It is odorless, tasteless, and colorless, but it can kill productivity, motivation, and performance faster than carbon monoxide. Cal Newport, in addition to his day job as a computer science professor, has investigated, via several best-selling books, quirky questions that have engaged his attention since way back in undergrad. While still at university, Newport began work on a series of books about academic success, and even in those volumes, the theme of focus reoccurs regularly, like the cycles of the moon.
In his article called Better Grades in Five Minutes or Less, Newport cautions: “ Don’t work in distracting places…[Students] figure that although their dorm room or the main floor of the library might be a little busy, it probably doesn’t make a huge difference.
They’re wrong! It does make a difference…Complete isolation will help [with] focus. And focus, as it turns out, is crucial. The more you can focus the faster (and better) you can master the material.”
Research organizations like the American Psychology Association and even common sense have shown that distractions derail whatever work task or study is going on. Ever packed for a trip and forgotten something? You and everyone else! The days of lists and checks are over for most people, and, as a result, someone can end up in Rome without sandals, the airport without a passport, and almost anywhere else with at least one crucial item nowhere to be found. That’s because, when we are packing, our minds race through a compendium of required elements that exist cognitively in different parts of the brain. Lists help people track diverse items and account for them one at a time, while packing or performing any complex undertaking. In this age of mentally flitting from screen to screen and device to device, there exists a kind of modern mental arrogance that continues to believe humans can keep track of dozens of things at a time. Not so.
BRAIN-TRAIN TIP #1
Make a list. Just as nothing has been able to replace a gentle touch in terms of comfort, no modern convenience has successfully dislodged the effectiveness of a simple list. As each item necessary for a task is gathered, check it off. Then, make another list for each stage of the task, checking things off as they are completed.
The advice Newport offered to up and coming career wannabes in 2009 is at the core of a productivity and performance crisis in 2016. Distractability (not simply while driving) and a lack of focus while in the pursuit of a chosen or assigned task is the rarely mentioned elephant in offices, classrooms, and even think tanks in the US and abroad.
To break it down, focus results in a sensation of immersion, calls on an expanding web of related synapses, leads to more impressive effort, and, eventually, to an extensive, functional skill set. Through focus, books are written, ideas become manifest, designs are drawn, tasks laid out on a schedule get checked off with surprising regularity, and stress diminishes. FOCUS is a different animal than mere noticing. The proof is in our own experience, in our memory.
Remember sitting on the beach at sunset, staring fixedly at the waves as they rushed to shore and tiptoed back out again. Sometimes you watched one wave from a half mile out, marking its progress from a rounded elevation on the sea, to crest, break, and arrival on the sand with a collar of foam. At other times, your glance encompassed a couple hundred feet of rivulets. There was change and there was sameness. Neither mattered. It was the watching that counted as minutes stretched to quarter hours and you sat, still gazing, still paying attention. Unnoticed, something was occurring inside the brain. The brain responded to the laser singularity of your focus, sliding gradually into a realm of peace and calm. In fact, as moments passed, your consistent exploration of the ocean was soothing the psyche, the body, and the spirit, absorbing its rhythm.
No similar effect will materialize when a car is racing by on the coast road. There is no attention on a single stimulus. Nor will scanning a headline deliver knowledge or understanding of a newspaper article. As a voracious reader, I have lately relearned how a well written book can inhabit the mind. In “real life”, a book sits on the bedside table and is read every night before I go to sleep. Naturally, I experience the story with every page turned, follow the plot and get to know the characters. Each night, when I pick up the book, whatever its title, I scan my mind for reminders of where I left off and what was occurring. However, deep and persistent reading reveals something quite different.
BRAIN-TRAIN TIP #2
Turn it off. By having a cell phone, tablet, or pad available, you send the message to your brain that you are expecting to be interrupted. Even that anticipation of a distraction will impact the quality of your work as researchers have already demonstrated. Turning devices off tells the mind that you are ready to work or study.
David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” says that this “… part of the solution to managing distractions is quite easy in theory, it just takes some courage.[emphasis mine] It’s also not negotiable: there’s no way not to be distracted by distractions, it’s built into the brain in the way we pay attention to novelty.”
