If you struggle to sit through a class or complete a homework assignment without wanting to check your phone every few minutes, this lesson can help.
Do you get distracted easily? When you have a homework assignment to complete, a book to read, an instrument to practice or a room to clean, is it easy for you to stay focused and do it, or does your mind drift and wander? Do you quickly begin to daydream, check your social media feed or think about what you want to eat? Are you distracted by constant dings and pings from your phone? In short, do you find yourself thinking about everything but the task at hand?
If you answered yes, you’re not alone. As Dana G. Smith writes in today’s featured article, “Smartphones, pings and Insta-everything have shortened our attention spans.” In this lesson, you’ll learn how to get some old-school concentration back with tips from experts.
The article you are about to read refers to a 2004 study which found that people averaged two and a half minutes on any given task before switching to something else. By 2012, the average time had dropped to 75 seconds. Now, we spend about 47 seconds on a task, on average.
Discuss with a partner: Do these findings surprise you? Or do they resonate with your experience of trying to concentrate? What do you think could explain the shortening of our attention spans?
How long do you think you can focus on something before you get distracted? Test it out: Grab a stopwatch and start reading the featured article. How long can you read before your mind starts to wander, you get interrupted by a ding on your phone or your brain simply needs a break? Can you beat 47 seconds? If you could, how easy or difficult was that experience for you? What ultimately broke your concentration? Share what you noticed with your partner.
Do you think you need to work on improving your concentration? If you were to try this again, what tips or tricks might you use to help stay focused?
Questions for Writing and Discussion
1. What does the study done by Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, show us about attention spans today?
2. What are three things, according to the article, that cause us to get distracted and grab our phones? Which of these, if any, do you tend to experience when you are trying to focus?
3. Turning off notifications is often suggested as a way to reduce distractions. Why won’t this on its own solve the problem of distraction?
4. The article offers three ways we can improve our focus. What are they? Which one sounds most useful for you and why?
5. Dr. Mark and Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, both favor taking tech breaks over going cold turkey and giving up technology altogether. Why? Have you ever tried to give up technology for an hour, a day or longer? How did it go for you?
6. Maryanne Wolf, a professor in residence at the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, says reading on paper is better than reading on a screen. Why would that be? How often do you read on paper? Do you think it could help you focus? Why or why not?
Choose one of the strategies for improving focus recommended in the article and try it out. For example:
The next time you attempt a task you have trouble focusing on — such as doing your homework, practicing the piano or cleaning your room — instead of checking your phone whenever you feel like it, try focusing for 15 minutes and then giving yourself a two-minute tech break. Repeat until you finish the task.
Or, try to increase your self-awareness around your tech use while doing this task. As the article says, “When you have an urge to open Instagram, for example, ask yourself why: Do you feel exhausted and need a break? Will this help restore you? If so, go for it. After a few minutes, check in again and ask if the app is still giving you value. If not, it’s time to get back to work.”
A third option: Try deep reading on paper. Open a physical book (start with something you want to read for pleasure), set an alarm for 20 minutes, put your phone on silent mode, and make yourself read slowly and deliberately.
After you’ve tried out one of these strategies, reflect on how it went for you using the following prompts. You might share your experiences with your classmates.
How easy or difficult was it to sustain your attention using this strategy? Were you able to focus better than you usually do? What challenges did you encounter?
When you did get distracted, what do you think caused it? Did a notification on your phone interrupt you? Did you self-interrupt? Did your brain just need a break? What does this tell you about yourself, and what might help you to stay focused next time?
As Dr. Mark notes, improving your concentration takes practice. Do you think you will continue using this strategy when you need to focus? Why or why not? How do you think increasing your attention span could improve your life?