In the first post of this series, we talked about fighting external distractions from e-learning while you’re staying home to help save lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
Let’s assume you’ve been working on putting all of those suggestions into practice, and maybe even a couple others you’ve picked up along the way. You’re probably making some adjustments, but you’re seeing some improvement. Maybe you’ve actually managed to work out some designated do-not-disturb time with the family, and put the pooch on probation, and found a distraction-blocking app that works for you. But even after all that work, your mind still wanders during your online classes, and thoughts keep interrupting while you’re trying to get work done. These kinds of distractions aren’t external, they’re coming from you. You may find it even more difficult to convince yourself not to interrupt you than it was to convince your family, but it can be done!
These are distractions that have more to do with the way your mind works than anything else. These are the thoughts and ideas that spring up in your head while you’re trying to do something else. You might also hear your teacher say something that reminds you of something else, which leads to another thought and another, and then you realize you’re lost in your lecture. Sometimes these are good “Aha!” moments, but more often than not, they’re unwelcome disruptions. The more you tell yourself, “No, don’t think about that right now,” the more likely you are to keep thinking about it! This is especially true if you’re trying to concentrate on something that’s not particularly interesting to you.
There are many studies out there with conflicting conclusions about how long attention spans last in children, teens, and adults. The number is actually slightly different for everyone because focus acts like a muscle. You can strengthen it with training, and you can weaken it with neglect. Like muscle training, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of training your focus muscles. Running a 6-hour study session just because that’s how long you’re in school? That’s more like running a marathon when you’ve been training in sprints – you’re likely to strain your brain and wind up exhausted without remembering anything you worked on. Work smarter, set yourself the right conditions, engage in regular brain training, and you’ll become a master of focus in due time.
Take a self-inventory
Start by being honest with yourself about your current ability to focus and what kind of environment you need for it. Your focus strength might be higher or lower than some of your peers’ and your ideal environment probably isn’t the same as theirs either.
Identify the ideal environment
Do you work better with complete silence? Get some noise-cancelling headphones, or ask your family to give you plenty of quiet time during your study sessions. Does having some music, whitenoise, or ambient sounds actually help you focus? I don’t have to tell you where to find music, but some of the apps in my last post can provide you with whitenoise or ambient sounds. I am also a big fan of A Soft Murmur, also available on Android and iPhone.
What about visual distractions in your environment? Do you need a clean, decluttered workspace? Or does having a variety of objects and notes lying around boost your creativity? Find or create a space with enough visual stimulation to inspire focus, but not enough to steal attention from your task.
Does fresh air or the feel of the earth make your mind work better? If your home’s WiFi reaches your backyard, you may be able to get some work done under your favorite tree, or you might set up your laptop and books next to a window.
Whatever you need, choose a study space that meets your needs, finding the balance between creating a sense of calm and providing too much distraction.
How do you physically like to study? Do you prefer to sit up straight, stand, or lie on the floor while you do your work? Make sure you’re sitting in ways that you can easily adjust if part of your body starts to get stiff or sore. It’s also important to find positions that promote alertness and comfort, but not total relaxation.
Take some measurements
How many sentences, paragraphs, or pages can you read in one go and still understand what you’ve read? How long can you listen to or watch a video/stream of someone talking and still follow along? How long can you focus on something before your body gets restless? Before your mind begins to wander? Take some measurements of your focus endurance right now, so you know how far you need to go to reach your goals.
Make the choice
When you intentionally choose times to focus and other times to not focus, you give your brain the gift of resilience and growth. Remember that focus is like a muscle. If you use it at whatever strength it happens to be in any given moment without proper conditioning, warm-ups, or recovery periods, you’ll experience serendipitous moments of success and also crushing moments of defeat. On the other hand, if you want to train your focus to get stronger, you need to push it a little bit at a time and give it a chance to recover. Resistance (physically or mentally stressful) periods teach your muscles and your brain that you need more from them. Recovery periods give your muscles and your brain the opportunity to repair and adapt after resistance training.
Condition your brain
When you attach a specific intention to a specific physical action, you send strong signals to the brain about the frame of mind it should be in while you’re doing that action. Watch a professional pitcher as they prepare to throw. You’ll notice that most of them go through a little physical routine before each pitch, which allows them to focus their mind on throwing perfectly. Or think about the classic image of a person meditating, seated with legs crossed, back straight, and hands resting gently on knees. When you give your brain a clear signal in the form of a physical action or activity-appropriate posture and repeat that action or posture every time you do the activity, you condition your brain to switch into the mental state most needed for that activity.
Think of some physical cues you can train into yourself. You might take copious notes to help keep your mind from drifting during an online lesson or discussion. Or you might always sit at a desk or table while you’re doing schoolwork to remind your body of the physical conditioning it’s already received from your many years sitting in classrooms.
