Brynja Eldon/Flickr
Brynja Eldon/Flickr

There’s no doubt there are more distractions bombarding students than there were 50 years ago. Most kids have cellphones, use social media, play games, watch TV and are generally more “plugged in” than ever before. This cultural shift means that in addition to helping students gain the transferable skills and knowledge they’ll need later in life, teachers may have to start helping them tune out the constant buzz in order to get their message across. It’s never too early to learn smart strategies to focus in on priorities and tune out what’s not immediately necessary.

Many people believe they are skilled multitaskers, but they’re wrong. Neuroscience has shown that multitasking — the process of doing more than one thing at the same time — doesn’t exist.

“The brain doesn’t multitask,” said Daniel Levitin, author and professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience and music at McGill University on KQED’s Forum program. “It engages in sequential tasking or unitasking, where we are shifting rapidly from one thing to another without realizing it.” The brain is actually fracturing time into ever smaller parts and focusing on each thing individually.

People often think they are being more productive when they try to juggle tasks, but Levitin says not only is sequential unitasking detrimental to productivity, but it produces less creative work as well. Multitasking is also stressful for the body. When people try to do several things at once, like drive and text, the brain uses up oxygenated glucose at a much faster rate and releases the stress hormone cortisol.

Tip 1: Prioritize and Manage Time

Rather than trying to do everything at the same time, the most productive people prioritize and block off their schedules to focus on one task at a time. “The idea is that if you become more efficient in time management, it allows for more spontaneity and creativity in the day, every day,” Levitin said.

While researching his new book, “The Organized Mind,” Levitin spent time with very successful people to try and figure out what they did differently from others that allowed them to get more done. While many of these people had a legion of employees working to organize their schedules and set priorities for them, the basic principle of focusing in on one task at a time holds true for anyone.

“When they’re doing something, they’re really doing it,” Levitin said. “They get more done because their brain isn’t half somewhere else.”

Tip 2: Take Breaks

Resting the mind is extremely important for productivity and the ability to focus. “People who take regular breaks — and naps even — end up being more productive and more creative in their work,” Levitin said. “You need to give your brain time to consolidate all the information that’s come in, to toss it and turn it.”

The brain has a natural way of giving itself a break — it’s called daydreaming. “It allows you to refresh and release all those neural circuits that get all bound up when you’re focused,” Levitin said. The brain will do this kind of daydreaming naturally when it is fatigued. The experience of reading a book and suddenly realizing the eyes have moved several paragraphs ahead, but the mind hasn’t retained any of the information, is the brain checking out for a break.

This point is particularly important for students, who are often asked to sit through a long school day with very few breaks. Lots of research has shown the importance of recess and free play time for academic success, but schools still tend to emphasize time spent in class “learning” over a more nuanced view of how and why kids learn.

“Children shouldn’t be overly scheduled,” Levitin said. “They should have blocks of time to promote spontaneity and creativity.” Without that time, kids don’t have the mental space to let new ideas and ways of doing things arise. Daydreaming and playing are crucial to develop the kind of creativity many say should be a focal point of a modern education system.

Tip 3: Analyze Information Critically

Five times more information comes at an individual today than it did in 1986, Levitin said. At the same time, human brains are optimized for the amount of stimulus experienced 10,000 years ago, when humans likely interacted only with 100 or so other people. The world has changed much more quickly than the genome can keep up with, which means schools have a responsibility to help kids develop the skills to sift through the overwhelming stimuli.

“What we have to start teaching children, from the age of 8 or so, is how to tell the difference between information and misinformation,” Levitin said.

He says it’s imperative that every child learn the difference between a fact, a pseudo-fact and hierarchies of evidence. When it comes to something as simple and commonplace as looking up a medication, any 8-year-old should be able to tell what kind of website he’s looking at and to ask questions like: Is this the site for the company that makes the medication? Or for their competitor? Or for a shill company set up to advocate for the medication? These are the types of discerning, critical questions that students will need to ask to carefully navigate life.

Tip 4: Externalize Memory

It can be hard to focus on one thing when there’s a long, nagging list of things that need to get done in a day, both personal and professional. Levitin recommends writing all those things down on notecards, externalizing the memories into digestible bits that can be shuffled as priorities change. “My brain knows I’ve written it down and it stops nagging me,” Levitin said of his method.

This strategy might also be a good one to share with students, who often have a long list of homework to prioritize and many distractions pulling them away from focusing on any one task.

Tip 5: Pair People With Different Learning Styles

Educators often consider the kids who can’t sit still in class to be troublemakers, constantly distracting other children from their work. Sometimes these kids are diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed drugs to help them focus. But the same kids who have a hard time focusing in school could be tremendously creative, Levitin said. Rather than dismissing them as troublemakers, pair those students with more organized, less distracted students. The hyperactive child might be able to help develop a more creative set of ideas, while the more focused child knows how to take that idea to fruition.

Levitin points to companies in Silicon Valley that regularly use this method to capitalize on the great ideas of their less conventional employees.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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