I’ll start by saying that I am guilty. 😅
Whenever my phone is around, I am tempted to start looking at something. I don’t even know what I’m looking for, but I want to find something that is interesting. However, you know how this goes, once you start, you cannot stop.
We are distracted because we have easily distractible minds, paying attention is difficult, and technology complicates it all even further. 😌
A study published in 2013 observed more than 250 students at multiple levels of education, from middle school through college, studying in fifteen-minute time blocks. On average, across all levels, students spent around six minutes focused on the material before they switched tasks, usually turning to social media or texting. 🤳
With the help of cameras and eye-tracking devices, researchers found that students engaged with their digital distractions more than 35 times during that three-hour period. This meant that they, similar to their counterparts in the first study, were distracting themselves every five for six minutes.
👉 Studies such as these document only the external distractions of students and, unfortunately, don’t take into account the number of times the students’ minds might have wandered without the help of their phones and laptops.
💁 Picture sixty business students in a college accounting class. Upon entering the class, the students received written instructions either to turn off their phones for the duration of the period or to send three text messages. At the end of the class period, all of the students were given a twenty-question multiple-choice quiz on the material from the lecture.
👀 The ones who had their phones off averaged around 58 percent on that quiz; the ones who texted averaged around 42 percent. The significance of this difference existed even when students’ GPAs were taken into consideration; both high-GPA and low-GPA students performed worse if they texted during class. This study was in 2010, so this was a bit before the widespread use of cellphone’s daily.
Here is some research published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.
💁 Students in two sections of a psychology course at a university were given open access to their phones and laptops during half of the class sessions and were then restricted access during the other half. The class was taught through interactive lectures with content presentation alternating with opportunities for students to answer questions on their devices through electronic polling.
👀 The researchers found that access to devices made a significant difference at the end of the semester: on the final exam, the students scored around half a letter grade better on material from the restricted access days of the class than they did on the open-access days. A secondary, and equally important, finding was that this difference persisted even for students who reported in surveys that they had not used their devices on the open-access days. In other words, even when students did not succumb to digital distractions, their learning was still harmed by distracted peers around them. ✌️
Basically, having access to digital devices during a lecture harms everyone – both the student who is using the device and those around who watch him/her use the device. No one wins.
In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen invite us to think of the early human. Our ancestors had to continuously look for food sources, such as water and shelter, while avoiding danger including predators.
However, our ancestors were better if s/he were not too focused. That’s right, they needed to remain open to potential surprises in the environment, including anything that may hurt them or help them. Think about it, it makes sense, right? While it was important to focus on gathering water, our ancestors needed to continuously scan for danger. The distracted mind was a way of survival. 👁
If you have a dog, you may see similar instincts. My friend’s big furry lab loves to eat so he is focused when food is ready. He follows his owner carefully with respect, wagging his tail because he knows that soon he will be fed. 👆 During his delightful mealtime, if an Amazon package gets delivered and he hears a loud dropping noise, he will immediately step away from his food and get ready for “combat” or to “hide” depending on what he perceives the threat to be.
The problem we face today is that we have an ancient brain in a modern world. Even if our survival is not threatened anymore, we seek new information. We keep flipping through internet sites because we are scanning for something “meaningful”. 😉
Having described all of the problems is only the beginning for us. The goal of this article, and everything we do at WakeUp Memory is to find solutions that are attainable. So here are a few things that I would like to suggest:
1. Put away the other devices that you are not using. 😉
If you are taking an online course, turn off your cell phone and your tablet. Even better, hide them in the other room in a drawer that has a key. I am not kidding you, even as an expert in learning, I do this myself every day. Consciously knowing that I can be distracted is enough to create a distraction and, sometimes, our will is not strong enough when faced with the genius designs of electronics that are tempting us every second. Try to focus for only a short amount of time, let’s say 30 minutes, and see if you can resist the temptation of being away from your devices.
2. Avoid long lectures, opt-in for short format lectures. 🙃
If you find it hard to not touch your phone for 30 minutes, you can only imagine what will happen if you are sitting in a classroom for hours and hours. After the first hour, most students’ attention span would be completely gone. Again, don’t blame yourself too much for that, that’s how we are made. Just try to work with what we know in science, that our brain is designed to be interested in other things, and in that, attention continuously needs to be cultivated. If you have two options: studying for 8 hours for a stretched period of time in one day or studying for short bursts over a span of 12 hours, it would be much better to do short bursts.
When you are designing your study days or your lectures, keep this in mind. By theory, it looks like we could cram eight straight hours of work, but in reality, studying is a very demanding process, and you will burn your energy faster than you can replenish it to consciously deter distraction.
3. Use the app called Pomy if you are using your computer!
I stumbled upon this free app, or technically it is an extension. Just type it into your search engine and you will find it very easily (and it is completely free!). The extension works by counting to 20 minutes, then, for 20 seconds, your screen will be blurred. 🙃
This has two positive effects on me: One, I make sure that I can focus for 20 minutes. If I know I clicked on a different tab or started to shop online, I just feel bad about myself. So the goal is just to stay focused for 20 minutes. Not too difficult right? Second, for 20 seconds when your screen is blurred, you are supposed to look 2 feet away. This gives your eyes a chance to relax instead of being glued to the screen that is right in front of you. You will also find yourself breathing better during that 20 seconds. 😊
4. Block sites from your browser 😊
There are many extensions and apps that can help you block websites. For example, the athletic wear company lululemon is one of my weaknesses. So using an extension called StayFocus, I block it for the entire working day. You can put as many sites as you want on the extension and you can also set the duration for which you want them to be blocked. You are actually in control of the entire process, you just need to know what your weaknesses are. Even if you don’t get the extension, this is an excellent start to understanding what the distractions are in your world when the world is at our fingertips.
5. Attention is achievable 🥳
We are all in the same boat. As you have learned already, your brain is trained to be distracted. Distraction was actually a survival mechanism, and extended focus was the enemy of survival. So don’t feel too bad about yourself if you find yourself drifting away and craving other stimuli. Just know that those stimuli will always be there – you have the ability to control a small chunk of your time and cultivate focus.
That’s why I like to keep my milestones small – 30 minutes of deep focus, is all you need. Ask yourself, is it that difficult to achieve attention? 🧠
Once you start finding yourself in a deep focus, something magical will happen within your brain. You will feel like you are in the zone and ready to tackle any challenges that come your way. You just have to start believing that you can.