If you’re like me and you have trouble sitting still for long periods of time, think about 2-3 different ways of sitting, standing, or laying down that are already comfortable and appropriate for the activity you need to do. Limit yourself to using just the ones which don’t make your foot fall asleep or strain any muscles. As you feel your body get restless, have a brief stretch then move into the next position.
Give yourself a break
Taking many short breaks throughout the day may seem like a waste of time at first, but multiple studies have shown that people who take short breaks wind up more productive in the long run than people who push through without them. Recent research indicates that the ideal work/break rhythm is somewhere between 50-90 minutes of work followed by 15-20 minutes of rest. Keep in mind that if you’re in the zone and enjoying the work you’re doing, you may not need a break just yet. But once you feel your brain draining or your body getting restless, it’s time to stop working.
If you have a short attention-span, trying to focus for 50 minutes straight might actually cause your mental muscles a strain or cramp. So it’s best to start with your current focus time (see the section above on taking a self-inventory), and build up slowly, adding maybe 5 minutes to your work periods, and another 5 once that’s become easier.
What to do with your breaks? Research suggests that going for a walk is the most re-energizing way for your brain to rest up in preparation for another focus block. At the very least you should stand up and stretch, visit the restroom, or grab a snack. Under no circumstances should you check your email, schedule, or to-do list on your break – that’s cheating.
When you’re learning at home, your time is naturally less structured than it is at school. This means you have to provide the structure. This will take a few minutes at the beginning of each day, but it’s well-worth the time. Use this handy daily agenda tool to help you get ready for the day.
This one’s pretty straightforward. Before you log into the virtual classroom or begin a study session, take an inventory of all of your materials and go get what you still need before you dig in. Working on math? Go grab your calculator and some graph paper. Working on English? Make sure you have a copy of the book you’re supposed to be writing about.
Set an intention for the day
Give yourself one main goal for the day and write it down. The intention you set will depend on your overall goals for your life, month, or week. For example, if you’re feeling particularly poorly about being stuck inside, you might want to cultivate some gratitude for the good things you do have, so you could set an intention to “express gratitude to each member of my family today”. If you have a tendency to do those marathon study sessions, you might set an intention to “take a 15-minute break every hour”.
Check in with your intention at the end of each day. If you achieved this goal, pat yourself on the back to reinforce the good habit. If you didn’t achieve this goal, don’t beat yourself up over it. Instead, ask yourself what you might do differently tomorrow so that you can. Maybe you need to set a more realistic goal, or maybe you just need to give yourself another chance.
Get your priorities in order
Make a daily to-do list, and give each item a priority level. This helps you practice taking care of the most important things first instead of engaging in “productive procrastination”. Again, this is where you have to be honest with yourself. If you need to clean your desk off before you can focus, go ahead and prioritize it. But if you’re just avoiding writing a paper you have to turn in at midnight, you might just need to dig in.
The first item on your to-do list should always be to make a to-do list. That way, once you’ve finished your list and your mind is starting to swim with thoughts of “That’s so much more than I thought!” and “How will I ever get through all of this!?”, you’ll be able to check one thing off the list right away and give yourself a little confidence boost.
Oh, and one more thing...multitasking is not a good idea. Lots of people are proud of their ability to multitask, and the truth is that humans have long used our ability to multitask as an emergency survival strategy. But it’s really only good for those times you absolutely have to multitask. Research shows that we get worse at all tasks we’re trying to do, especially complex tasks, when we’re doing more than one at once. Tackle one thing at a time.
Make yourself a priority
When you’re scheduling time for all the things you have to do, make sure to give yourself a little “you” time and a little social time each day. The amount of time you devote to just yourself and to your friends and family will depend on how introverted and extraverted you are, but you need a little bit of both regularly in order to maintain appropriate focus on your schoolwork. Otherwise, you’ll find thoughts or worries about your friends, family, and yourself creeping up on you when you’re supposed to be listening to your teacher’s online lecture.
No matter how extraverted you are, you need to spend some time on yourself to ensure you are giving your best self to your friends. Choose an activity that brings you joy and helps you tune into yourself (not watching TV). You can meditate, do yoga, write, listen to or play music, or play a challenging game (no mindless tapping apps). But, more and more research shows that practicing meditation and/or other mindfulness-building activities significantly improves your focus, memory, stress-resilience, and ability to handle emotionally-charged situations, along with many other benefits.
No matter how introverted you are, humans are social animals and need interactions with other humans for true happiness. But this interaction doesn’t have to be in person, and right now it shouldn’t be. You can get your social fix online using your favorite forums, social media sites, or video chat services.
You have more power than you think
Learning at home is absolutely different from learning at school. It requires more self-discipline. But you’ll need to develop this self-discipline as you approach and enter adulthood anyway. Try to think of this time as an opportunity to get a head start on building your focus muscles and setting healthy working habits that will support a lifetime of success.