Attention Training; 4 Tips To Help Gen Z Kids Improve Their Focus

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Nicholas Carr wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” [1]

When I came across the article, I was so excited to read it. However, to prove his point, it took me 5 sittings to finish it because it was so long. What is happening to us? Is this open-multiple-tabs-phenomenon shortening our attention spans? And most importantly, how on Earth are Gen Z kids going to cope?

Except for a rare few, Gen Z kids are growing up in a world surrounded by screens and notifications. I personally believe that attention training will be as important as potty-training, though I wonder how early it would need to be taught. Here are a few basics for attention-training for both you and your Gen Z kids:

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Pomodoro Training

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s, this has become a popular time management method where you set a timer to 25 minutes during which you focus on the task at hand. When the timer goes off, you take a 5 minute break, after which you start your next session. To train your kids, phones need to be completely inaccessible while they work, which means;

  1. No using the phone as a calculator.
  2. If they need to watch classes online or on youtube, an adult needs to monitor that they focus on that particular video and nothing else.
  3. If they have questions about said educational video, they’ll need to write down the questions to research later.

This is a good technique for the following reasons;

  • The hardest part about working on a task that requires a lot of focusing is…starting. Using terms from physics, overcoming inertia is harder than maintaining momentum. This explains why you’ll notice yourself going over the 25 minute period sometimes, because you become so engaged with the task.
  • The light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel effect. For tasks you particularly dread, the idea that, “It’ll be over soon,” keeps you going.

The modified version I personally use is the Successively Decreasing Pomodoro Technique, where the first session is set to 50 minutes, and then 40 minutes and so on…Naturally, the breaks also tend to get longer as the work sessions get shorter. This goes with the idea that we wake up with a finite amount of willpower, and it tends to decrease over the course of the day.

Find Your Flow (and Ride The Wave)

We’ve all experienced moments of flow, where we’re totally engaged on the work at hand, and our sense of time dissolves completely [and if you haven’t, then you’re really missing out on life]. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, the conditions required to enter a state of flow when you hit the right balance of perceived challenges of the task and your own perceived skills.

Kids distracted by their Snapchat notifications will need to be trained to understand and recognize flow when they’re in it. The thing with kids is that sometimes, they really get obsessed with what they’re doing. So the parent needs to realize it’s a good thing when the kid is into his work, so they might refrain from calling them downstairs for one reason (dinner) or another (to say hi to aunt Lucy).

When I was in Boston, I once saw a child drawing under a tree. It was so refreshing seeing someone engaged in their work without any screens around. I feel when it comes to kids, it’s important what you actually put in front of them. If the ipads and iphones are accessible then they’ll reach out to those. If they’re not, and instead there are acrylic paints and canvases lying around, then guess what they’ll reach out to.

Silence Your Phone (Turn Off Email Notification)

It’s very hard to reach me since my phone tends to be perpetually on silent, which makes it hard to find whenever I lose it. But I read somewhere [2] that phone/email notifications causes slight release of dopamine hits, and being exposed to phone notifications perpetually conditions us to anticipate it — explains the obsessive nature of checking the phone five times a minute even when there are no notifications. So I tend to silence my phone most of the time, and for some people, this might not be practical advice (I can do it because I don’t have much of a social life), so my suggestion is to silence your phone during your Successively Decreasing Pomodoro sessions.

Build Your Focus With Something You Like (Just Not Youtube or Video Games)

The main reason we procrastinate is because we dread whatever it is we’re going to be working on. Maybe it’s hard, challenging and not quite fun. Because our focusing abilities have diminished thanks to the internet, I think it would be interesting to experiment if we can reverse this by building up our focus on tasks we like. Start with a 30 minute session, and then add 2 minutes everyday you work on the task again. It might be useful to work with one of the time-logging apps mentioned here such as aTimeLogger [3] to monitor how much time you focus on those tasks.

Now of course, ‘like’ is a subjective term. It could include reading, writing, gardening, knitting, painting, giving a talk; any task that requires focus but does not have negative feelings connected to it. I personally wouldn’t include youtube and video games because of the inherent sensory overload that comes with them. If you look at people who play video games, they’re totally focused for hours, but once they’re done, they turn into these zombies walking around in a daze with their eyes wide open. Of course, I’m prejudiced against video games [apparently there are some benefits to playing them], but again, I wouldn’t include them in the list.

So when it comes to Gen Z, I’m against the idea of banning them from their phones, because that’s where their future lies. However, smartphone usage needs to be monitored and controlled. At the end of the day, these kids are humans who crave basic needs such as belonging to a tribe, physical and emotional connection with others, and smartphones are nothing but tools to help them attain such connection. And finally, I don’t think we should demonize screens and catastrophize the shorter attention spans because they’re going to be fine.

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