The Magic of Controlling Your Attention
| “Do you know why we say "pay attention"? Your attention is not only valuable to you, it is valuable to dozens of industries that are designed to divert your attention..”
Have you ever sat down to get your work done, and because you were completely focused, you were able to accomplish more in 60 minutes that you could normally do in a week?
If you have, you have experienced the magic of controlling your attention.
Listen to learn the common causes of distraction and lost focus, and what you can do instead to take back your attention and your ability to get stuff done.
- How to focus your mind to help you accomplish miracles
- How to get more done in 30-40 mins than other students can achieve in 3-4 days
- Why it is critical for you to learn how to master your attention
- A big differenced between “focused studying” and “fake studying”
- Why multitasking can—and it will—hurt your performance
And so much more.
Too many people are overwhelmed, stressed out, and frustrated about college admissions prep. I created this podcast to help you build a standout college profile and boost your confidence. Enjoy!
– Steve Gardner, FounderListen to my podcast
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Welcome back to season two of Ivy League Prep. Academy podcast, equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back. All right, let me ask you something. Have you ever sat down with a really important assignment with something that was extremely important for you to get done? And you sit down, and something is different. Your mind was more focused than normal. Your body was just completely present. You didn't get distracted throughout the entire time. As a result, within 30 minutes or 60 minutes, or 90 minutes, whatever the timeframe was, you accomplished more than you normally could accomplish in 2 or 3 days or maybe even a week or more.
Some of you might be listening and thinking, what is that even real? Has that happened to anyone ever before? If you've never experienced that before, you don't even know what I'm talking about. You might feel like that's a fantasy. Most of the people listening in have experienced that at least once. But most of the time, what's the reality? Most of the time, you have that equally important task ahead of you; you have to get this project done or prepare for the test or whatever it is. But instead of being focused and being present and really getting through the material in an efficient and effective manner, you sit down, you begin reading the things you're supposed to read, and you get to page three, get to the bottom of page three. And you think, wait, what did I just read? So you literally finish reading, and you have no idea what you just barely read.
Now, obviously, there's a big difference between scenario one and scenario two. If your mind and your attention are on the task that you're completing and your focus is there, you can accomplish tremendous amounts of studying and research. You can get a lot done. On the other hand, if your mind is wandering and you're unable to focus, then you're going to be tempted to distract yourself very quickly. Before long, you'll be a master of procrastination. So today, I really want to talk about the difference in how you can focus your mind, how you can get to that state where your brain, your mind, your body, everything can kind of come together, and you can accomplish miracles. Right? You can get more done in 30 minutes or 40 minutes than other students get done in 3 or 4 days or more.
So the first thing I want to point out is that there is a phrase in English that we say to pay attention to. I think that there's a reason we say it that way, attention is valuable. And it's obviously valuable to you as the study here, right? That first scenario, where you accomplish ten times more, 20 times more than the second scenario, is happening because of a greater level of attention that you're paying. But your attention is also valuable to other people. In fact, there's an entire economy. We're talking about multiple industries that are built completely around your attention, around distracting you every day. Every click, every ping, or notification that captures your attention subtracts value from you and your ability to get the things you need to be done. And it adds value to someone else. I've talked about this before on this podcast, but I just want to bring out one more time the idea that there's a huge difference between focused studying and fake studying. Sometimes I call it for studying faux studying.
So that phony or foe or fake studying is when you say that you're studying, your book is open, your notes are open, and you might even be reading or writing something. But you've got the tv on, or you are half listening to your friends talking, or your phone is right in front of you and is constantly pinging and notifying you of new things to distract yourself with. In that fake or pseudo-study scenario, you're barely accomplishing anything with your efforts. Yet many students, even some of the really good students that I see in high school and middle school, even some who are listening to this podcast, might not realize quite what's happening.
Some people, for example, might think that they are multitasking, and when you think that you're multitasking, it feels amazing. You feel like you're accomplishing two things at once or three things at once, which doesn't feel ineffective. It feels hyper-effective. It feels like you're getting more done. But your feeling is deceptive. If you don't believe me, there are hundreds.
Now, hundreds of studies and researchers, and scientists agree now that the brain is just not built to focus on more than one task at a time. When you think that you're multitasking, what you're actually doing is switching rapidly, switching back and forth between tasks. In other words, you focus your brain on one task, and then you have to stop focusing on that task, switch your attention to a new task, and refocus your brain on the new task. Not only is this ineffective, but it is also an invitation to distraction, and you are training your brain to be less focused over time. You're going to make yourself less and less capable of focusing. Let's talk about why the john nash study was was done at Stanford university and super interesting study relatively well known. He put software on students, computers so that screenshots were taken of their screens. Anytime there was a change, he also hooked them up so that we could monitor the brain activity in the body as well as they were doing this. What he found is that students took 40 % longer to complete difficult tasks when they were jumping between tasks. They were working faster, but they were producing less.
Now multitasking is tricky because it feels like we're not slowing down. It feels like we're actually going fast, but that feeling is deceptive. New york university professor clay turkey actually talks about how multitasking provides emotional gratification because it moves the pleasure of procrastination inside of the work. Literally, we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we are more effective, that we're working faster, and that we're getting more done when we're actually procrastinating the task that needs to get done while we're doing the task.
So it doesn't feel like we're procrastinating. Those screenshots that were taken of the Stanford students found that the change occurred. On average, every 19 seconds, they were switching screens from one task to another about every 19 seconds. And that many times, their brain scanners or their brain sensors showed increased pleasure. A few seconds before changing screens if they were switching from a difficult task to an easier task. And what that means is that some of these students had developed what is called a low frustration tolerance. They just weren't willing to be frustrated and sit with their frustration. They decided to distract themselves instead.
