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6 Tips to maintain focus writing long reports

How to be deliberate with your time, tasks and energy to successfully complete a dreary task
Stefan van Tilborg
Stefan van Tilborg
Apr 19, 2022
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Most, if not all, internships require you to write a report. My experience is that they need to be quite detailed, and this usually leads to a big report. Personally I don’t like reading huge chunks of text, so writing one was going to be a challenge. I thought a lot about how to go about this, and I asked a lot of tips and feedback so I could keep improving the process. Here are some tips from my experience!

1. Build a structure up front

When writing anything at all, it’s important to know what you have already written. It doesn’t matter if it’s a text message, an email or a big report. Though it gets harder if the chunk of text gets bigger. My report ended up containing over 70 pages, and it’s impossible to read all of it every time before working on it.

Before you start writing, you need to know what you’re going to write and where you want to put it. Ask your school what they expect from you or ask for examples. In my case, they wanted the structure of the report to reflect the steps in the software development lifecycle. Having a structure makes you really think about where to put information, this makes you remember what you wrote.

Software development lifecycle

2. Keep regular notes

Chances are you won’t have a structure ready at the start of your internship. It’s probably tempting to start writing it anyway, you want to write down what you did. But it takes some time to decide what goes where, and constantly moving or re-writing everything you have so far is extremely time consuming (don’t ask me how I know 😝).

To avoid this struggle, don’t write your report until you have this structure. You should keep notes though. Time passes by really fast, and you’ll definitely forget what you did. I started using Obsidian to organize my notes. Every Friday, on my way home, I wrote what I did that week, and it surprised me how hard it was to recall what I actually did.

3. Write first, edit later

At some point you’ll have your structure ready. You want to process your notes into the structure that you just made, but refactoring every piece of information takes a lot of time. It’s hard to write every piece of information in its final form right away, and even if you do, you will most likely edit it again anyway.

The way you write something down usually depends on the context, the text that is around it. But the information usually stays the same. It’s a waste of time to keep your style of writing because everything around it has changed. So to start off, just write down the information and don’t pay attention to style or even grammar. When you feel like the information for a part is done, you can re-write the information and make it look good.

4. Block your calendar

I prefer programming over writing reports, maybe you prefer other work over reports as well. Maybe you don’t even like writing reports at all (I don’t). I thought it was hard to stay focussed on writing my report when there is also programming work I can do. I would plan to work on my report for a couple hours, and not be productive because I really wanted to do something I liked better again.

So maintaining focus while doing something boring is really difficult when you have something fun planned later on. The easiest solution to this is to not plan something fun. Reserve an entire week for your report and don’t do anything else until at least the end of your work day. I even ended up working 08-23 for a couple days because I really wanted it done (find out how in chapter 6), but 09-17 is perfectly fine. The point was accepting that I wouldn’t be doing anything other than writing the report all week.

5. Build a ritual

Focus isn’t something you can just ‘turn on’, for most people at least. Studies show it even takes 23 minutes to regain it after getting distracted! While you’re trying to focus, the risk of getting distracted is the highest. It’s easy to give up when getting focussed takes too long, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all.

Getting focussed is something you have to get used to. The first couple times are difficult, but it becomes easier with time. Things you enjoy doing don’t count, it doesn’t really take effort to focus on those. Building a ritual that you do every time before focussing helps getting used to it. Clear your desk, light a candle, put on good lighting and maybe turn on some music. After a couple times your body remembers that you always get focussed after doing those things, and it gets used to it.

6. Maintain your energy

It might be tempting to work the whole day and only stop for a lunch break, finish it all at once so that you’re done sooner. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. In order to be focussed you need energy, and that means taking a break regularly.

There are several approaches to taking breaks. You can set a pomodoro timer, which worked exceptionally well for me, but it’s good to try different things. If you still lose your focus before you should take a break, you shouldn’t keep trying to regain it. Accept the fact that you’re distracted, go for a little walk and try again. Side note: don’t spend your break doing something that keeps you thinking while working, a walk works really well.

Bonus tip!

I usually feel more productive while working in the office. Hard working coworkers create a positive work environment, which in my case stimulates me to keep working hard too. It helps me the most when I’m stuck, because that’s when I need my motivation the most.

With corona, working at home became pretty normal. With my report this was nice, I could get up and start working on it right away instead of travelling 1,5+ hours to the office. While working from home, I stumbled across ‘study with me’ videos. These are videos of someone who records himself while he is studying, sometimes with a pomodoro timer and usually with some chill music.

My favorite videos are from a youtube channel called StudyMD. This is a medical degree student who does a lot of studying. I always thought to myself ‘if he can study for that long, I should be able to write my report too’. I really like his choice of music because it’s sounds chill but doesn’t distract me. Click here to watch one of his videos.


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