Students, especially those struggling with learning differences, hear the phrase “just focus” far too often. This is the academic equivalent to telling a suddenly broken-down car to “just drive.” Perhaps, the car is out of gas. Maybe the transmission broke. It could even have a flat tire. In any case, telling the car to “just drive” is at best meaningless and at worst counter-productive.
Yet, we try this approach with students all the time. Instead of focusing on the root causes and their solutions, we rely on motivational platitudes like “just focus.” Students of all ages and abilities struggle with attention. It’s an incredibly elusive substance. However, we can improve focus with three simple principles: elimination, quantification, and simplification.
To say yes to one thing, students must say no to many things. That’s easier said than done, however. Most of us struggle with decision-making more than we struggle with focus. The myth of multi-tasking is all too alluring, drawing us into a world of partial attention.
Therefore, the first step to boosting productivity is to say yes to one thing and say no to many things. For example, a student should say yes to algebra homework and say no to Netflix, Snapchat, text messaging, playing with the dog, etc. By eliminating distractions, our odds of staying focused sky-rocket. One of the best ways for students to do this is to combine a timer with written intentions. For instance, a student could set a timer for thirty minutes and write the following intention: “for the next thirty minutes, I work exclusively on an outline of my English essay.” We’ll improve on this in the next section.
As discussed in a prior post, a student in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force. Building and keeping momentum is critical to maintaining focus. One of the best ways to do this is to use lag measures to boost focus by clarifying progress. Let’s break that process down.
Lag measures are simply result-based goals. They tell you when you have achieved a goal. By tracking these kinds of goals and building our study blocks around them, we can have obvious, measurable progress. Focus often fades because of a lack of feedback because the brain has a natural desire to know if it’s making progress. Increase apparent progress increases focus. So, set goals for pages instead of time when reading. Design math practice around the number of correct problems instead of aimless “reviewing.”
One thing I say to students often is, “If it’s not worth full screening, it’s not worth doing.” Students (and humans in general) love to split-screen. The lure of increased productivity and the myth of multi-tasking are the two biggest culprits of stolen attention in schools, workplaces, and everything in between. Encourage students to simplify the act of focusing by eliminating visual stimuli.
If a student can see an icon on your screen, then he or she will be reminded to click on it occasionally. However, if you remove the visual cue, the urge to be distracted subsides. In other words, if you are writing an English essay, google docs should take up the entire screen. If you are reading a PDF, it should fill the whole screen. And yes, if you are watching Netflix, it should also be in full-screen mode. In this manner, we train ourselves to become “single-taskers”… so we can “just focus” with ease and consistency.
Eliminate, quantify, and simplify. That’s it. By focusing on root causes and root solutions, we can increase our focus and unleash limitless academic potential.