Protecting Your Focus

By Dr. Maria T. Gallardo-Williams, Teaching Professor and Director of Organic Chemistry Labs, Department of Chemistry, and SoTL Faculty Fellow, Office of Faculty Development

When the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown started in March I personally put all my energy towards finishing the Spring semester. I was so focused on making sure that my students (in 4 different courses) didn’t fall behind that I let many things slide in other areas, because my hair-on-fire priority was student well-being.

I didn’t prepare my garden for planting.
I didn’t worry about Spring cleaning.
I stopped exercising.
I don’t remember what we ate.
I narrowed my focus to the things that had to happen at work and got them done.

It would have been really great if that was the end of this story, but it is not. As we all know, the pandemic continued, and it made my single focus solution unsustainable. I felt pretty burned out by early May, had a private pity party, and then had to figure out how to get my work and my life done under the new conditions. Being a mom, I was no stranger to multitasking. However, the conditions at the moment are so extreme and strange (the whole family working/studying/living together 24/7) and this required a change of tactics. Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me, and might work for you as well.

  • Set goals, and schedule everything: If you have a project that needs some attention, break it down into small goals and set aside time on your schedule to get those done. Make sure that you keep your calendar up to date, and that everything you need to do is reflected there. Time for yourself is also a priority, and should be scheduled. And don’t forget time to catch up with friends and family.
  • Give yourself permission to slow down sometimes: A constant frantic pace is a one-way ticket to burnout. It’s OK to plan slower days (or even weeks) on purpose. I like to keep my Mondays light, whenever possible, and it really helps. Also, Mindful Mondays are a great way to start the week.
  • Get some app support: A number of free apps are available to help you maintain your focus, and most of them are based on using fixed amounts of time in a productive way. Some of my favorites are Focus Keeper, and Tomato Timer (if you like the Pomodoro Technique, this is the timer for you).
  • Talk to others: We are all in the same boat. I was not the only faculty member struggling with feelings of despair and isolation, and neither are you. If you have a faculty network in your department or college, this is the time to reach out. If you would like to join like-minded folks for some conversation, there are options available, like the OFD Faculty Conversation Series, or the OFD/DELTA Faculty Meet-ups.
  • Reprioritize and ask for help: If you have kids at home, many of them attending school virtually, means that others certainly require frequent attention. Have a frank conversation with the kids, and with other adults in the household about realistic attention expectations and supervision. Tag team whenever possible, and let your kids develop valuable independent work skills (1).
  • Protect your time: If you have set aside time to work, make sure to protect it by setting good boundaries and sticking to your calendar (2). This might be the time to sign up for a writing retreat. You can use our institutional membership to National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity and join one of their 14-Day Writing Challenges, free to all NCFDD Members, or join one of the OFD’s writing retreats (look for some virtual offerings coming soon).

I would be lying if I told you that I have solved all my focus issues, but I feel that I am getting a handle on the situation, and staying productive in spite of the challenges. I even managed to plant some Fall vegetables, and I hope to serve my own greens at Thanksgiving (or a carefully camouflaged frozen version, if needed). How is that for productivity?