BRAIN-TRAIN TIP #3
Reflect on the task to create schema or connections. By contemplating what you are going to do, you awaken the brain to specific ideas and chains of data. Consider how many words, images, and ideas arise just from conjuring the word “birthday”. Like a birthday cake, the brain lights up as it connects a myriad of pieces of prior knowledge. Strangely, a schema can be created even around topics that you don’t know much about. Like a dog sniffing at a tree trunk, the brain goes looking for related material, so active brain work is still happening.
At present, I am on vacation, and I spend hours reading. Several times in the last week I have noticed a specific phenomenon, one familiar from those years when I had lots of time for reading. After immersing myself in a book for a half hour or more, when I look up, or rise for a coffee refill, the aura of the story stays with me. My brain expects to see the books’ characters in the room, the streets they tread within view, the atmosphere tense with whatever is happening on the page. It is an echo, a singular involvement that happens with focus and which doesn’t occur otherwise. To stretch this notion in the direction of a related issue, the intentionality demanded by extensive time with the written word means that people who read a lot have fewer problems applying that same type of attention to other situations and tasks.
BRAIN-TRAIN TIP #4
Face a wall. Our ancient instincts are resistant to facing walls because the position leaves the back unprotected and vulnerable to attack. However, since we are no longer likely to be clubbed from behind, facing a wall eliminates the visual distractions that cross our line of sight or sneak into peripheral vision.
Every artist knows the value of focus. A creative work will not be fully realized without immersion or intense involvement. Yet, our lives are a star-scape of distractions, points of instant disconnect so legion that they rival the limitless sweep of stars on view in the Hubble telescope.
Our brain cannot, repeat, cannot focus effectively on more than one thing at a time. Study after study has demonstrated that work suffers, study lags, quality diminishes, and relationships flounder in the face of distraction. We may wish it wasn’t so, just as we might wish for sunshine on the day of a picnic. It is like putting faith in winning the lottery. No one would ask a brain surgeon to talk on the phone and operate at the same time. Yet, somehow, the belief in multi-tasking persists.
A study done with students at George Mason University illustrates the quantifiable impact of distractions on the quality of work completed under the impediment of reduced focus and distractions. A control group of students was given a standard writing prompt and was not interrupted, so, no distractions. The test group of students, in contrast, was interrupted three times and further distracted by a requirement to do a math problem. All students had the same number of minutes to finish an essay, with the groupus interruptus given more time to account for the minutes spent on math. So, with the exception of a single, familiar element, namely distractions, both groups had equal time to complete the task. Papers were scored 0–6, with 6 equal to 100%. The results based on the quality of the writing? The test group scored an average of a half point less; that is, the equivalent of 8.4% less. The results were replicated in a subsequent experiment.
BRAIN-TRAIN TIP #5
Work in silence or with white noise. As tempting as a playlist of favorite hits might be, rockin’ out to the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Avril Lavigne will not aid in training the brain to focus.
As a writing instructor, I regularly have a pile of paragraphs or essays to both grade and comment on. The faculty office where I work also houses 5–7 other instructors, most either intent on prepping for class, or correcting papers in order to hand them back. Naturally, since we are friendly souls, there is talk, requests for materials, discussions about students, and complaints about workload. Whenever I participate in teacher talk with colleagues, the papers take longer to mark, and frankly, the task becomes tedious. In order to focus, get the work done, and feel connected to the student’s paper, I slip in earbuds and hook up to white noise. Grading is still demanding, but it is not made arduous by the input of verbal chatter that demands decoding. White noise is a brilliant anti-distraction strategy which I may forget on occasion but always return to.
BRAIN-TRAIN TIP #6
If you are interrupted or distracted, even momentarily, do not return to the task immediately. Instead, review what has already been done and reflect upon the next step before restarting.
Learning to focus, to not be a puppet to distraction, is not dissimilar to quitting smoking. The lure to subvert the ultimate goal, to answer the siren call and crash on the rocks, is as strong as habit and even instinct. It will be necessary as you retrain yourself and your brain to return to these tips repeatedly, just as you would with any skill that requires practice.