your obsession. Odds are good that once you start working, you will go longer than 30 minutes, but even if you don’t, you should get a lot accomplished after you’ve rotated through a few work/break cycles in a row.

It’s more complicated if you are distracted by something that is not joyful and fun. The deadly fire in Maui, the shocking 51-car train derailment that released multiple dangerous gasses in Ohio, the explosion that killed 3 percent of Texas cattle, and terrorism and warfare ongoing around the world have all impacted us this year. Traditional news media perfected 20 years ago the breathless art of pretending new news was about to arrive. They and social media have upped the attraction, with short videos custom-made to distract our attention and new stories of atrocities appearing by the second. Sometimes, I get distracted thinking about the people who build fake news pages, splicing together terrible images from across space and time to convince viewers that an awful thing is even worse. All of those worries are terrible, but as with basketball, a timer and the promise that you can catch up with the news after you’ve done a little work can be enough to get you going.

More Distracting Still

Even more distracting can be thoughts about yourself. Your mind may repeat to you over and over: “I should not be here,” “I am not good at this” or “I am never going to get caught up.” It may point out your faster-moving classmates or friends who have started making money, or your sibling whose personal life has come together seemingly far better than yours. What can you do when your mind’s all-day refrain is: “Loser. Worthless. Not worthy. Peaked at 16. A disappointment. Faker. Worm.”?

A timer can help you get some work done, but that kind of constant thought probably needs more—more time with good friends talking about your fears or with counselors who can help you explore the origin of such negative ideas. For those who are uncomfortable with talking about that kind of thinking and the sadness it drags over a soul, counselors can provide connections to cognitive therapy, where much of the work to push away inappropriate thoughts may be paper and pencil exercises that help you explore your reality and compare it to your perceptions.

The Long-term Solution

No one can escape distracting thoughts. But if you can clear up those that are focused on punishing yourself, you can move on to the long-term solution: understanding what’s prone to distract you and dismissing it from your day. Maybe you worry too much about money. The long-term solution could be to find ways not to, such as keeping costs down by agreeing with friends to share assets (say, a dwelling, a car or expensive books) or living very simply.

If you worry you are losing your chance to find a partner and build a family, the solution may be to stop worrying and start planning to fulfill your life’s goals. If anger or jealousy over a classmate’s “favorite” status preoccupies you over and over, maybe you should list that person’s strengths and weaknesses and wins and losses. You may find that your perception of their favored status is a distortion, or you may learn something about how to gain some of their perks yourself. Either way, you will have learned something, and learning something is almost always better than brooding.

Victoria McGovern is the chief strategy officer of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. She states that peaceful contemplation rocks.

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