Are You Easily Distracted?

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Are You Easily Distracted?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 2021.

Think of a task you have to do: perhaps study for a test, practice the guitar, clean your room — or complete this writing prompt.

Is it easy for you to stay focused and concentrate, or does your mind drift and wander? Do you quickly begin to daydream, check your social media feed, think about a snack or the news? Are you distracted by constant dings and alerts from your phone or the sound of your siblings arguing in the background? In short, do you find yourself thinking about everything but the task at hand?

Do you wish you could improve your focus and learn to avoid distractions? If so, you are not alone.

In “You Can Get Focused (Hint: Put Down That Phone),” Caren Osten Gerszberg writes:

The average person’s mind wanders 47 percent of the time, according to a 2010 Harvard study, so nearly half the time you’re doing one thing, you’re thinking about something else. Add the 24-hour news cycle, the barrage of social media and the countless distractions for those working from their bedrooms, backyards and walk-in closets — a number that has more than quadrupled from 8.2 percent in February 2020 to 35.2 percent in May 2020, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas — and it’s no surprise that people are struggling to focus.

“Some would argue that human attention, not money, is the most valuable commodity there is,” said Angela Duckworth, the author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” and the founder and scientific director of Character Lab, a nonprofit that connects researchers with educators. “It’s the ultimate scarce resource.”

Ms. Osten Gerszberg presents several techniques to cultivate and improve focus and to learn to ignore distractions. Here are three excerpts:

Disengage from distractions

For at-home workers struggling with distraction, a recent survey revealed that social media is the leading cause — many reported wasting up to two hours a day — with children coming in second.

You can reduce those distracting dings, tweets and rings coming from your social media feeds, emails and text messages by simply turning off the notifications. That’s right, just turn them off.

If that feels radical, you can attempt turning away from technology using self-control, but as Dr. Duckworth said, “willpower is a limiting resource, it’s unpleasant and we’re not willing to do it for very long, so the best thing to do is create a situation where it’s just harder to be distracted.” In her research on self-control in teenagers, data showed that the farther away students placed their phone while studying, the higher their grades. “If you’re trying to control your attention, don’t just try to do it with willpower,” she said. “You literally need to hack your physical space.”

When your focus wanes and you feel the urge to online shop or grab a game of 2048, there are tech tools to prevent your giving in. The Freedom app blocks websites from your computer and smartphone; Forest has you set a timer encircling the image of a tree; if you pick up your phone before the time is completed, the tree withers and dies.

Exercise

Allotting time for exercise is a proven way to improve focus, memory and productivity. A British study found that workers experienced a 21 percent increase in concentration and a 41 percent increase in motivation on the days they worked out.

Check in with yourself

The state of the world is enough to fog anyone’s brain. “The reason we lose focus most of the time is because we are looking to escape some kind of discomfort, such as stress, anxiety, loneliness or boredom,” said Nir Eyal, the author of the book “Indistractable.” If watching or reading the news increases your anxiety, limit the time you spend doing it. If you feel lonely or disconnected, schedule time in your day to speak with family or friends. If you’re bored, take a break and pursue a new hobby.

Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment — your thoughts, emotions and sensations — whatever is happening. Research has shown that mindfulness practices improve working memory and focus, training the mind to let go of distractions. “The digital world has been engineered for distraction, and with quick hits from social media, we don’t see how unrewarding these distractions are,” said Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and associate professor of psychiatry at the university’s medical school. Dr. Brewer suggests experimenting by leaving on all your phone’s dings and tweets for 20 minutes and asking yourself: “How focused can I get? What does it feel like?” Then turn off all the notification sounds for 20 minutes and ask the same questions.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How well can you concentrate when you have a task to do? Do you find yourself easily distracted?

  • If you struggle with focus and attention, how big a problem is it for you? How does it affect your life and your performance in school? Tell us about a specific time you couldn’t focus on an important task at hand, along with any repercussions. What do you think were the causes of your distraction?

  • If you are able to focus well, does it come naturally to you? Or did you have to work at it? Tell us any strategies that you use to concentrate effectively.

  • What do you think about Ms. Osten Gerszberg’s advice? Which of the strategies that she recommends — like reducing those distracting dings, tweets and rings coming from your social media feeds or placing your phone at a far distance — are you most likely to try? Why? Are there any other strategies you have used to reduce distractions?

  • Dr. Duckworth says, “Some would argue that human attention, not money, is the most valuable commodity there is.” Do you agree? How important is the ability to focus for you? What aspects of your life might be different if you had a greater ability to focus?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.