Harnessing the Distracted Mind

We use the web for so many different things. We shop, read the news, watch movies, listen to music, talk with friends — often all at the same time. Some people call this multi-tasking. Others don’t call it anything — it’s just second nature that when we sit down with our computers or pull out our phones, we automatically become engaged in multiple streams of activity. Generally, this isn’t a big problem. At least, not until work needs to be done. That’s when it becomes clear that the web is both our friend and our enemy.

Online students (and instructors) are very familiar with this paradox. When we listen to a lecture, there’s always another browser tab beckoning our attention. Just when we’re starting to think of a discussion response, the chat app in the corner of the screen bounces with a new message. You’ve been there. In fact, I highly doubt you’re devoting your full attention to this blog post. Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you. But let’s say you wanted to pay close, undivided attention to these words. Aside from sheer willpower, is there anything you could do to sharpen your focus?

Back in April, the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted a study by Richard W. Patterson that found that digital tools can help online students improve their concentration. Here’s some information about the specific tool Patterson used, as well as a few others that I like.

  • RescueTime (the application Patterson used in his study) is a desktop app that keeps track of how its users spend their time online. If you’ve ever wondered how much time you spend on specific activities (answering email, writing, collaborating, reading Buzzfeed), then you might enjoy this tool. Its free version includes goal-setting features, as well as three months of report history.
  • Strict Workflow is a Chrome app built around the Pomodoro technique. Essentially, it’s a timer that divides work into 25-minute segments, bookended by 5-minute breaks. During each 25-minute work period, the app blocks distracting websites like social networks, blogs, or games.
  • FocusWriter is just one of the many minimalist writing apps that have appeared in the last few years. I like this one because it’s simple, open-sourced, and free. When you open the app, all you’ll see is a blank white page on a wood background. No toolbars, no virtual assistants, no distractions.
  • Noisli, an ambient sound player, has two big advantages. The first is that it can help drown out the noise of one’s physical surroundings. The second advantage, and this is important for work on a computer, is that the right amount of ambient noise has been shown to increase one’s ability to concentrate and think creatively. With Noisli, a user can create one or more sound profiles from a selection of calming audio loops.

Of course, these are all technological solutions for a technological problem, and maybe you don’t want to fight fire with fire. After all, the human brain is still capable of concentrating without the help of an app. Sometimes, the old-fashioned methods are the best. Here are my favorites

  • Pencil-and-paper notes have some pretty clear advantages over digital ones. One is that, with a notebook, you can literally sit back and take your hands away from a computer. Full-screen video lectures offer a good opportunity for this.
  • Just like notebooks, hard-copy textbooks also have advantages that ebooks struggle to match. Paper books are not always as convenient or as cost-effective, and our understanding of the cognitive benefits to reading on paper vs. screen is still emerging. Nevertheless, a paper book can’t distract you with notifications from other apps.
  • One last one: Cal Newport, who writes the Study Hacks blog, recommends a method he calls “concentration circuits.” The basic idea is that, when you find your motivation waning, you should get up and go work somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be a big trip — you could literally move from the couch to the kitchen table, or from the library to a park bench. Some people even assign specific tasks to specific locations. For instance, you might answer email at your desk, plan projects in the office lounge, and write at a coffee shop. The point is that different environments have varying effects on motivation and concentration.

If you’ve read this far, you might not need help in the concentration department. Share your secret in the comments!

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