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Distracted Minds: How to Fix Your Attention Shortage

It’s not just our students who have trouble paying attention. Sometimes faculty members need help focusing on our work, too.

I write these words under conditions that Cal Newport would describe as conducive to producing “deep work” — I am alone in my home office, in the middle of an hour I have scheduled for writing. The only open tab on my laptop is my word program. If I need a break, I get up and pace or make another cup of tea, but I don’t allow myself to get sucked into social media, housework, or anything else that would derail my attention.

A computer scientist at Georgetown University, Newport has built a writing career on the back of his ideas on work and productivity. In his best-known book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport argues that we need to schedule time away from distractions and create conditions to bring the full power of our minds to our most meaningful work. After reading his book I began creating those conditions in my own workday, and the result has been a stronger sense of control over my easily distractible brain.

For the past five months, I have been writing a series on distracted minds in the college classroom. I’ve offered tips on how to design courses and teach them in ways that cultivate students’ attention, drawn from my recent book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. But when I present these ideas at online workshops and conferences, I eventually get some version of the same question: My students aren’t the only ones having trouble focusing. How can I use these ideas to help improve my own attention?

Although I don’t explicitly answer that question in my book, it has never been far from my mind. Writing about the importance of attention in education naturally made me reflect upon its role in my life, and develop some practices that have created not only better work habits, but also a greater sense of well-being and peace during this difficult academic year. In this final column of the series, I want to share three books that have been important in helping me pay attention and avoid distraction as I work.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. First up is Newport’s 2016 book, from which I pulled one really helpful idea: the importance of scheduled writing sessions in an environment as free from distractions as possible. I try to have one of these deep-work sessions every workday, even if it lasts only 30 minutes.

I go into each session with clear intentions and usually find I achieve more than I had anticipated. If I am able to keep the distractions at bay, I can draft 500 to 1,000 words in an hour. To achieve that same level of productivity with email and Twitter open in the background might take me double that time, or more.

In addition to the boon these sessions have been to my word counts, they have also boosted my sense of accomplishment and satisfaction afterward. Writing time has always felt sacred to me, no matter how few words I actually put on the page. With Newport’s advice, more of my workdays have felt sacred.

My first recommendation for cultivating your own attention, then, is to carve out deep-work sessions in your own life. You can find plenty of ideas in his book for how to do so, but the two keys for me have been space and schedule. I make sure my deep-work sessions are always done in the same place, and I make sure I have scheduled them at least a day in advance. At the end of every workday, I know when my next deep-work time will happen.

In Praise of Walking. My second recommendation represents a turn in an entirely different direction — getting you away from your deep-work desk and out into the street — but it has equally powerful potential to bring greater attention and well-being into your life, and most of us already do it every day: walking. This time inspiration came from Shane O’Mara and his new book, In Praise of Walking, a compact overview of the vast array of benefits from regularly going out for a walk.

“Walking is holistic,” he writes in the book’s introduction, and “every aspect of it aids every aspect of one’s being.”

O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, brings an impressive array of research in support of that claim, citing books and journal articles in neuroscience, medicine, biology, anthropology, and more. He details the benefits of walking for physical and emotional health, and offers fascinating descriptions of the many parts of the brain and the body that contribute to the seemingly simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.

I read O’Mara’s book in the fall of 2020, when the pandemic and the elections were weighing heavily on my mind. I was hardly writing anything; my mind was so distracted by the imminent dangers to our global health and politics. When I finished O’Mara’s book, I made a resolution to take a walk every day, and I have mostly kept it. Over the course of the chaos of late 2020 and early 2021, those walks have gradually recharged my attention and my writing.

O’Mara’s chapter on the connection between walking and creative thinking especially drew my attention. “Walking boosts creativity and problem-solving in a variety of unexpected ways,” he writes. In activating various parts of our brains, it facilitates the “flickering between different states of mind … that makes creative cognition most possible.” Walking can be a time when, he says, “odd but creative associations might arise across differing parts of the brain’s semantic networks that process memory and meaning.”

O’Mara cites many writers and thinkers who have praised walking, including this gem from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

As Kierkegaard’s quote suggests, not only does walking improve our physical and mental health, but it seems to channel our distractible minds in productive ways, sparking new solutions to familiar problems. My second tip, echoing Kierkegaard and O’Mara: If you can, get walking.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. If you take those walks in your neighborhood, you might find yourself noticing people, places, and things that escaped your attention as you drove by them in your car on attentional autopilot. But the more you turn your attention to your immediate surroundings, the more you will find yourself feeling grounded and able to promote positive change in the world — at least that’s the argument of the final book I am recommending, by Jenny Odell.

How to Do Nothing offers a philosophical tour through the challenges of attention in a capitalist economy that constantly seeks to direct us toward working and buying. She invites readers to consider how they can “learn to wield attention in a more intentional way.” In support of this idea, she advocates “bioregionalism” — that is, paying greater attention to our local environment and working together to steward it with care for the common good.

Odell (unlike Newport) does not urge readers to reject or ignore our social-media accounts. She is an artist and writer whose work frequently engages with technology, and she has an active Twitter account. But she does suggest that too many of us spend too much time online cultivating connections that are typically much weaker than the ones we form in person. I have met lots of great people on Twitter from around the globe, but they are not the people who will sit with me over coffee when tragedy strikes, or work with me to improve the local school district.

When we take the time to move around and feel connected and committed to the places we live, we are cultivating strong bonds that not only increase our own well-being but may also lead to the kind of activism that produces visible and positive change. When I began walking, it didn’t take me long to discover hiking trails in a conservation land near me. That led me to check into the organization, seek out other parcels of land it had preserved, and donate money to its cause.

From Odell, I learned to redirect some of my attention away from the weak ties created through my screen and toward the plants, animals, and people around me. Even in the midst of the pandemic, I have found, we can identify local people and causes that need support and would benefit from our attention.

None of my three simple recommendations would require you to make drastic changes in your life. Put yourself in deep-work conditions for 30 minutes a day or more, walk for 30 minutes a day, and find something in your neighborhood, campus, or town that could use your attention. Such small shifts in your routine may be just enough to push you into a state of deeper attention — a state from which you can be a more effective teacher, a more productive writer, and a happier human.

James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. His new book is Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, published by Basic Books in October. He also is the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. His Twitter handle is @LangOnCourse.