Guest article by Tobias Quante
A lifelong learning process nowadays, during the time of information overflow is as significant, for a successful life, as the usage of fire for the Neanderthals. For hundreds of years, being educated was a privilege for noblemen and academic families who could afford the expensive schools & universities.
To emphasize the importance of learning, take a look at these statistics from 2015 & 2016. They show how the grade of education is linked to employment and earnings in the USA. The more you know, the better your performance. (On a side note: We are talking about median, not average income. Bringing the same education to everybody will probably not abolish social inequality).
However, in case you are a student, you probably know the struggle: The age of digitalization brings its perks in gaining an almost unlimited amount of knowledge within seconds (Google, Wikipedia, online libraries from your university), yet it also implies threats for your ability to focus on the important things. Instead of studying for that exam to come, you rather browse social networks, text your friends or partner and check your newsfeed. Why is this so?
Because it’s in human nature. Our brains evolved to focus on the things right in front of us. As Daniel Kahnemann, Professor of Psychology and winner of the Nobel Price in economics 2002, wrote in his book “Thinking, fast and slow”: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you think about it.” Wherever your attention is, there’s your whole focus. And to avert the joy of taking a look at your phone, self-discipline is required.
A vivid example for this is the marshmallow test, where the self-control of children is being observed: YouTube
In the following I am going to give you some tips on how to keep your attention where it’s supposed to be, let it be learning, working or simply to stay on task.
1. Write a to-do list
Okay okay, you have probably read this hint several times already. So I am going to try as well. But not with a simple to do list per se. Start from the top: What are your goals for the next year? What do you want to achieve (get a job, graduate, get a new phone, teach yourself a new software, etc.) during the next six – twelve months. Would you like to build up a career as a professional artist? Write it down. Or maybe write a book? Put it on the list. Next, write down what needs to be done to achieve your goals. Then, break those tasks down into the smallest, thinkable tasks. These are going to be your to-do list. Of course you can to it bottom up as well: Set your goals and make a daily list. But keep it simple and stupid (KISS) and always accessible.
2. Externalize your information
Ever had this glorious idea in the public transport? THAT idea that could have changed the world, life and everything? Too bad if it was gone by the end of the ride (what was I thinking of again? Dammit…). My hint for you on this one is: Either keep a small notebook in your pocket all the time or some 3×5 index cards. Write down whatever idea comes to your mind, also important dates, notes, hints. Then, go through it during your free time. Recapitulate what you thought of and reflect, why you did. And suddenly you might remember this one important thing again you almost forgot on the subway. An alternative idea is to write some kind of diary by the end of the day. Just remember to get back to it and reread what you wrote down.
3. Minimize the saw-effect
In case you don’t know what exactly this is, take a look here: Link
The x – axis describes the time while the y – axis represents your grade of attention / focus on a task. As you can see, your attention on a certain task builds up exponentially, first slow, then fast. Whenever a distraction happens, your attention is being taken away elsewhere. When you switch back to your task, your attention follows and you need to start building up attention again. To minimize the occurrence, plan in 1 – or 2 hour – brackets, keep your phone muted and notify possible interrupters that you are on task right now for the next hour(s).
If you wish to learn more of how to maximise your time – utility and how to organise your time and yourself, I highly recommend you to try the following books:
Daniel Levitin: The organized mind
Daniel Kahnemann: Thinking, fast and slow