Looking at Distraction a Different Way
We have all experienced distractions or sometimes felt overwhelmed with trying to maintain the many different roles in our lives. In addition, living through the COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate these feelings. It can be a struggle to maintain a routine, avoid interruptions, and stay disciplined and focused. It’s easy to become restless—which will only elevate your anxiety—and blame yourself (consciously or unconsciously) for not being able to accomplish everything that feels necessary.
But, are these feelings of distraction and restlessness always bad? Let’s take a look at how this “traditional” thinking can be viewed in a different way.
In his book, How We Learn, Benedict Carey uses scientific evidence to argue that all these presumed enemies of learning—distraction, interruption, restlessness, even quitting—can work in your favor.
Some research and literature in Cognitive Psychology* has shown that people who studied in the same environment where they knew they would take the exam tended to perform better than those who studied in a different location.
The study demonstrates how memory works and how the brain can recognize information more easily when in familiar situations. However, this is only helpful if the task has to do with memorization. When it comes to critical thinking and applying your knowledge in a different context you will realize, actually, that the routine of studying only in the library, in your room or on your computer is not important at all when it comes to learning.
“The more environments in which you rehearse, the sharper and more lasting memory of that material becomes- and less strongly linked to one comfort zone. That is, knowledge becomes increasingly independent of surroundings the more changes you make”.Benedict Carey
When to Build Routines and When to Break them
The routine is most important, however, when it comes to sleep. We have been told that we need to get around 8 hours of sleep, but recent research and some work presented by the neuroscientist Andrew Huberman shows that not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. As long as your sleep schedule is fairly consistent, even 5 or 6 hours is more than enough.
When it comes to interruptions, research described in Carey’s book shows that unfinished jobs or goals linger in memory longer than finished ones. Did you know many scientists and artists came up with ideas or found the solution to problems after they stopped working on them for a while?
It is more effective to break up studying intervals than studying for long hours. Distracting yourself from the difficult tasks is an opportunity to let go of assumptions and reexamine the topic with a fresh and more focused mind.
Tips for Staying Focused
- Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule.
- Change the environment and the way you study.
- Rotate studying in your room with studying in another room, outside or in a coffee shop (if possible).
- One day just take notes and then review them. Another day, use a whiteboard and pretend you are teaching.
- Alternate your methods of studying to avoid the fluency illusion*.
- Do one thing at a time. Study with intervals and give yourself time to come back to your studies fresh and more focused. Use the interval time to do an activity you like, or spend time with someone you care about.
- Think about how useful what you are learning will be for you in the present and in the future. This mindset will signal to your brain that the information you are studying or listening to in the class is useful, and should be stored.
- Don’t study all the material one day before exam.
- Write your goals in a notebook and ask yourself what each of them means to you. We are creatures of meaning, and that motivates us.
- You have come this far so don’t give up. Your focus will increase when you can relate what you are learning to your goals and the future you want to build.
*I have studied Cognitive Psychology as part of my BS in Brain Sciences, and the information can be found in Cognition, Exploring the Science of the Mind by Daniel Reisberg. You can find more information about my studies here.
*Fluency illusion, in psychology is referred to the ease of processing and biased belief we have about our memory. If something is perceived as easy to remember we tend to believe we are going to remember it later, but this is not often the case, as research has shown.