Focus vs. distraction: help your son train his brain and win
Snapchat, homework, Spotify, Snapchat, homework, email, Instagram, homework. For high school aged boys, it’s a cycle that repeats itself with rapidity, sometimes in as short a timeframe as it took you to read this sentence.
And it’s not just our teenagers. As a society, we are worse at concentration than we have ever been. But it’s something that’s worth working at: improving concentration can have some seriously positive impacts on the health and performance of our boys (and on us too).
The power of focus and flow
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that deep focus is the rarest and most valuable skill in today’s economy, and that it pays to cultivate more of it in our lives.
Think back to a time when you were deeply focused. Perhaps you mastered a challenging piece of music, created a beautiful piece of art, understood a scientific concept, smashed a PB at work, or learned to kick with your non-preferred foot. When our attention is deeply focused on the task at hand, we achieve more and/or create our best work.
Another benefit of focus is that it leads to greater instances of flow. Flow is the feeling of being fully immersed in a task. It is that feeling you get when you lose yourself in a book, watch a beautiful sunset or go for a run.
Whether your son is doing his homework, chatting to you around the dinner table or playing sport, if he’s deeply focused and experiencing a sense of flow, he will feel happier and more engaged, and the quality of his output will improve.
Distraction: the nemesis of focus and flow
Sadly, with the distraction of the online world at our fingertips, these moments of deep focus and flow are fleeting. We read online, flicking from window to window. We run accompanied by an app telling us how fast and far we’re going. We are too busy trying to Instagram and hashtag a photo of the sunset to actually enjoy it.
Every distraction – no matter if it’s checking emails while working on a project or changing tracks on Spotify mid-task – leaves your mind in a fog, also known as ‘attention residue’. And scarily, it takes 20 minutes for your brain to recover its full cognitive capacity.
If your son isn’t focusing, distraction free, for at least 20 minutes at a time, he may not be reaching his full cognitive capacity.
Worse still is the effect distraction can have on mental wellbeing. Distraction can lead to greater instances of anxiety and depression. The onset of smartphones and social media in universities saw a dramatic increase in the presentation of anxiety-related disorders in student health clinics. This comes as no surprise when we are giving our brains the mental equivalent of changing channel every few seconds.
How to help your son cultivate focus
You may not be able to unplug your teenage son from the world of online distraction. However, the good news is you can help your son learn how to cultivate focus and flow in every aspect of his life.
Firstly, rather than simply telling him what he should do, tell him why focus and flow are important. Our brains are the most powerful computer we know of (a piece of brain matter the size of a grain of sand contains 100TB of data – enough for 25,000 HD movies). But a distracted brain is akin to a computer that we haven’t let boot up properly. Explain to him that without deeper focus, he may never discover what his brain is truly capable of.
Next, help your son close some of the ‘open tabs’ in his mind and achieve deeper focus by putting the following into practice.
Firstly, help him cultivate focus throughout the day by:
- Encouraging him to practice mindfulness. Investigate what your son’s school does around mindfulness and promote this. Consider this training his brain in focus (and un-training it in distraction)
- Unplugging at home. You may not be able to convince your son to give up his mobile, but you can make the car and the breakfast and dinner table tech-free spaces for the whole family.
- Being a good role model. Put your phone away when you’re having a conversation. Practice mindfulness meditation. Stop multi-tasking (it’s a myth anyway).
Next, during homework time, encourage your son to:
- Turn his laptop and phone on to aeroplane mode (unless he needs the internet for homework).
- Close his email and all other open tabs before he begins his homework.
- Get control of his own attention habits by disabling notifications, particularly for social media apps.
- Set a timer for 20 minutes of distraction-free work. When the timer goes off, he can then ‘reward’ himself with five minutes of social media or non-homework-related web browsing (this should also be timed).
You could also talk to your son about successful people who take practical steps to improve their focus, such as Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling who both schedule week-long ‘unplugged’ retreats for deep work.
However, with the boys I teach, I find the image that resonates most effectively is that of Luke Skywalker trying to lift his X-Wing out of a swamp using only his mind. The boys quickly grasp that this work is hard, and it takes effort over time. They also realise that, with practice, they will master it. And the results are well worth it.
May the force (and the focus) be with you.
Andrew Braddy is the Middle School E-Learning Coordinator at Brighton Grammar School – an all-boys school in Melbourne. This article is about Education
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