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Attentional Mastery for the (Distracted) Teach-from-Home Educator

Now that you’re working from home, do you find yourself distracted or scattered? Are you struggling to focus and finish a task?

Your brain’s attentional system is being exposed to new challenges, both visible (looming house projects) and invisible (a global virus). With the right tools, you CAN foster skills to lock-in your attention and be highly productive. Here is what every educator working from home needs to know …

The Research

Contrary to opinion, your brain does NOT pay attention to every sensory input in your environment. That would be overwhelming. Instead, it selects the important pieces of information at the expense of less relevant ones (Stemmann & Freiwald, 2019). The challenge comes when you and your brain disagree on what constitutes “important information” to pay attention to.

Start with how you can optimize your attentional capacity given your current circumstances of working from home.

Attention is the brain’s ability to do three things. 1) Disengage from other tasks. 2) Re-engage in the task at hand. 3) Suppress outside distractions (Fortenbaugh, DeGutis, & Esterman, 2017). Mastering this skill will help you be more focused and productive as you work from home. This is guaranteed to be highly relevant to you and, as always, backed by robust research.

The first critical distinction is this: Your brain has two types of attention: reflexive and learned.

Your reflexive attentional system responds impulsively to environmental changes in sounds, movement, lighting, emotions, or tactile input (Horstmann, 2015). The sound of sirens reflexively interrupts your thoughts and redirects them to whatever prompted the siren.

Learned attention is what is required for most school-based learning. This form of attention requires the brain to suppress irrelevant input (Gaspelin, Leonard, & Luck, 2017). This allows your brain to focus on the task of lesson planning, learning a new tech tool, or for your students – doing a math problem, reading a text, or writing a paragraph.

Why is this a critical distinction?

Your reflexive attentional system is hard-wired in your DNA. It is here to stay. You have greater control and influence over your learned attention system.

The science of optimizing your attentional capacity includes these three approaches:

  • Reducing distractions in the environment
  • Making tasks more appealing to your brain’s attention system
  • Expanding your attention span

Let’s begin with the evidence first, then we’ll get to the practical applications.

  1. Environment (Reduce Interference)

Distractions in the environment can interfere with the brain’s ability to maintain attention on a goal-oriented task (Janowich, Mishra, & Gazzaley, 2015). Working memory can become overloaded by environmental stimuli. Working memory is the brain system responsible for holding and manipulating what you are paying attention to in the moment. An overwhelmed working memory is called cognitive load and impairs attention (Paas & Ayres, 2014).

Your brain is paying attention to more things in your physical environment than you might be aware of (Norman, Heywood, & Kentridge, 2013). Being “aware” that something is there is distinctly different from paying attention to it.

Keep reading to discover ways you can create a work environment with minimal distractions to keep you healthy, focused, and productive.

  1. Cognitive Bias (Orchestrate Attentional Bias)

The brain does not give equal attention to all inputs – the attention system is biased. The brain’s attentional systems are biased toward stimuli/tasks that are engaging, relevant, and rewarding (Fortenbaugh, DeGutis, & Esterman, 2017). Contrary to popular opinion, the cognitive resources needed to give attention to a task does not decrease over time. What decreases is the subjective value of engagement, value, and reward. Greater attention is thus achieved by using cognitive resources to design your tasks to fit the brain’s natural biases.

When the brain perceives a task is highly engaging, it can focus on that goal for extensive amounts of time. At optimal levels, this state is referred to as being in flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2020).

The brain thrives on relevancy. When pursuing something meaningful, the brain’s attentional systems will naturally suppress distractions and give extra focus to a relevant task (Stemmann & Freiwald, 2019).

What we pay attention to is driven by rewards. The brain craves rewards (regulated by the dopamine reward system). When the reward is appealing enough, the brain will exert extra resources in pursuit of the reward (Anderson, 2019).

More on how to use these three biases in your favor below.

  1. Lifestyle (Boost Your Attentional System)

There are evidence-based habits that can expand and enhance your attentional capacity. Exercise enhances circulation (Nyberg, Gliemann, & Hellsten, 2015), regulates heart rate and norepinephrine (Yang et al., 2016), and releases dopamine (Heijnen, Hommel, Kibele, & Colzato, 2016). All of these enhance working memory and thus improve attention.

Mindfulness practices also improve attention (Norris, Creem, Hendler, & Kober, 2018). How? It is an exercise in training your mind to focus on a single task. Training that muscle with a mindfulness activity strengthens your ability to focus when you sit down for a work task.

Practical Application

In the current teaching environment, it is possible you (and your students) are being exposed to more cues that trigger the brain’s reflexive attention. This can put more strain on your brain to suppress the irrelevant triggers to harness your learned (or self-regulated) attention. If you’re struggling to “get in the zone” at home, reclaim your brain’s attention with these tools, today:

  1. Upgrade Your Environment

Take a few minutes to evaluate your new make-shift workspace at home. What’s making it easier for you to focus on work projects, and what is distracting you?

