For teachers and students, there’s a way in which September 1 is our January 1, as far as resolutions and new starts go. And once you get back to class, whether it’s college or high school you won’t have time to think about resolutions. So think about this over the last week of summer: How about making a pledge to study without electronic distraction when school starts? Why would anyone do that? Well:
1. You save time
You may think that having your phone, messaging, FB, Twitter, Snapchat etc., etc., etc., on doesn’t affect your studying but that claim doesn’t make sense. Even if it only takes 30 seconds to hear the notification, open it, look at it, laugh or get upset, respond or forward it, if you do that 20 times (and studies say many high school and college-aged students are actually responding to many more messages and posts per hour) you lose that time. In addition to losing that time, you continue to lose time after each response because it takes time for your brain to pick up where you left off in your work—could be more than 20 minutes. Do it three times and that’s a whole hour!
So that means you’re sitting at that desk longer—explain to me why you’d want to spend more time doing homework if you didn’t have to! Finish earlier and you can actually go somewhere. But you love social media? Fine, but wouldn’t pictures of yourself out doing something be better than posting endless tweets about how you’re stuck at your desk? And, if you’re of the age where your privileges depend on the adults in your life, don’t you think efficient use of your time and being seen to be head down, nose to the book whenever someone glances in is likely to get you more “yes” answers when you ask to go out?
2. Studies suggest your concentration improves
You may think that the consequence of having your study time be hours longer in order to keep your precious precious phone on is worth it. And maybe you are lucky enough that you don’t have a part-time job or other commitments that limit your time so you can spend as much time as you want sitting at that desk. But there are other issues. Maybe you even don’t care that studies have shown that the more distracted you are the more errors you make. As a student, you are trying to learn something, usually something new and difficult. And you are not just memorizing things and spitting them back. You are learning concepts and paradigms—different ways that thinking is done. These are hard to get. Readings that present these ideas are dense. As you do more and more advanced work, you will begin to be asked to use these concepts and paradigms to produce original ideas and solutions—and that means you have to understand them to begin with. To get that depth of understanding and that ability and that creativity you need uninterrupted time where you are very very focused on learning. You are also teaching your brain to concentrate and reflect on learning in a way that will lead to the kinds of thoughts and ideas that don’t emerge as quick responses. This article suggests that reflection may be interrupted when we are constantly using the forms of social media.
"… as our technologies increase the intensity of stimulation and the flow of new things, we adapt to that pace,” Mr. Carr said. “We become less patient. When moments without stimulation arise, we start to feel panicked and don’t know what to do with them, because we’ve trained ourselves to expect this stimulation — new notifications and alerts and so on.”
What this often translates to in the discourse of the internet is demand for immediate and perfunctory “hot takes” rather than carefully weighed judgments, whether they’re about serious or superficial matters.
I am an English professor so my first thought is that reading a serious work of literature requires concentrated reading and then you need to think about it further with deep concentration, not in between notifications. But I can’t imagine that people inventing something like Mozilla or designing a building or writing a song are able to do these things while constantly responding to social media. The same is true for your writing, your creative work, your test-taking, your technological creativity as an engineer. You need to be able to think slowly, deeply and completely.
3. With increased focus, work becomes pleasurable
One of the benefits of the kind of deep focus that can only come when you work at a task and force yourself to really get into it is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously identified as achieving “flow.” Another term you may have heard is being “in the zone.” Flow is what happens when you are completely involved in what you are doing, when the thing you are doing is challenging, and when you are interested (or become interested) in the task. Csikszentmihalyi started out studying high level creative artists, but his work has been applied to us ordinary people as well, both children and adults. Maybe you’ve had the experience when you were writing a story, or drawing a picture, or practicing an athletic skill, or were mapping out some kind of plan or arranging a room, even. You were focused, you enjoyed what you were doing, it wasn’t easy but it was doable and time passed without you noticing-- “it’s X o’clock already!” Flow, psychologists now know, makes people happy. The more flow people experience, the happier they are. But how can I enjoy homework or studying, you might ask. I would say there are a lot ways to interpret enjoyment. Sometimes even when I am doing something like grading papers, which is not my favorite thing, I experience flow because I am so focused on doing something well and getting it done. This article on “mono-tasking” as opposed to “multi-tasking” explains why that might happen: staying on task and making progress while immersing yourself in the moment of your work can actually make work more pleasurable.
Ways to stick to this resolution:
- Get over the FOMO: This is easier said than done, I realize, especially since, according to several recent books on social media, there is a demanding etiquette where not responding to a post within an insanely short amount of time is a diss. But you know what—checking and responding all the time is a diss to whomever you are with or whatever you are doing. Let me suggest thinking about it this way—you can’t live as constantly available to everyone you know who wants to post something forever. Practically speaking, that’s not something your your internship supervisor, your part-time pre-career boss, your future career boss, really, anyone who pays you, is going be cool with. Wouldn’t you be annoyed if you were paying someone per hour and this person spent 15 minutes of every hour on social media? Professors notice these things too. Recently I went to write a letter of recommendation for a student of whom I had very positive memories. I went back to my grade book and reviewed my notes on him, expecting to be able to cite specific assignments and wow the graduate programs to which he was applying. He was, unfortunately, barely a B+ student. My notes reminded me that he was very bright and engaged, personable and ambitious to learn—yet entirely open to everything that came to his phone. Even after I spoke to him about it he couldn’t stop. And when he was distracted, he couldn’t function in class as he should have, and he missed things we said in class, and that affected his note-taking, his participation and his grades. I wrote as positive a letter as I could, emphasizing his best performances, and wishing that I could have said he was in the top 10% of student contribution to the class. I know, though, that nothing can hide what’s on the transcript—he could have had an A, but he let the phone get in his way. Being open to every notification may soothe your FOMO for the present moment but lead to much more serious MO in the future. Don’t want friends to take offense? Put up a notification that you’re going off the grid temporarily, then turn everything off. Post another when you come back on. Maybe you’ll be mocked. But I think others will be secretly if reluctantly impressed that you have the guts to take time for yourself and your activities, and people will get used to your “strange” habit after a while. It is the people who really have something to do who aren’t available to sit around clicking “like” or composing a perfect Instagram all day. Or even better—get a resolution buddy. Take a selfie together, put up a joint notification, turn off the phones and the computer notifications and study together to keep each other honest.
- Modify your plan: commit to studying without the Internet and phones for one particular class or for certain days of the week.
- Get support: Start a “No Interruptions” study group that runs for a certain amount of time where you all meet at the library, send notifications that you are off grid together, turn off your phones and put them in a box.
- Make the internet a tool, not a distraction: People did research for hundreds of years without the Internet. The problem isn’t looking up something, it’s getting distracted while you are doing it or seeing a notification when you switch to your browser. You could do the research you know you need first, and put it in a document for yourself before sitting down. You could drop brackets in your work containing a note to remind yourself to check the cite or fill in the exact number later. Frankly, if you had to get off your butt and look things up in books, that’s what you’d do.
One last thing that might help you focus better in general:
Get a watch for your wrist and a clock for your desk/for your off the grid study group. I can see students in my classrooms without clocks looking at their phones to get the time and then getting sucked into seeing what the messages are while I am handing out information important to the exams and papers that flies right past them.