The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Presence and Single Focus

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Luarel

Laurel Willingham-McLain
Learners – students and faculty alike – are starting a new semester. Here are some thoughts on how I want to approach this new beginning as a learner:
“Full attention is needed for learning.”
“Focus on one task at a time, and you’ll do better at each task in much less time.”
“Typically, research demonstrates that individuals who shift tasks make 50% more errors and spend at least 50% more time on both tasks” (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 79, based on Medina, 2008).

As a mother and center director, I had always prided myself on being a so-called ‘multi-tasker’. But lately I have noticed that I reach sensory overload very quickly. I have a very hard time, for example, focusing on a conversation or reading while the radio is on. In fact, I find it painful. My head hurts.

The research is clear. There is no such thing as multitasking – just serial switching, which has detrimental effects on both our work and the brain itself.

Now, of course, if at least one of the tasks is more procedural (repetitive, familiar, and low on cognitive processing), we can do two things at once. I can wash dishes and chat with a friend. Or walk and pray at the same time. But there are many tasks, both personal and work-related that deserve and even require my full attention.

And so, my resolution for this year is to learn to attend to one task at a time – be it a simple or complex task.

If I start to make a cup of tea, I plan to finish without using the intervening two minutes to leave the kitchen and fold the laundry – which inevitably means coming back to a tepid cup of water and starting the process over again. Or forgetting the tea altogether.

However, this resolution is not merely about being more efficient or productive but also about being present to the person I’m with rather than planning the next move in my mind. This focus is essential in other cultures where the present is valued more than the future. This doesn’t come naturally to me. I need to learn how to give very clear signals when I do need to move on from the conversation rather than allowing my mind to drift into giving half of my attention.

For reading and desk work, the pomodoro technique (aka, tomato timer) is a useful tool for attending to those tasks I’m resisting. The cycle of 25 minutes on task followed by a 5 minute break, fits another cognitive science finding: that we need to interweave our learning with “wakeful rest,” or periods of time where we are not taking in new information (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013, p. 25). We also need physical movement.

The good news is that I just succeeded in a small way. I wrote this blog post without checking email, text messages, or Facebook.

I can do it! So can you.

References
Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Author: duqcte

Founded in 1989 as a faculty initiative, the Center for Teaching Excellence helps faculty and graduate student teaching assistants excel as teacher-scholars deeply invested in their students’ learning. We believe that excellent teaching is an art that grows through scholarship, practice, reflection, and collaboration. Our approach at CTE is a personal one. We promote excellence in teaching by getting to know our faculty and TAs, learning from them, fostering their leadership, and bringing people together from across the University.

One thought on “Presence and Single Focus

  1. Important thoughts for the upcoming school year. It is far easier to think of what we have to do for the upcoming year than to consider how we are going to be both in ourselves and with one another.

    Like

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