Too Distracted to Learn: The Lost Art of Paying Attention

Much ancient wisdom revolves around our attention. The Buddha once said “all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” A Zen proverb simply states: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”

Except now when walking, we’re texting. And when eating, we’re watching Netflix. We’ve stopped paying attention to attention lately, and are collectively going along with a great experiment to chop up and fill our attention with as many screens, tabs, and notifications as possible.

How does a constant state of distraction and rapid task-switching impact learning? Why are we drawn to this behavior? What implications does this have for learning and our classrooms? To explore these questions around learning and attention, we first have to understand how humans developed the ability to do something rare in the animal kingdom – that’s setting goals.

What do goals have to do with attention?

In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (2016), neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen write “the most defining characteristic of the human mind is our ability to create goals.” Goal-setting and goal-enactment are at the root of all everyday decisions.

While a few other species have evolved the ability to set and follow-through on relatively simple goals (e.g. great apes, corvids, and crows), humans developed a unique ability to continually enact interwoven, time-delayed goals. In our minds, we can pursue multiple goals over the course of weeks, months, and years. How did we come to have this ability?

According to Gazzaley and Rosen (2016), at the core of all modern animal behavior is the “perception-action cycle,” which describes the flow of information between an organism and its environment as a goal is pursued. For many animals, the goal is simply survival, and most actions are in pursuit of this goal. Information from the environment is perceived by the senses, which drives motor structure, which in turn modifies the environment, restarting the cycle.

But modern humans evolved an ability to press “pause” on this cycle. We can enact top-down goals. This is in contrast to most other species which operate almost entirely from bottom-up, reflexive signals.

perception action
The Perception-Action Cycle, Gazzaley and Rosen (2016)

Due to our ability to pause between perception and action, the modern brain developed its most magnificent abilities – executive function and cognitive control. 

“Our proficiency in setting goals is mediated by a collection of cognitive abilities that are widely known as ‘executive functions,’ a set of skills that include evaluation, decision making, organization, and planning.

Our ability to effectively carry out goals is dependent on an assemblage of related cognitive abilities that we will refer to as ‘cognitive control.’ This includes attention, working memory, and goal management.” – Gazzaley and Rosen (2016)

Put simply, at the root of all of humanity’s lasting achievements is our unique ability to direct attention to setting and achieving goals both near and far. Our cognitive control fuels our ability to accomplish goals.

However, our ability to follow through on goals (cognitive control) is not as developed as our ability to set these goals (executive function). In fact, our cognitive control has many, well-known weaknesses (driving teachers’ interest in cognitive load theory). Humans struggle to:

  • distribute, divide, and sustain attention
  • hold detailed information in working memory for very long
  • switch rapidly between multiple competing goals (multi-tasking or task-switching)

This mismatch between a disadvantaged cognitive control and more powerful executive function causes a collision between what we intend to do, and what we actually do on a daily basis. And the growth of an attention economy that maximizes profit by controlling ever greater shares of our attention is only making it harder to follow through on goals.

Why are Goals Becoming Harder to Achieve?

Nir Eyal spent a decade researching behavioral psychology. He published what he learned in a book, Hooked, which has since been used by some of the most successful technology companies to engineer products designed to grab our attention and be addictive.

Book 13–14 Hooked and Indistractable by Nir Eyal - 100 books a ...

More recently, Eyal published Indistractable (2019), which predicts that going forward there will be two kinds of people – those who allow their attention (and lives) to be controlled by others, and those who are “indistractable.” He writes:

“Distractions have and always will be facts of life. Today’s distractions, however, feel different. The amount of information available, the speed at which it can be disseminated, and the ubiquity of access to new content on our devices has made for a trifecta of distraction. If it’s a distraction you seek, it’s easier than ever to find.”

And so, while our cognitive control abilities (attention, working memory, and goal management) are already limited, they are now fully overwhelmed by a torrential flood of information and interruptions expertly engineered to redirect our attention.

Instead of pursuing and completing goals, we increasingly experience goal interference. A common example is going to do something, being interrupted by a cell phone notification, and then forgetting what you were originally doing. Interference can originate externally as distractions or interruptions (like the prior example), or internally as mind-wandering or multi-tasking. Whether internal or external, interference is toxic for goal-setting and goal-enactment – a crucial component of learning.

“[Interference] impacts every level of our thinking, from our perceptions, decision making, communication, emotional regulation, and our memories. This in turn translates into negative consequences on our safety, our education, and our ability to engage successfully and happily with family, friends, and colleagues.”

Gazzaley and Rosen (2016)

How much interference do we experience each day?

If interference and task-switching are so detrimental to our goal-setting ability, and ultimately have many negative impacts on our thinking, decision-making, and learning, why do we do it so much?

Why Do We Seek out Distraction and Task-Switching?

