How long can you read a book without getting distracted?
Do you swipe through TikToks or reels before they’re over because you’ve gotten impatient?
Do you find it hard to just stream a TV show or movie without also looking at your phone or doing another activity at the same time?
Yep — the shortened attention span issue isn’t something unique to Gen Z.
It’s something that I think almost all of us in modern Western culture have been impacted by. And there are good reasons for that.
Read or listen to why it’s so hard for us to maintain focus and how you can practice building concentration stamina with your students.
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Why it’s so challenging for us to focus and concentrate
Imagine not having a smartphone, tablet, computer, or TV. No internet, social media, text message, video games, or streaming.
Imagine also not having any device for making phone calls to people, and since you can’t text, this means you can only send letters through the mail.
Imagine not having a radio or any other way to play recorded music.
Imagine having no books, newspapers, magazines, or anything else to read.
This is how most humans lived throughout the majority of our time on Earth.
They had to make their own entertainment, and communicated regularly with just the people in their own small local area.
It’s likely that you and I encounter more information and entertainment in a single day than our ancestors just a few generations back did in their entire lifetime.
Can you picture someone who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago trying to make sense of our modern world? Envision them experiencing life in a city street with loud traffic noises, cell phones ringing, videos playing, and hundreds of strangers all around them.
They would probably have a hard time focusing on any one thing, due to the amount of things competing for their attention. They wouldn’t know where to look, what to listen to, or what was most important to pay attention to. And, they’d likely feel overwhelmed by having so many decisions to make about what to focus on.
Our modern human brains aren’t much different from those of our ancient ancestors. Our brains were wired for a much quieter, less stimulating world. When your senses are completely overloaded with information, it’s extremely difficult to fully process the information you receive.
In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986. This means the increase has happened very quickly over the course of just a few decades — not long at all in the span of human history.
More than 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. It would take more than 200 million hours to watch everything on YouTube — way more than we could possibly consume in a lifetime, even if we watched every minute of every day we’re alive.
The more information and entertainment we have, the more demands we have on our attention.
More information to consume means we don’t have enough time, energy, or focus to consume all of it.
So, it’s no wonder that it feels like people’s attention spans are getting shorter, and no wonder the majority of us are finding it takes a lot of effort to focus our attention and concentrate on tasks.
The ability to concentrate is a superpower
If we need to be able to focus and concentrate in order to thrive in our modern world, and yet most people can’t do this easily and resist trying, focused attention becomes like a superpower.
Knowing how to focus and concentrate is a skill that will help young people get better grades, set folks apart in their chosen career path, and help us achieve any goals that we set our mind on, from improving in a sport or hobby to learning/researching more about a topic that interests us.
Concentration is a superpower skill set that fewer and fewer people possess.
You and your students can be the exception. Together, you can train your brains to focus attention whenever you’d like, and build your concentration stamina.
Everything that I’ve shared with you so far — and that I’ll share throughout this article/podcast episode — is taken directly from my new curriculum line, Finding Flow Solutions. It’s designed to explain these concepts to young people in relevant, easy-to-understand ways so they manage their time, energy, and attention. These are essential skills for success in school and in life.
It’s called “Finding Flow Solutions” because the goal is to stop forcing ourselves and our students to buckle down and be productive, and instead to find a state of flow whenever possible. A flow state — first termed that by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — is when a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, completely involved in what they’re doing, and enjoying the process of the activity.
I want to make it simple for you to introduce these ideas to your students, providing a ready-to-use slideshow that guides you through every element of the lesson so students hear exactly what you’re hearing in this podcast. There are also student journal pages so kids can reflect on how these practices fit in with their personalities, preferences, and goals.
Since we all need more intentionality in these areas, the idea is for teachers and students to experiment together with strategies for things like building concentration stamina. So, let’s get into it.
How to teach students to focus their attention
When we talk about stamina for concentration, we’re referring to endurance: the bodily or mental capacity to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity. A flow state makes it easier to concentrate.
When you’re in a flow state, your attention is focused on the thing you want it to be focused on. This requires being in control of your attention.
Think of focused attention as a flashlight. There are many different objects in a room, but wherever you shine the flashlight is where the light is focused.
Many times our flashlight of attention feels like it’s swinging all over the place: the task at hand, our phones, the noise in the hallway, the person next to us who’s talking, and so on. It’s more like swing lights on a concert stage than a flashlight. Learning to focus your attention is like learning to control the direction of the flashlight. It’s choosing which things to illuminate, light up, and bring attention to, and which to leave in relative darkness.
Directing your attention requires control, and that requires practice. The more that you practice shining the flashlight of your attention in one spot and holding the flashlight there, the easier it becomes to do it again.
