Attentiveness, and its Lack

Attentiveness, and its Lack

Last week, I listened to [an Ezra Klein interview with Gloria Mark], a psychology professor at UC-Irvine, on the topic of attention. It was a thought-provoking conversation, perhaps as much for what it didn’t say as what it did (nary a peep about neurodivergence, for example). But it got me thinking about attention – about my own struggles to marshal it since the pandemic began, about the many distractions in my own life, and about my students’ ability to focus, too.

A photograph of a magnetic board with a wooden frame against a white wall. Pieces of white paper are held against the board by colorful magnets.
by Angela Roma at

Today was the first day of spring term for my seminar class, and I spent about 45 minutes working on the issue of attentiveness with my students. I confessed that I had all kinds of trouble paying attention to things of late, and asked if they did too. Almost everyone said yes. I emphasized that there was no single way to harness our attention that would work for everyone, especially given our wonderful neurodivergence, but that there were a bunch of different tactics we could try on for size.

Here are some of the ways we thought through attentiveness together:

1. First, we thought about the general rhythms of our days. For example, I am sharpest first thing in a morning – I get up at 4am and I’m working by 6am. By 4pm in an afternoon, I’m pretty much done. My best thinking is long behind me.

I passed out a blank week-to-view calendar to everyone, as well as a bunch of sharpies, and asked everyone to identify the times of day when they felt it was easiest to be focused. I also asked them to identify the times of day when focus was hard, and to outline those in a different-colored pen.

2. We talked a little bit about Professor Mark’s assertion that attention is a resource that gets used up and needs to be replenished. (If we drink all the water from a cup, we have to refill the cup if we want more water at our disposal.)

Using a third pen, I asked everyone to block off time for a big break somewhere in their week – a whole day if they could manage it; a whole morning or afternoon if they couldn’t.  That break time was for doing anything but schoolwork. It was an opportunity to fill the cup.

3. We then discussed Professor Park’s suggestion of taking little breaks when we were engaged in longer tasks. I asked them to jot down five ideas for “little breaks” that they could tak, and then we shared them out. People suggested walking around the quad, throwing a little dance party in their room, playing with their cat, juggling, and doing the dishes, all of which are great suggestions!

4. Next, we talked about distractions. I confessed to having text messages and chat messaging open on my computer when I’m writing or lesson planning, and that often means my attention is fractured. We also discussed rapidly switching attention between apps and tabs and windows, and how we had to rebuild our attention span every time.

I linked students [to an article from USA Today] that offered ten apps that could block social media for them for a specified amount of time. (Blocking messaging can also be anxiety-producing for some people, so again, this was not a prescription, but instead a sharing of potential resources.) I then asked everyone to jot down up to five ways they could manage distractions beyond installing more software. Listening to really familiar music or white noise, or studying in a place with ambient conversation was popular. (This is the exact opposite of the way my brain functions – I need total quiet)

5. We talked about novelty, and how we’re primed to seek it and respond to it. We discussed how hard it can be to do a task when we’re bored, as well as how we might use our imaginations to provide novelty to even rote tasks. I shared that when I was researching for my dissertation, I used to imagine I was searching for information that would be very important to President Jed Bartlett from the West Wing. It was a harmless flight of imagination that sustained me through some tedious searching. I also shared that my friend Karen Costa will sometimes have three books on the go at once so that she can switch her attention to a new topic when one book feels stale. I asked people to jot down up to five ways they could use these sort of strategies.

6. Lastly we defined and discussed extrinsic motivation. On days when I would like to stay home and read a book but have to get to work, I often bribe myself to leave the house with the promise of a flat white.  I asked the students to write down up to five things that might be a wonderful reward for seeing a task through. We talked about stickers, about spending time with friends, and about relishing fifteen minutes of free time after forty-five of studying.

At the end of this process I reiterated that these were a range of strategies from which they could pick and choose in order to discover what suited their particular wiring. I offered extra copies of the weekly schedule sheet for anyone who wanted them, and directed everyone to a resources to which I’d linked from our Google  Classroom site. I also directed them to Dr. Devon Price’s wonderful essay “Laziness Does Not Exist,” about what’s really going on when we procrastinate – a great complement to thinking about what we find it easy to do and focus on, and what we don’t.

I’d love to hear other people’s strategies for wrangling their own attention, as well as ways you’ve helped students think these challenges through.

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