It’s hard enough to focus when there isn’t a cloud of coronavirus covering the planet. Or all the hubbub about what the exam will be like. Or wondering when it’s even going to be.
The stress of adjusting to “the new reality.” Dealing with uncertainty about the bar exam. Running out of yeast for your new bread machine.
You’re at the brink of feeling burned out before the exam is even happening.
First of all, if we’re quarantining, we should be thankful to have a place to stay and a refuge from everything going on outside (even if we’re forced to coexist with our housemates).
But it may be frustrating to not have a quiet place to focus if your go-to study place is suddenly gone. We’re stuck at home. Libraries are closed. Daycares are closed. Coffee shops don’t let you linger around.
Being productive in your bar preparation has become more challenging than it’s ever been.
How do you get into that flow if where you live is the only place left to study?
The two biggest killers of focus and concentration are external distractions and your energy.
Address each by designing your environment and optimizing your sleep as follows:
1) Manage (but don’t completely avoid) external distractions by designing your environment
There are many sources of distractions around you.
Your phone, your computer, people around you (friends, parents, kids, spouse(s), coworkers), the NEWS. Click bait and click bate. It’s very tempting to check on them every few minutes or even seconds. I mean THEY’RE RIGHT THERE.
So the obvious solution seems to just get rid of it all…
But it turns out deliberate restorative breaks can not only help you recover but actually improve your performance.
Check this out, from the book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing:
Danish schoolchildren who take the tests in the afternoon score significantly worse than those who take the exams earlier in the day. To a school principal or education policy maker, the response seems obvious: Whatever it takes, move all the tests to the morning. However, the researchers also discovered another remedy, one with applications beyond schools and tests, that is remarkably easy to explain and implement.
When the Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break ‘to eat, play, and chat’ before a test, their scores did not decline. In fact, they increased. As the researchers note, ‘A break causes an improvement that is larger than the hourly deterioration.’ That is, scores go down after noon. But scores go up by a higher amount after breaks.
Resting and playing more (guilt-free!) while being more productive sounds good to me.
So don’t quit your distractions cold turkey, but don’t fall into a consumption black hole either.
Instead, regulate your distractions like this:
Design your environment to be free of distractions
TFW you pour your coffee, organize your pens and papers, turn on the computer… and then just stare at the words.
The bigger impact here may be to design your environment to be free of distractions:
In Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, only a quarter of the subjects were able to resist eating the marshmallow for fifteen minutes. This implies that a large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life. But a less discussed part of the study suggests a way of circumventing our frailty. The researchers compared the results of two situations: in one, children could see the marshmallow in front of them; in the other, they knew that it was there but couldn’t see it. On average, the children lasted only six minutes when presented with visible temptation but could manage ten minutes if the treat was hidden.
[S]elf-control is “not so much an inherent disposition but instead a reflection of the situation we are in.” A few tweaks to our environment may enable us to emulate people who seem more disciplined.
“Successful self-control,” Wood writes, “came from essentially covering up the marshmallow.”
Wood cites the psychologist Kurt Lewin, who argued that behavior was influenced by “a constellation of forces” analogous to gravity or to the fluid dynamics that make a river run faster or slower. Those forces work depending on where you are, who’s around you, the time of day, and your recent actions. We achieve situational control, paradoxically, not through will power but by finding ways to take will power out of the equation.
The central force for eliminating bad habits, according to Wood, is “friction”: if we can make bad habits more inconvenient, then inertia can carry us in the direction of virtue, without ever requiring us to be strong.
With quarantine and sheltering, though, things may be different than usual…
- If you like going to the library to study, that’s no longer possible.
- If you have family members, they may be lurking around ready to knock you out of focus.
- If you have noisy neighbors also staying home, then you have my permission to TP them (oh wait, is TP still a valuable commodity?)
Designing your environment may involve a bit more work in this case. You may want to…
- Turn off your computer, or at least get a browser extension like StayFocusd that blocks websites except for the ones you need
- Put your phone in another room
- Find or create a quiet room or section of your place
- Clear your desk COMPLETELY and get rid of extraneous clutter. Grab your pen and your lucky charm or whatever, but don’t spend more than 5 minutes on this. The point is to remove distractions, not to clean and get sucked into yet another way to procrastinate
- Ask your family members for peace and quiet (people can’t read your mind contrary to popular belief)
- Try dressing up (as if you’re going out) or staying in comfortable attire to see what helps you more
One reader who passed the 2020 February CA Bar Exam found a job that forced her to spend hours studying. This is a great example of designing your environment.
There are more ideas in this Reddit thread.
If you give yourself no choice but prepare for the bar, guess what you’re going to do.
But remember I said not to quit your distractions cold turkey? You could take cyclical work periods and breaks (20/10, Pomodoro, etc.). Or when you feel your brain is fatigued, find your phone and give yourself a fun break.
No need to break your flow on purpose though. If you’re in the flow, keep at it!
2) Manage your energy with sleep
As noted earlier, the second killer of focus and concentration is your own energy.
Sleep is the #1 predictor of your energy and focus for the next day. It’s an important bodily function that helps your body repair itself, including the mind.
If it seems like a simple idea… It is. Get your sleep. I dedicate an entire lesson on optimizing sleep and developing “sleep rules” in my mental management course, Mental Engines.
Some quick sleep-related tips for prolonged bar prep
Keep a regular sleep routine; this is a marathon.
Or not. I stayed up until 4 AM answering messages the day after CA bar results (among the last ones to come out and usually a big deal because Californians think the world revolves around them).
Know your body, and be prepared to recover as needed.
Ask yourself when you’re most productive, and schedule your work around those times.
For example, I’m most alert about an hour after waking up and an hour before my typical bedtime (yeah, I measured it). I’m most focused when it’s been at least 12-16 hours since eating and when no one’s distracting me at night.
What about you?
Quarantine means you are now in greater control of your indoor time. You can study at a time that fits your proclivities, as long as it doesn’t mean you are using flexibility as an excuse to keep pushing things off. One lost day = cram two days in one (so build in a buffer day in your schedule).
Move your body to supplement sleep.
I hate cardio. You don’t need to go running into the sunset every day. Just get your blood flowing. Even 3-10 minutes of indoor exercise will bring your energy out of a stagnant funk (and in my experience, will “credit” you for 30-60 minutes of sleep). You don’t need to work out hardcore.
Of course, if you have a fitness routine because that’s part of your day, do it by all means. The idea is that even a little bit of time will change you can feel. And that’s what MTYLT is about: simple ideas for big results.
MTYLT is also about what works for you. All of the above approaches require that you know yourself (or try things and find out) because there isn’t one true path for anyone to preach to you. You’ll be fine if you’re self-aware.
With this double-pronged approach of designing your environment and managing your energy, you’re on your way to dialing in some solid focus even during quarantine.
If you’re curious to learn more mental and behavioral shifts to reduce your emotional blocks like overwhelm, anxiety/nerves, and stress, see how Mental Engines can upgrade the operating system in your brain make your bar preparation the best it can be.