I used to play a lot of tennis. I wasn’t very good, but I could hit the ball. Kind of. Sometimes I’d hit it with the frame of the racket, which usually resulted in the ball careening over the fence and getting lost in the nearby bushes. Or I’d hit it with the strings at the very edge of the racket, spinning the racket in my hand and bouncing the ball straight into in the net. Every now and then, I’d even hit it with the handle of the racket, which is a real accomplishment. But every once in a long while, I’d hit it dead center, flinging the ball back at my opponent with incredible force and just the right amount of spin. For one moment, I’d feel like Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. I’d found it: the sweet spot.
When you hit the sweet spot, you get things done.
Every student needs a sweet spot: that place where you just get things done. They’re hard to explain and they’re different for everyone. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few: a local diner, a spare bedroom, a coffee shop, and even an airplane. Right now, my sweet spot is my backyard. My wife bought some sweet Adirondack chairs, it’s far enough from the house that I don’t have wifi, so it’s perfect as a distraction-free workplace, and the weather has been fabulous. Of course, that’s not going to work long-term, so I’ll need to come up with something else soon. The point is: sweet spots come in all different flavors. Don’t assume that it’s an office or a library somewhere. If that works for you, terrific. If not, find something else.
This post is part of our Back to School series, exploring a variety of things we can do to get the new school year started right. In the last post, we talked about the importance of getting off to a good start. And now we’re discussing the first of several things you can do to make that happen.
Since the sweet spot is different for everyone, I can’t tell you where to find yours. But I can offer a few tips for the search. So here you go.
4 Keys for Finding Your Sweet Spot
1. Eliminate Distractions
I remember a scene in The Replacements where a bunch of football players got distracted by the opposing team’s cheerleaders. It wasn’t pretty.
You can’t hit your sweet spot if part of your mind is busy watching TV, listening to the people next to you, or checking out the guy/girl next to you. Your sweet spot needs to help you concentrate.
So figure out what distracts you. I often have a hard time studying at home because I distracted by the various chores I have not yet completed. Although I like crowded coffee shops, I find quieter coffee shops distracting. That sounds counter-intuitive, but for me the voices in a crowded coffee shop just produce a comforting background buzz, while the voices in a quieter coffee shop are more distinct and distracting. Whatever it is, figure out what distracts you and why.
Once you’ve identified the distractions, either find a sweet spot that lacks those distractions or figure out some way to minimize/eliminate them. And be ruthless. I dealt with the distraction of chores by telling myself and my family that I wouldn’t do any household chores before a certain time when I’m working from home. That worked for me; you’ll have to come up with something else. Whatever it takes, eliminate distractions.
2. Create the Right Environment
At first glance, this might sound like a repeat of the first tip. That’s because most people think that eliminating distractions is the same thing as creating a good working environment. That’s a start, but I think there’s more.
My sweet spots have always had an aesthetic component. The diner I studied in as an undergrad wasn’t terribly attractive, but it exuded down-home comfort. The coffee shop that maintained me through seminary had a more hipster vibe, but its wood tones and quirky, political posters worked for me. As I look around me now, I realize that even my backyard works largely because of its aesthetics: the green bushes, chirping insects, light breeze, and blue sky.
I used to think that I could study anywhere. And that’s true. But I now realize that I learn better surrounded by beauty. And beauty includes all the senses. So figure out the sights, sounds, and even smells that work best for you. Create a beautiful learning environment and I think you’ll be surprised at how much learning you do.
3. Keep Your Tools at Hand
A tennis player can’t hit their sweet spot without a racket, and neither can a student hit their sweet spot without their tools: computer, books, articles, etc. So your sweet spot needs to give you access to the necessary tools.
This actually creates a bit of a problem. For most students, the internet is a necessary tool. I’d never even try to write a paper these days without access to the internet. But, at the same time, everyone knows that the internet is one of the biggest distractions around. So how do you keep that tool at hand while still eliminating distractions from your sweet spot? That’s tough.
My solution has been to create at least two sweet spots: one for research and one for writing. My research sweet spot is my office at school. That’s where I have access to most of my books, the school library, and the wealth of resources on the internet. When I’m at school, I’m in research mode: accessing all the information that I can and taking quality notes for later use.
I have a separate sweet spot for writing: the aforementioned backyard. Free from that distracting internet, I can focus on sifting through my notes and pulling my thoughts together into a coherent argument.
I realize, though, that I’m pretty spoiled in having two sweet spots at the moment. Until now, I’ve had to make do with one. And, when that was the case, I had to figure out how to let the internet be a tool without becoming a distraction. And, although I’m always open to suggestions, I’ve used two solutions. Option one: turn the internet off. If you don’t need it, get rid of it. It’s not that hard on most computers, and it makes a big difference. But, if that’s not an option for some reason, you can also download software that will block the most distracting websites [LINKS], whatever that might be for you. I don’t care what it takes. There are ways to keep the internet as a tool without letting it become a problem; figure them out.
4. Make It Accessible
I’ll be talking about this more in the next post, but your sweet spot needs to be something you can get to on a regular basis. It’s great if your grandparents have a cabin in the mountains, but if you can only get there a few times a year, that’s not terribly helpful.
This can also be a problem with my coffee shop solutions from the past. For some odd reason, coffee shops usually prefer you to purchase coffee while you’re there. And that adds up after a while. Although I think a sweet spot is important, please do not accrue debt to make it happen. As I mentioned in an earlier post, debt negatively impacts learning. So taking on debt to create a sweet spot is counterproductive. If you can’t afford a particular sweet spot, find another one. Sweet spots aren’t like soul mates, you can always find another.
[This post is part of our Back to School series, exploring a variety of things we can do to get the new school year started right. Follow along and let us know what you think.]