We can introduce this imagery to students, and teach specific strategies for what to do when they’re trying to focus their attention and the mind wanders. The approach I teach is this:
- Notice that it’s happening. This is a good thing! Sometimes we’re not even aware that our thoughts have wandered.
- Observe, don’t judge. Critical thoughts might pass through your mind, but don’t focus on them. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re getting distracted.
- Bring your thoughts back to the thing you want to focus on.
Repeat this process as many times as necessary!
If you find yourself struggling to refocus more often than usual, that might be a sign you need to take a break and try again a little later.
Over time, you will build your concentration stamina. Building focus stamina is like training for a marathon — it takes time and effort. Just like you wouldn’t run a marathon without practice, don’t expect your focus power to skyrocket overnight. Be patient with yourself and celebrate your small victories along the way.
How students can practice concentrating
In elementary classrooms, it’s pretty common for teachers to introduce the term “reading stamina” and teach students how to build it. We teach young readers what real reading is versus pretend reading, and the specific behaviors involved when you’re focused on a book so students know exactly what it looks, sounds, and feels like.
We teach students over time how to increase the amount of energy and concentration needed to focus on reading. With emergent readers, this might just be for 5 minutes, working up to 10 or 15. By third grade, students are often expected to have the stamina to read continuously for 30 minutes.
We can apply these same practices to concentration stamina in general: the ability to focus your attention and direct your energy toward a particular topic or tasks for a sustained period of time. So, we can teach students the exact steps to follow and clarify exactly what focused attention looks like, and practice doing it.
The process that I use in my Foundations of Flow unit has 5 steps:
- Eliminate distractions: Get comfortable in a quiet place with devices silenced.
- Get clear on the task: Figure out what needs to be done and your next steps.
- Visualize the outcome: Picture the results and how you’ll feel when the task is done.
- Set a timer for 20-45 minutes: Give yourself a reasonable time period to get and stay in flow.
- Focus your attention: Start with what feels easier and build on that until you get into the flow.
You show these five steps to students in the slideshow, and talk about how it can look in the classroom, and then give students multiple opportunities to practice it.
So instead of giving an assignment and having students work on it for 20 minutes, explicitly review these 5 steps first. This sets a much more intentional tone for focus.
You’d show that first step, Eliminate distractions: Get comfortable in a quiet place with devices silenced, and say, “We’re going to get all our materials together and get quiet places where each person can focus.”
Then help students get clear on the task: Figure out what needs to be done and your next steps.
You might say, “Now that I’ve tried to remove distractions, let’s familiarize ourselves with what needs to be done. We’ll look over the directions, review where we left off, and figure out what we need to do next.” Give specifics that are related to the task kids are doing.
Once students are clear on the task, remind them of the third step, which is to visualize the outcome. Picture the results and how you’ll feel when the task is done. That might sound something like this, “When I’m done, I will have a completed ___ and I’ll be finished with ___. It’s going to feel amazing to know I have that part accomplished because it requires a lot of concentration. I’ll be able to do the easier and more fun steps of ___ afterward.”
You’re then ready for step 4, which is incredibly powerful: Set a timer. I like the digital kind that shows a countdown so students know exactly how much time they have and how much is left. In the Finding Flow slideshows, I always embed these timers for students’ tasks.
When you’re helping students practice building attention stamina, start with a short amount of time (maybe just 15 minutes for secondary students) so students can experience success. If the first time they try this, it’s way too long and they have to redirect their attention too many times, they’ll get frustrated.
The second and third times you try this, increase the time period slightly. Ideally, you want students to have a long enough time period to get and stay in a flow state, with 25 minutes working well. Explain to students how long they’ll be expected to concentrate, and set the timer.
They are then ready for that fifth and final step: Focus your attention. Say to the class, “Now, I’m going to envision my attention like a flashlight and shine it directly onto the task. I’m going to try to stay focused on the task for the whole time period. When I feel stuck or it gets too hard, I’ll skip around to some other part for the task that feels easier. Then I can experience some success and I’ll come back to the harder stuff.”
Afterward, debrief with students. What did they do when their minds wandered? How did they push through the need for distractions and breaks? You can share strategies to help students build a toolbox of ideas they can choose from, depending on the task and their mood at any given time.
Remind them that focus means to put your undivided attention on the task, and if your mind wanders, that’s okay! Just bring your focus back to the task. Imagine a flashlight that is swinging all around and you bring it back to your assignment. The first 10 minutes is often the hardest, and if you can push through that, you’ll often wind up in a state of flow in which you’re totally immersed in what you’re doing.
How students can alternate periods of deep concentration and more shallow work
There’s definitely a limit to how long a person can concentrate on tasks each day. I shared in episode 287 about why bell-to-bell instruction is NOT best practice that we’re really setting kids up for failure by expecting them to focus for 5+ hours a day in school and then additional hours in the evenings for homework. Most humans cannot do their best focused work for more than three hours a day, and for young people, that limit is even shorter.
