By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will labs
I get a lot of emails from high school and college teachers and administrators who want to help their students improve focus. So here are my top 4 focus tips for students — each one supported by much more scientific research than I cite here.
Back in the 1970s, psychologists learned that if you have to do a lot of work, spacing it out over time in small chunks is better than cramming for the way your brain works. You think better, learn better, and function better when you take breaks. More recently, the Pomodoro technique has offered a simple protocol that is used by computer programming teams when they need to produce a lot of code in a sustainable, high-functioning way. Basically, you set a timer for 25 minutes, commit to working during that time, then rest for 3-5 minutes. Do this four times, then take a longer 15-20 minute break. Then go back to the short breaks for four more cycles. Ta da! You will get your paper done (or if you’re a TA, you’ll finish grading your stack of papers) more easily and with less pain than pulling an all-nighter.
Student Focus Tip 2: Plan out small rewards for breaks.
My reward for getting through my first 25 minutes of researching this blog post was to get some water and check my phone. These are the rewards that work for me — social connection, water, and sometimes food. The simple stuff. Before you start your work session, think about what type of rewards work for you. We all know rewards work — we use them for our pets — so let’s engage our basal ganglia (reward centers) and make them work for us! If you are worried about any kind of reward reducing your internal motivation to work, see this meta-analysis showing that social connection as a reward works just fine, thank you. My guess is that water and food aren’t a problem either.
Student Focus Tip 3: Airplane-mode your phone.
Across disciplines, every single high school and college teacher seems concerned about the huge effect that devices have on student learning. I know a college professor at Northwestern who banned phones and computers from one class, while she did not do this from another section she was teaching of the same class. Guess what? The class from which she banned tech gave her significantly higher reviews, specifically mentioning how engaging the class was. Plus, the students earned higher grades (in non-subjective measures). Interesting? Yes. Surprising? No. Attention moves in cycles, but those cycles are about 20-25 minutes long (that’s why TED talks are about 20 min long). Attention cycles are not 1-minute long. When we switch from one focus to another every few minutes, we don’t learn well, we don’t think well, and we get bored. Because, literally, our focus is on nothing. So airplane-mode your phone while you are working on schoolwork and when you’re in class. Guess what, according to this other study your GPA will go up and your anxiety will go down. Nice!
Student Focus Tip 4: Carefully choose your auditory environment.
Sound is an underappreciated factor when it comes to focus. Remember, the reason cell phones ring rather than blink is because your attentional system is always listening to sounds in your environment, while your attentional system can only look at stuff that’s just in front of you and not that far away. As a result, your exogenous (externally-focused) attention can be pulled away from your task, leaving you out of focus, by most sounds. That’s most sounds, but not all. It turns out that more regular, long-format, melodic sounds (hey, that’s like Focus@Will music!) actually support you being in a state of cognitive flow, which helps you maintain task persistence, self-reported focus, and even boost creativity, according to some kind of crazy brilliant genius grrrrl scientist who used actual scientific research to discover these facts (see white paper by yours truly, here). This series of experiments was done only with participants who got to choose their music channels — ranging from cafe noise and water sounds to classical music. So even within the range of melodic, regular, long-format sounds (called “streamlined music”), people still need to choose their own audio. So does this work in schools? We assume so, given all the folks who have been emailing to tell us their students are using Focus@Will to their advantage during study time. Also, teachers will be interested in reading this blog post from a high school math teacher who uses Focus@Will music in the classroom — the way he works it is each student chooses their own audio and listens over headphones during “alone” time for study. So far, the students think it helps them (on average) and they tend to use it for work in other classes. Pretty nifty!
NOTE: While researching and writing this blog post, I was supported in my focus via the Alpha Chill channel, one of many diverse channels created by Focus@Will labs.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 17-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I study the science of consciousness, and I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human (watch a video of me giving an hour-long talk on this topic, and also see this media coverage in PC Mag). I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, The Garden: An Inside Experiment, and I co-authored a textbook with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, published in August 2016 by the American Psychological Association. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
Cameron, J., & Pierce, W. D. (1994). Reinforcement, reward, and intrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational research, 64(3), 363-423.
Lepp, A., Barkley, J. E., & Karpinski, A. C. (2014). The relationship between cell phone use, academic performance, anxiety, and satisfaction with life in college students. Computers in Human Behavior, 31, 343-350.
Melton, A. W. (1970). The situation with respect to the spacing of repetitions and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 9(5), 596-606.