As a college English teacher, I often hear students flippantly self-identify as being easily distracted. My students speak as if this is unusual and inevitable. It seems as if they’ve been taught that a distracted brain cannot be cured, outside of ADHD medication.
Being a 33-year-old American adult who is easily distracted, I consider some of these comments to be weak excuses to take responsibility for actions. But then sometimes I know this “being permanently distracted” is a state of mind people are taught by authority figures and the media in which they believe they have no control over. It then is no longer an excuse, but a sad reality. From my experience, the battle for focus and a longer attention span can happen for those who take steps to change.
The consequences of seeing yourself as a helpless victim of distraction are serious. Those who do not intentionally fight for a longer attention span will suffer not only in the classroom but in the real world. The common narrative about distraction is focused on struggling teenage students enduring a boring history lecture on the French and Indian War. The problem with this narrative is the blame lay on the teacher for not engaging the students rather than the students' responsibility to discipline themselves.
Furthermore, the real consequences of distraction do not end after high school. The work world requires as much hard focus as any tedious history lecture. Do we actually believe in an age of sedentary technological desk jobs that short attention span problems will disappear once we graduate from high school?
We can be sure our boss is not going to have compassion on us and make our jobs more entertaining. Our boss will probably just say we "lack work ethic and productivity," a different vocabulary than the classroom. As the Millennial generation grows into being leaders in the work world, we must have a practical plan for teaching ourselves how to focus in adulthood.
Distraction is in some ways inherent in the contemporary information overload in American society. Educator Ken Robinson said that children are "living in the most intensely stimulating period in history of the earth." The "normal" American culture of in-your-face advertisements, thousands of YouTube videos and smartphones creates more information for the brain to manage.
Four Practical Ways I Overcome Distraction
My first suggestion for the distracted person is to consider entertainment technologies as privileges rather requirements for survival. In April 2013, I deactivated my Facebook account in order to focus on grading essays during exam time at school. I only intended to stay off a month. After realizing I didn't miss Facebook, one month turned into 18 months.
After taking an 18 month break from Facebook, I realized Facebook is a privilege to have, not a requirement for survival. The problem might not be your brain but instead the media privileges we give ourselves. We should take away our own media privileges until we can teach ourselves to focus on the most meaningful goals. Earlier this year I had to take a 1 month break from ESPN.com in order to focus at work. Anytime I found myself feeling stressed at work, I would type in ESPN.com and browse for 5 minutes. This accomplished nothing. Therefore I did a self-imposed “ESPN fast.” It helped to curb my desire to avoid stress rather than solve it. It is often better to face stress than attempt to escape it.
My second tip for focus is to always force myself to do things that I do not want to do. I say "do the worst first." One aspect of being an adult is doing things you don't feel like doing. Denying yourself ice cream and hanging out with friends for the sake of doing what must be done will pay off in the long run. Doing what you want to do is best saved for after 6 p.m. and the weekends. Do the hard stuff first and the fun things will be more fun. Doing the difficult tasks gives us a sense of accomplishment so we don't have added anxiety later at night.
My third tip for focusing is to force yourself to pursue your dreams. Strangely enough, those who are distracted can even become distracted from their dreams. Singer-songwriter Mason Jennings says it best when he sings, "It's the simple little things that derail your dreams."
This past summer I pushed myself to write a total of 10 hours a week to expand this blog you are now reading. My goal was to write approximately 1 blog entry a week. I did my best to complete it, but I only wrote about 3 blog entries a month. I found that writing more than two hours a day to be very difficult. Yet I've been tempted to "wuss out" on following both small and large dreams. When we lack courage, we sometimes have to force ourselves to try. Distracted people must force themselves to take the steps toward things they dream about.
My final tip for those who are distracted is to make a prioritized list every night. I wake up every morning somewhat out of sorts. It takes me about one to two hours before I am truly logical in the morning. Therefore, since my mind is more clear at night, it is best for me to make a list to obediently follow when I wake up. When I wake up, I simply follow my list. The truth is, my brain is not always "feeling good" or feeling brave. A list written by your 9 p.m. logical self-will help tame your 7 a.m. confused self.
Can we say begin to say that focus is an essential requirement of maturity for adult Millennials? The Millennial generation can take steps to become responsible, focused world changers. However, to be good citizens for the next 50 years we need to take steps toward training our brains. Solving problems at the workplace, in our nation's future and obstacles that prevent our dreams requires thought and time. We risk mediocrity and disappointment later in life if we do not learn focus today.