Fortunately, deep concentration and highly focused tasks are not the only things we need to get done in a day. We can be intentional about where to place that limited amount of focused attention based by identifying shallow work tasks vs deep work tasks, and carving out time for both.
A professor and author named Cal Newport first introduced the idea of deep work and shallow work. Shallow work is the type of tasks that don’t need a lot of your brainpower, like replying to emails or scrolling through social media.
For students, shallow work includes tasks like putting the heading on your paper, reviewing an assignment one last time and then submitting it online, etc. Shallow work doesn’t require you to concentrate very hard.
Deep work, on the other hand, requires your brain to go all-in. You have to focus your thinking to solve problems or create something new. For students, this might mean finishing a school project, writing an essay, explaining their thinking in math, conducting a science experiment, or studying for a challenging test.
Shallow work is necessary: we do need to check and respond to messages, for example. Shallow work can serve as a break for our brains for concentrating deeply.
So, after a 25-minute deep work period, take a 5-minute break for movement, stretching, breathing, daydreaming, gazing out the window, socializing, whatever you and your students need. You can then decide whether you have the concentration stamina to do another deep work period of focused attention, or shift into a more shallow task, like reviewing a quiz, having a group discussion, or playing a game.
Alternating between tasks that require a lot of concentration and tasks that allow for some distraction, conversation, and movement can help make the most of your limited time with students. When you explain your rationale and strategy to students, it can help them take the focused work more seriously. They can play around a bit and joke with friends during the shallow work tasks, but when it’s time for deep work and we’re building concentration stamina, they know they need to go all-in mentally. They know we’re focusing all our energy and attention on the task at hand for a short and well-defined time period that is developmentally appropriate, and then we’re taking a break.
Many students resist deep work and concentration at first because it’s difficult. Swiping from one 10 second video to the next is much easier and more immediately rewarding in our brains due to that quick hit of dopamine (the feel-good brain chemical) that’s released.
But deep work brings incredible gratification, and I believe it’s worth training our students not only to engage in deep work, but to LOVE it.
Deep work is what really helps us achieve our goals. The most important things we accomplish in school and our careers and our passions/hobbies and creative practices tend to require deep work. We have to think deeply to produce the outcome we want, and if we’re distracted by shallow work, we’ll never get to solve the big problems.
Shallow work can be a way we procrastinate. Have you ever sat down to work on something for school and found yourself organizing your digital files or searching for just the right image to embed instead of writing? That’s because dragging files around your desktop and looking for images online is shallow work. It doesn’t require nearly as much concentration as researching and writing, which is deep work. And yet because the shallow work tasks do serve a purpose, we feel productive, as if we’re getting the important things done.
This is how many people get stuck in the shallows: they never move out into the deep to do their best thinking and concentrating, because staying in the shallows is easier. If you spend too much time going from one shallow task to the next, you reduce your capacity for deep work. It becomes harder to entice your brain “out into the deep” when it’s used to hanging around the shallows.
Cal Newport teaches that life requires us to do both deep and shallow work, and they’re both necessary. We just have to make sure the shallow work doesn’t fill up all our time so we never get to the deep work. Most people in our society are busy but rarely do much deep work or deep thinking. If you’re able to harness your brain in this way, you will be a standout in life because you’ve trained your brain to do deep work instead of only staying in the shallows.
More resources to teach students to focus and build attention stamina
If you want to introduce these ideas to your students, check out FindingFlowSolutions.com. There is a free unit on Foundations of Flow with the complete slideshow and student journal pages, one version for teenagers and one for pre-teens. (Elementary resources are coming in early 2024!)
Try that free unit out with your students and see how they respond. If it’s helpful, you or your school can purchase individual units, or the complete bundle of all 6 units for your students’ age group.
All the bundles are discounted right now so you can get the lowest price.
Everyone who has purchased the complete bundle of 6 units will be invited to several live online workshops I’ll be conducting in 2024. These trainings will be free and are designed to help secondary teachers use these resources in their classrooms and support students in productivity practices.
It’s difficult to predict anything about the future these days, but I truly believe that the ability to do deep work and have concentration stamina will be a superpower that is desperately needed in every aspect of our world. The ability to manage one’s focused attention, time, and energy levels will become even more essential when so much is distracting us and competing for our attention.
We need deep thinkers, critical thinkers, problem solvers; folks who can stick with difficult issues and overwhelming challenges for long periods of time until forward progress is made.
There are students in your classroom who are not only capable of this kind of thinking right now, but who can grow and develop those abilities over time to change the world. You can support them in this, and grow in these areas yourself to fulfill your purpose and build your legacy.
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