To be human is to be experience discontentment. There is an important reason we are wired like this though – it’s been key to our survival.

“If satisfaction and pleasure were permanent, there might be little incentive to continue seeking further benefits or advances…distraction is just another way our brains attempt to deal with pain (Eyal, 2019).”

Basically, the same grumpy disposition that has helped humans survive for millenia work against us by driving us to seek distraction. Distraction has become our favorite relief from discomfort.  Eyal (2019) identifies four psychological factors driving our state of perpetual discomfort:

  • Boredom: Generally, we prefer doing things versus being left alone with thoughts.
  • Negativity bias: We pay attention to, and remember bad things more than good things.
  • Rumination: We have a tendency to continually compare our current situation with some not-yet-achieved standard.
  • Hedonic adaption: No matter what happens in life (good or bad), we tend to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction.

To relieve this discomfort, we can quickly turn to smartphones and screens. But it’s not just that we are generally grumpy and seeking relief through distraction – we are also fundamentally information-foragers at heart.

Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) liken the modern human to a “squirrel with an attention disorder, constantly jumping from tree to tree, sampling a few tasty morsels and leaving many more behind as he jumps to the next tree, and the next and the next.”

To explain humanity’s enchantment with task-switching behavior, Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) draw upon optimal foraging theory. This theory originated in behavioral ecology and has been used to accurately predict how an animal behaves when searching for food.

For example, as a squirrel eats acorns in a patch, the acorn supply slowly disappears, leaving fewer acorns to eat. The squirrel must make a decision at some point to use energy to move to a new patch versus remaining in the depleted patch. Optimal foraging theory can predict when the squirrel moves to another patch.

What does this have to do with attention? Optimal foraging theory argues that animals have evolved behaviors which maximize energy intake. Fascinatingly, Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) use optimal foraging theory to explain human’s desire to maximize information intake.

“Humans seem to exhibit an innate drive to forage for information in much the same way that other animals are driven to forage for food.

Study after study…has demonstrated that adults, teenagers, and even children are shifting their attention to a new information patch even before they have completed their task in the original source.”

Instead of deeply reading and contemplating, we are skimming and flipping. Continuous partial attention is now the norm – a common example being watching shows while scrolling on phones.

Anxiety and fear of missing out fuel increased information consumption, while blistering 5G and WiFi allow us to jump from information patch to information patch with greater speed at the slightest hint of boredom.

Put simply, humans are drawn to task-switching and interference because we are information foragers by nature and are always seeking relief from our general discontentment. The easiest relief comes from distraction, and it is easier than ever to find. What implications will this have for schools and classrooms?

How Will We Adapt?

Up to this point, we’ve explored how humanity’s unique ability to achieve both short and long-term goals is threatened by constant task-switching and interference. We’ve also learned why humans are driven to maximize information intake and attempt to multi-task, even when it overruns our limited cognitive control and severely reduces performance.

This final section will look at 1) implications of increased task-switching and distraction on reading and thinking in general 2) strategies both you and your students can use to quell the internal and external triggers driving this detrimental behaviors.

Deep Reading = Deep Thought

How will task-switching and distraction impact learning? One of the most endangered human abilities stands to be our ability to deeply read, and thereby deeply think.

Nicholas Carr rang the alarm back in his 2008 article Is Google Making Us Stupid? In the piece, Carr makes a direct connection between the dominant communication medium (e.g. the written word, Gutenberg’s printing press, now the internet) and the way we think.

“Media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”

More recently, Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home (2018) illuminated how our 6,000 year-old “reading brain” has been key to our intellectual development as a species. She worries that we may lose what she calls “cognitive patience” – our gateway to deep reading and wonder.

“What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace…the quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species.”

Not only does rapid task-switching and interference wear at our ability to think deeply, it can also lead to more errors and is associated with much higher stress levels. What are some research-informed strategies we can use to remedy this?

Remedies

The answer to the distracted age is not strict screen-time limits or anti-technology dogma. Indeed, screens have recently become our sole source of education, work, and entertainment as of late. It’s really more about what you’re doing with the screen, and how you manage your attention while using it.

Maryanne Wolfe (2018) writes how we should work towards developing “bi-literate brains” that allow us to take advantage of the best of both print and digital worlds. A bi-literate brain can shift gears while reading – becoming aware of when and where to apply deep reading or  surface-level skimming. Almost like an all-wheel-drive brain that can handle any terrain. What does this look like in schools?

Wolf recommends physical books and handwriting as dominant mediums for the first years of school. Why? Physical books provide a concrete road map – or sequence of what has been read – that can be easily re-read and retraced. Also, physical books are best for dialogic reading – the irreplaceable interactive discussion that occurs between the adult and child while reading that drives so much language learning.

But perhaps the best benefit of physical books is that they help students internalize how reading takes time and “gives back thoughts that continue long after a story is finished” (Wolf, 2018).