  • If half of your classroom is now in your home, take a few minutes to give things a new “home”. Remove unnecessary clutter from your workspace. Seeing it stacked in piles next to your computer is a distractor to your brain. Put it in a closet, put a sheet over it, or shove it under a bed for now. Your Pinterest days are on pause. Just get functional so you can focus on the work in front of you.
  • Use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to block out new sounds in your workspace. It could be your neighbor’s live concert, your partner’s conference call, or your children fighting over the remote control.
  • Turn off notifications on your computer and phone while you are working. Leave your phone in a different room while you finish your virtual lesson planning. Allow yourself a 5-10-minute binge once you complete the task at hand.
  1. Create Cognitive Bias

Since the brain gives greater attention to tasks it finds engaging, relevant, and rewarding, use these same three filters to artificially create a cognitive bias toward your work tasks. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Start your work time with something you are excited about, or is naturally engaging for you. Maybe it’s reaching out to your students or a colleague. Or deciding what interesting/engaging question you’ll open your next Google Classroom meeting with. Start with high levels of engagement and ride that wave as long as it lasts.
  • Before you begin a task, remind yourself WHY it is important. Say it out loud to yourself: “This will help my students feel connected.” “Getting this done tonight will help me sleep better.” “It is important to me that my staff hear encouraging words from me regularly.”
  • Build-in rewards for yourself. Once I get this done, I’ll watch another episode of Tiger King. Or, I’ll take a 15-minute power nap. Think of something special you can only do during a teaching day at home, and turn it into a reward.
  1. Train your Mind to Focus

If your mind is constantly wandering in a dozen different directions, consider taking your attention system to the “gym” with one of these workouts to expand and focus your mind:

  • Begin each work session with a one-minute mindfulness practice. Find a quiet(er) space at home, maybe on a patio or backyard (or looking outside). Set a timer on your phone for one minute and just breathe. Every time your thoughts wander, bring them back to your breath.
  • Do a quick exercise routine before jumping into a work project. Go for a walk around the block or follow a workout routine online.
  • A rested brain is a more focused brain. STOP scrolling through every update on the virus, or every new tech tool being thrown your way. You will be a better teacher, leader, partner, and parent if you are rested. Aim for 7-9 hours a night. A small dose of Melatonin can help calm your worried and busy brain, so you can get the rest you need.

We understand that everyone is in a unique situation with many differing factors. Consider the three avenues above that impact your attention, and choose a strategy you can implement today to lock-in on a task. When a new distraction comes, identify another strategy from above to reactive your focus. Mastering these skills will be of tremendous benefit to you now and in the future. 

 

Citations:

Anderson, B. A. (2019). Neurobiology of value-driven attention. Current opinion in psychology29, 27-33.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2020). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Hachette UK.

Fortenbaugh, F. C., DeGutis, J., & Esterman, M. (2017). Recent theoretical, neural, and clinical advances in sustained attention research. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1396(1), 70.

Gaspelin, N., Leonard, C. J., & Luck, S. J. (2017). Suppression of overt attentional capture by salient-but-irrelevant color singletons. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics79(1), 45-62.

Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. S. (2016). Neuromodulation of aerobic exercise—a review. Frontiers in psychology6, 1890.

Horstmann, G. (2015). The surprise-attention link: a review. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1339(1), 106-115.

Janowich, J., Mishra, J., & Gazzaley, A. (2015). A Cognitive Paradigm to Investigate Interference in Working Memory by Distractions and Interruptions. JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments), (101), e52226.

Norman, L. J., Heywood, C. A., & Kentridge, R. W. (2013). Object-based attention without awareness. Psychological science24(6), 836-843.

Norris, C. J., Creem, D., Hendler, R., & Kober, H. (2018). Brief mindfulness meditation improves attention in novices: Evidence from ERPs and moderation by neuroticism. Frontiers in human neuroscience12, 315.

Nyberg, M., Gliemann, L., & Hellsten, Y. (2015). Vascular function in health, hypertension, and diabetes: effect of physical activity on skeletal muscle microcirculation. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports25, 60-73.

Paas, F., & Ayres, P. (2014). Cognitive Load Theory: A Broader View on the Role of Memory in Learning and Education. Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 191-195.

Stemmann, H., & Freiwald, W. A. (2019). Evidence for an attentional priority map in inferotemporal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences116(47), 23797-23805.

Yang, X., Ru, W., Wang, B., Gao, X., Yang, L., Li, S., … & Gong, P. (2016). Investigating the genetic basis of attention to facial expressions: the role of the norepinephrine transporter gene. Psychiatric genetics26(6), 266-271.

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