So how often do you find yourself scrolling social media or surfing the internet mindlessly? If you're like, most teenagers, it's probably happening even more frequently than you realize. And it's important that it's normal to seek entertainment or distraction, especially when you are bored, when you're anxious or when you're uncomfortable. That's what we're talking about. This low frustration tolerance if you're frustrated with your activity. Oftentimes, you're not going to sit with that frustration and work through it. You're going to find a way to distract yourself from it. Imagine an incline. It's always easier to go downhill than it is to go uphill, right? Some tasks are uphill tasks, focused homework, report, writing, test preparation, etcetera, right? Other tasks are downhill tasks, social media, testing, friends, reading, sports, or entertainment news.
Now, uphill tasks get you the results you want. This is where your work gets done. This is where you get better grades, and how you build your confidence. This is how you increase the trust of parents and teachers. This is where you create time for your impact project. This is how you stand out. This is how you make yourself exceptional downhill tasks are more enjoyable and demand less energy. And that's why they're so popular. Right? So untrained teens are drawn to these downhill tasks like a moth is drawn to the light, but the cost is greater than you realize it's tremendous. If you're working on a challenging task and you jump off into a distracting downhill task, it takes extra time and energy to get back. Jumping off, the hard task is easy. Jumping off the easy task is hard, harder than just sticking to the hard task in the first place. That's just the short-term costs. Because every time, you jump down to an easier task. It actually creates a dopamine hit in your brain, and just like any addictive behavior, over time, it becomes harder and harder and harder to stay on task or to get focused.
So lost focus through multi-tasking or lost focus through intentional distraction. After a time of doing this, it does become an addiction. So what can we do about it? Assuming that you're getting enough sleep? I've done a previous podcast about the importance of sleep. You can go back and listen to that. But there's a tremendous amount of research that says if you're sleep deprived, you are, cognitively, you're functioning as if you are drunk. It's going to be nearly impossible to focus the way that we're talking about here if you're sleep-deprived.
So first, listen to the podcast on sleep and get enough sleep. Second, be strategic about your choices. If you know that you're prone to distraction, then be strategic around that; turn off your phone during the 30 minutes or 40 minutes that you need to be focused. What I recommend is you take the phone and you put it in a drawer; after you turn it off, put it in a drawer where you cannot see it. Turn off notifications on your laptop. If you have to be using your laptop, make sure that the laptop is not the origin of the distractions.
The third thing, focus time set up in your schedule and decide ahead of time if you need to. So you can tell friends or family. I don't want to be distracted during the next period of time because it's going to be my focus time. I really need to put my head down and get this work done. Schedule that into your day. At first, that scheduled time, your focus time, perhaps shouldn't be too long. 10 minutes might be your max. If you're a trained self-distractor, then maybe just give yourself 10 minutes and tell yourself you're going to do nothing but focus on the task for 10 minutes.
And if you can accomplish that, great, really where you should be; if you're healthy, a normal teenager can easily focus for 40 to 50 minutes at a time. At the end of 50 minutes, once you're there. At the end of 50 minutes, even if you can focus for longer. Go ahead and take a break, take a 2 to 3-minute break, set your alarm for 50 minutes, and focus the entire time.
And when the alarm goes off, put your pencil down or close your laptop stand up, stretch out, get a drink of water, and tell yourself you did a great job, right? As you're stretching and doing deep breathing for just a minute or two, to say nice job, you were really focused for those entire 15 minutes. You got an amazing amount of work done. Well, done; the next 50 minutes are going to be amazing, too. You're gonna do even better. And you stretch out, and your smile, and you just feel good as you breathe deeply. And then, after 2 or 3 minutes of stretching and breathing and this positive self-talk, go ahead and get back to work, set a timer for 50 minutes again. And you can refocus for 50 more minutes. Once you're at that stage, you'll be amazed at how much you can accomplish. And it's totally normal for a teenager to be able to focus for that long. But until you're there, don't set that expectation. If it's difficult for you to focus for 10 minutes, then you're not doing yourself any favors by pretending to focus for 50 minutes.
The 4th thing that I want to talk about today is cutting out those extra activities. Some of you are voluntarily distracting yourself way more than you need to be because you're signing up for activities just because you think it will look good on your college resume. Don't; it's silly. It's a bad strategy. It's not helping you, and it's distracting you. So I teach my students to do an average joe activity audit. Take a look at all of the activities that you're doing that any student could do if they were given enough time or money to do that activity. Anything like that doesn't require skill or focus or expertise or specialization is not really helping you set yourself apart when you apply to university. So if you're only doing the activity because you think it will help you get in, it's not helping you get in. Do the activities that you find meaningful, that you find important, but let go of the other ones. They're only distracting you.
There you have it. You are capable of getting a lot more done in a very short period of time than you perhaps realize. If you've never had this level of focus, this level of productivity during your focus time, then it's something you have to try. You have to begin training yourself, so you can do it. There's not enough time in your life for you to be distracted and accomplish all the things that you need to accomplish to set yourself apart. But learning how to be more productive and more focused is really, really healthy. This is a skill that will serve you not only in middle school and in high school. It will serve you very well in college, graduate school, and your professional life. It's going to be something that can set you apart, not just for now, but can set you apart forever. It's really a game-changer if you want to be more productive.
If you want to get more done, you have to learn to remove distractions and stay focused for the right period of time. You also need to learn how to recover your focus and recover your attention, which we can talk about in another podcast, but learning to focus your energy learning on focusing your attention, is a valuable skill that's worth developing today. So begin wherever you are, eliminate those distractions, stop pretending that you can multitask, and begin to really focus your mind on focusing your attention. So that you can accomplish more in less time, you'll be glad you develop the skill. Trust me, and you'll be so glad you developed this skill.