Now that you’re working more from home, do you find yourself distracted or scattered? Are you struggling to focus and finish a task?
Your brain’s attentional system is being exposed to new challenges, both visible (looming house projects) and invisible (a global virus). With the right tools, you CAN foster skills to lock-in your attention and be highly productive. Here is what every educator working from home needs to know…
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Contrary to popular opinion, your brain does NOT pay attention to every sensory input in your environment. That would be overwhelming. Instead, it selects the important pieces of information at the expense of less relevant ones (Stemmann & Freiwald, 2019). The challenge comes when you and your brain disagree on what constitutes “important information” to pay attention to.
Start with how you can optimize your attentional capacity, given your current circumstances of working from home.
Attention is the brain’s ability to do three things. 1) Disengage from other tasks, 2) Re-engage in the task at hand, and 3) Suppress outside distractions (Fortenbaugh, DeGutis, & Esterman, 2017). Mastering this skill will help you be more focused and productive as you work from home.
Our topic for t is guaranteed to be highly relevant to you during this new time in our world and, as always, backed by robust research.
The first critical distinction to make, your brain has two types of attention. These are: a) reflexive and b) learned (or self-regulated).
Your reflexive attentional system responds impulsively to environmental changes in sounds, movement, lighting, emotions, or tactile input (Horstmann, 2015). For example, the sound of sirens reflexively interrupts your thoughts and redirects them to whatever prompted the siren.
Learned attention is what is required for most school-based learning. This form of attention requires the brain to suppress irrelevant input (Gaspelin, Leonard, & Luck, 2017). This allows your brain to focus on the task of lesson planning or learning a new tech tool. For your students, this would be used when doing a math problem, reading a book, writing a paragraph, or playing a musical instrument.
Why is this a critical distinction?
Your reflexive attentional system is hard-wired in your DNA. It is here to stay. You have greater control and influence over your learned attentional system.
The science of optimizing your attentional capacity includes three approaches:
– Reducing distractions in the environment
– Making tasks more appealing to your brain’s attentional system
– Expanding your attention span
Let’s begin with the evidence first. Then, we’ll get to the practical applications.
1. Environment (Reduce Interference)
Distractions in the environment can interfere with the brain’s ability to maintain attention on a goal-oriented task (Janowich, Mishra, & Gazzaley, 2015). Working memory can become overloaded by environmental stimuli. The ‘working memory’ brain system is responsible for holding and manipulating what you are paying attention to at the moment. An overwhelmed working memory is called ‘cognitive load’ and impairs attention (Paas & Ayres, 2014).
Your brain is paying attention to more things in your physical environment than you might be aware of (Norman, Heywood, & Kentridge, 2013). Being “aware” that something is there is distinctly different from paying attention to it.
Keep reading to discover ways you can create a work environment with minimal distractions to keep you healthy, focused, and productive.
2. Cognitive Bias (Orchestrate Attentional Bias)
The brain does not give equal attention to all inputs – the attentional systems are biased. The brain’s attentional systems are biased toward stimuli/tasks that are engaging, relevant, and rewarding (Fortenbaugh, DeGutis, & Esterman, 2017). The brainpower needed to focus, process, and avoid distractions can be extended with smarter tools. For example, most of us can watch a 2-hour movie or read a book for 2 hours IF the story is compelling. What decreases for many is the perceived value of staying engaged and the eventual reward.
When the brain perceives a task is highly engaging, it can focus on the goal for extensive amounts of time. At optimal levels, this state is referred to as being in flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2020).
The brain thrives on relevancy. When pursuing something meaningful, the brain’s attentional systems will naturally suppress distractions and give extra focus to a relevant task (Stemmann & Freiwald, 2019).
What we pay attention to is driven by rewards. The brain craves rewards (regulated by the dopamine reward system). When the reward is appealing enough, the brain will exert extra resources in pursuit of the reward (Anderson, 2019).
We will look at how to use these three biases in your favor below.
3. Lifestyle (Boost Your Attentional System)
There are evidence-based habits that can expand and enhance your attentional capacity. Exercise, for example, enhances circulation (Nyberg, Gliemann, & Hellsten, 2015), regulates heart rate and norepinephrine (Yang et al., 2016), and releases dopamine (Heijnen, Hommel, Kibele, & Colzato, 2016). All of these enhance working memory and thus improve attention.
Mindfulness practices also improve attention (Norris, Creem, Hendler, & Kober, 2018). How? Mindfulness practice is an exercise in training your mind to focus on a single task. Training your brain’s pathways with a mindfulness activity strengthens your ability to focus when you sit down for a work task.
You (and your students) are often exposed to cues that trigger the brain’s reflexive attentional responses. This can put excess strain on the brain to suppress those irrelevant triggers. If you’re struggling to “get in the self-regulated (vs. reflexive) zone” at home, try these tools:
1. Upgrade Your Environment
Take a few minutes to evaluate your new make-shift workspace at home. What’s making it easier for you to focus on work projects, and what is distracting you?
- If half of your classroom is now in your home, take a few minutes to give things a new “home.” Remove unnecessary clutter from your workspace. Seeing it stacked in piles next to your computer is a distractor to your brain. Put it in a closet, put a sheet over it, or shove it under a bed for now. Your Pinterest days are on pause. Just get functional, so you can focus on the work in front of you.
- Use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to block out new sounds in your workspace. It could be your neighbor’s live concert, your partner’s conference call, or your children fighting over the remote control.
- Turn off notifications on your computer and phone while you are working. Leave your phone in a different room while you finish your virtual lesson planning. Allow yourself a 5-10 minute binge once you complete the task at hand.
2. Create Cognitive Bias
Since the brain gives more considerable attention to tasks it finds engaging, relevant, and rewarding, use these same three filters to artificially create a cognitive bias toward your work tasks. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Start your work time with something you are excited about, or is naturally engaging for you. Maybe it’s reaching out to your students or a colleague. Or perhaps it is deciding what interesting/engaging question you’ll open your next Google Classroom meeting with. Start with high levels of engagement and ride that wave as long as it lasts.
- Before you begin a task, remind yourself WHY it is important. Say out loud: “This will help my students feel connected.” Or, “Getting this done tonight will help me sleep better.” Or, “It is important to me that my staff hear encouraging words from me regularly.”
- Build-in rewards for yourself. “Once I get this done, I’ll watch another episode of Tiger King.” Or, “When I finish I’ll take a 15-minute power nap.” Think of something special you can only do during a teaching day from home and turn it into a reward.
3. Train your Mind to Focus
If your mind is constantly wandering in a dozen different directions, consider taking your attentional systems to the “gym” with one of these workouts to expand and focus your mind:
- Begin each work session with a one-minute mindfulness practice. Find a quiet(er) space at home, maybe on a patio or backyard (or simply looking outside). Set a timer on your phone for one minute and just breathe. Every time your thoughts wander, bring them back to your breath.
- Do a quick exercise routine before jumping into a work project. Go for a walk around the block or follow an online workout routine.
- A rested brain is a more focused brain. STOP scrolling through every update on the virus, or every new tech tool being thrown your way. You will be a better teacher, leader, partner, and parent if you are rested. Aim for 7-9 hours a night. A small dose of Melatonin can help calm your worried and busy brain so you can get the rest you need.
We understand that everyone is in a unique situation working from home, with many differing factors. Consider the three avenues above that impact your attention. Choose a strategy you can implement today to lock-in on a task. When a new distraction comes along, identify another strategy from above to reactivate your focus. Mastering these skills will be of tremendous benefit to you now and in the future.