How to foster mental focus in our kids—and ourselves


How do we achieve maximal mental focus in an overly wired and wireless world? This is the question that Georgetown University professor, author, and father, Cal Newport, addresses in his forthcoming book Digital Minimalism. He writes about ways to prune one’s digital life, getting it down to those technologies that truly help us to think deeper.

I often talk about how new strategies for helping our kids focus in this tech revolution whether that’s enforcing a no-cell-phone rule at school or ways to stay on task while doing homework. So, I am always excited to get ideas from others about helpful approaches to fostering deep thinking.

One of the reasons I wanted to discuss this topic is that it gives us a chance to share with our kids some of the strategies we use to have focused times. When I talk with youth they often complain about how distracted adults are on their devices—yes, true—AND we are often doing work on our devices. So, subtly reinforcing that point, and how we stay on task when we are doing that, is key.

Newport argues that we should be much more selective about the technologies we adopt in our personal lives and “radically reduce the time you spend online, focusing on a small number of activities chosen because they support things you deeply value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” He also says something that I agree with: “Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values, rather than letting it use you.”

In an interview that ran in the New York Times last week, Newport discusses with writer Tim Herrera how to achieve “deep work.”  Here are some of the main points Newport makes:

  1. Give up tech temporarily to get back useful tech
    He suggests something radical: give up all your things tech like apps, social media, etc., for a month to help reflect on your values and then mindfully add back only the ones that will help you to achieve those values. The basic idea is that people need to be more intentional and selective about what apps and services they allow into their digital lives. I find it really interesting that when embarking on the research for “Digital Minimalism” Newport asked his newsletter subscribers whether any of them wanted to try this idea. He thought just a handful of people would do it… but, in fact, 1600 responded.
    I’m not proposing you go to this far, but I do think that the more we talk to our kids about our values, their values, and everyone’s goals, the more it becomes clear that too much screen time can get in the way of one's values and goals.

  2. Consciously carving out deep work time slots
    Newport tells Herrera, “You cannot just wait until you find yourself with lots of free time and in the mood to concentrate. You have to actively fight to incorporate this into your schedule. It helps, for example, to include deep work blocks on your calendar, like meetings or appointments, and then protect them as you would a meeting or appointment”. (BTW, Daniel Pink wrote a book called When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing that looks at the times of days that are more productive for certain tasks.)

  3. Embracing boredom facilitates deep thought
    Newport says to Herrera, “The ability to concentrate is a skill that you have to train if you expect to do it well...If you always whip out your phone and bathe yourself in novel stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom, your brain will build a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli, which means that when it comes time to think deeply about something (a boring task, at least in the sense that it lacks moment-to-moment novelty), your brain won’t tolerate it.” While I do not agree with how he equates thinking deeply with boredom, I do agree that if one continually interrupts brain flow, new connections and mental breakthroughs can be hampered. (That’s my excuse at least when my creativity falls short).

Here are three examples of things I do to help create times of undistracted thinking:

  1. I absolutely have no notifications on my phone other than for texts. For a long time, I didn't even have a sound notification for texts but instead told people who might genuinely need my attention immediately to call in such cases. I have since turned back on the sound alert on my texts, but I am contemplating going back to the old way.

  2. I often go to nearby cafes to do deep thinking such as intensive research and writing. For a good chunk of time at the cafes, I turn my off my Wifi so that I will not reflexively keep checking email.

  3. I almost always keep a notebook at the side of my computer, so when thoughts pop up about things I want or need to do, such as check something online, send a text or make a call, I write the task down so to remember to do it later.  For example, it’s Saturday and right now I have the urge to do many things, such as go online and find the show time tonight of the improv theater near my home and to find the best driving route to my shoot today. Instead, I just write quickly these thoughts down in my notebook and stay focused on writing this TTT!

As a society, it is essential that we openly discuss how we can foster focused thinking in our children and students. I find it heartening that so many tech educators and IT leaders at schools reach out to us about showing Screenagers. These are the people that are tasked with integrating technology into schools, and they want to ensure that we are having a dialogue about how to best do this.

Another reason I wanted to talk about this is that young people are thinking about these issues. When I ask them their strategies for staying focused, more often than not, they share things they are trying. Just today I was filming several middle schoolers and I asked them this question and they told me a few of their tricks like “putting on a timer” and “changing phone settings to ‘Do Not Disturb’ while doing homework”.

For this week’s Tech Talk Tuesday let’s explore “digital minimalism” with our kids:

  1. What are some of your values and goals right now in your life? When do these benefit from focused attention?

  2. What strategies have you tried to create sacred time, i.e. free of distractions?

  3. If all of a sudden screens disappeared in the world, and then you were able to choose 3 screen dependent activities/tools/apps that you could suddenly have, what would you pick?

  4. Do you agree or not with this sentence, “To be able to think deeply, one needs to be able to tolerate and even embrace moments of boredom.”

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