As soon as students start reading on screens, teach “counterskills,” such as:

  • The importance of reading for meaning, not speed
  • Awareness of when and when to not skim and word-spot
  • Strategies to self-monitor comprehension, and importance of pausing to deploy analogical and inferential thinking

On a more personal level, Gazzaley and Rosen outline many useful practices in their article Remedies for the Distracted Mind that can be used to quell the distracted mind.

  • Use a single screen at a time, and set times for specific tasks to avoid interference and task switching (especially email and social media)
  • Use familiar background music to increase mood while working on a single task
  • Use time-delayed breaks as rewards:
    • Exercise
    • Exposure to nature
    • Meditation

Crucially, the above remedies should be used in tandem. This is because our ability to pay attention is a combination of increasing focus (exercise, meditation etc) and suppressing of distractions (single screens and set times).

When it comes specifically to cell phones, probably the best advice comes from James Clear in Atomic Habits (2018). He recommends leaving your phone in another room whenever doing work, or just removing social media apps entirely. He writes “this is the secret to self-control. Make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.”

But perhaps the most impactful and simple action teachers can take is to find as many opportunities for students to practice single-tasking in the classroom. Recognize and teach students that the ability to be indistractable is something that will not only benefit their learning but also drastically improve quality of life.

“Teaching people to work on a ‘single hard task for a long time without switching’ is, in other words, one of the greatest gifts you can give a young person.”

-Doug Lemov

Put Simply

  • At the root of all of humanity’s lasting achievements is our unique ability to direct attention to setting and achieving goals both near and far.
  • Our cognitive control is limited – and now fully overwhelmed by constant task-switching and goal interference
  • Distraction relieves discomfort and task-switching maximizes our intake of information – but at great cost (more errors, greater stress)
  • Our ability to deeply read and contemplate is becoming quickly endangered. A  deliberate plan to develop bi-literate readers is needed.

Sources

Brumby D.P., Janssen C.P., Mark G. (2019) How Do Interruptions Affect Productivity?. In: Sadowski C., Zimmermann T. (eds) Rethinking Productivity in Software Engineering. Apress, Berkeley, CA – LINK

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin.

Eyal, N. (2019). Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir and Far.

Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world. Mit Press.

Mishra, J., Anguera, J. A., Ziegler, D. A., & Gazzaley, A. (2013). A cognitive framework for understanding and improving interference resolution in the brain. In Progress in brain research (Vol. 207, pp. 351-377). Elsevier.

Wolf, M. (2018). Reader, come home: The reading brain in a digital world. New York, NY: Harper.

12 thoughts on “Too Distracted to Learn: The Lost Art of Paying Attention

  1. Hi Jon,

    Great post. Are you familiar with the work of Pascal Sheeran and Peter Gollwitzer on the intention/behavior gap? The picture is more complex than what Eyal suggests. Sometimes we don’t achieve the goal because we fail at planning, we don’t monitor our progress, we’re blind to the negative influence of habits, we forget to act because the relevant mental representation is inactive, some people have low executive function, etc. Gollwitzer makes a clear distinction between goal setting and goal striving and the need to protect the latter. In that capacity, monitoring the progress, mental contrasting and implementation intentions are great tools to close the intention/behavior gap.

    Cheers,

    Mario

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    1. Really appreciate you sharing Pascal Sheeran and Peter Gollwitzer! I look forward to digging into their work and expanding my (admittedly) narrow domain knowledge re: goal-setting/enactment/identity 🙏

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      1. Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen is a great place to start. For a more academic reading, The Psychology of Thinking about the Future (Oettingen, Sevincer & Gollwitzer – 2018) offers a nice introduction to the latest research on the subject.

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      2. It appears there are a couple different strands of research going here, and I don’t think they are necessarily at odds.

        What I’m seeing from Gollwitzer and Sheeran appears to be exploring implementation intentions and goal achievement…which could certainly be useful when devising a plan to counter the effects of interference/distraction (e.g. if my phone buzzes, I will wait until after I finish to check it….).

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  2. There’s something about the distinction that Gazzaley and Rosen make between executive function and cognitive control that doesn’t feel right. Evaluation, decision making, organization, and planning are made in working memory, where else? So how can working memory be only a part of cognitive control?

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  3. I learnt about Gollwitzer by reading Monique Boekaerts on emotion, motivation and self-regulation of learning. In her work you can grasp where implementation intentions can be used in a school context to help students. Gollwitzer himself has several papers on the subject as well.

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  4. I enjoyed the post but rather pointedly had to dig deep to keep reading from the point you said “in the final section”! I noted that I looked at the scroll bar that was only a third way down and thought – i will never make it – now realise much of the apparent length to go was down to comments such as these – as such I may tragically be contributing to the curtailment of someone else reading!

    Liked by 1 person

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