Since the beginning of time, man has had an innate sense of alertness. In primitive times, that’s what prepared us for danger. Imagine you're hunting and gathering when you happen upon a pond with fresh water. You bend over to fill a jug and suddenly you hear a twig SNAP! You turn, expecting to see a blood-thirsty beast, but it turns out to be a smaller creature – like a squirrel (Look! Squirrel!).
So you travel cautiously back to your cave. When you arrive home to your wife and kids, you discover that you left your jug full of water behind. “What were you thinking?” your annoyed wife asks.
The truth is, you were distracted. Your brain refocused attention and energy toward survival and alertness. In that moment, you forgot the water jug and simply returned home. The equivalent in modern times is going into a room to look for your glasses, something else catches your eye and you forget why you went into the room in the first place. By our very nature, we are prone to distraction. It’s what causes our brain to alter its original course of action when a new stimulus is produced.
Enter the era of smartphones, wearables and school devices that beep and tweet, causing us to lose focus constantly. I call this “notifistraction” (no-ti-fah-strak-shun) disease. Despite our best efforts to focus, our brains still revert back to that Stone Age twig-snapping event whenever our devices alert us about something.
The good news is there are some simple cures available. As a parent and administrator of a very tech-savvy community, I try to help kids (and adults) manage their digital lives. What follows are some very basic "prescriptions" to help students – and you – better manage the constant stream of distractions.
Turn off notification alerts. I’ve turned off all audio alerts except for text messages and phone calls. While this might not seem like much, at one point I was getting Yelp alerts from friends visiting a new restaurant ... in Sydney. Do I really need to know that?
Don’t respond to everything right away. Just because you can respond to text messages, snapchats and email quickly, doesn’t mean you should. Give it a break occasionally and don't respond immediately. In some cases, your lack of response will reduce the distractions coming your way and allow you to focus on your tasks.
Employ the “pomodoro technique.”This is a great way to focus on important projects. Here’s how it works: You write down a goal or project that you need to work on. Then turn off all notifications, shut down email and turn off your phone for 25 minutes. When the time is up, take a five-minute break to check email, look at social media, put your clothes in the washing machine, etc. When break time is over, set the timer for another 25 minutes and start over. A great app for this is the 30/30 app, but of course you’ll need to keep your phone on if you use it.
Stand up and go outside. When all else fails, sometimes we just have to go back to our primitive roots and walk outside for some fresh air (without our phones). The extra oxygen will awaken and alert the brain, allowing you to refocus on whatever task or project you are working on. In the classroom, using brain breaks like those in GoNoodle create movement, refresh the eyes and get the brain thinking again.
Give yourself time for reflection. With all the constant connection and interaction, it's sometimes hard to think. It's almost like your brain becomes a junk drawer of items that needs to be organized or dumped every so often. I find that taking even 2-5 minutes every day to reflect, think and set goals can help make me more productive and less distracted throughout the day. In the classroom, this could be as simple as having students write in a journal or turning off the lights and letting kids sit and just think about their day. This activity can center students and help them set goals and reflect on challenges ahead.
Let’s face it, we’ve been distracted creatures for thousands of years, but it’s time we started managing those distractions. The next time you suffer from notifistraction disease, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to be alerted when the washing machine is done. If not, start opting out of alerts. You might find yourself being distracted by more pleasant things, like nature and birds and ... squirrels!
Now, what was I saying?
Carl Hooker is the director of innovation and digital learning at Eanes ISD in Texas where he helped spearhead a mobile learning program that put iPads in the hands of all 8,000 students across the district. He is also the founder of “iPadpalooza,” a three-day learning festival celebrating the shift iPads have brought about in education and beyond.