February Word to Live By: FOCUS
How and where we stay focused impacts our lives
By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder
Distractions, busy schedules and overloaded days make it extremely hard for most of us to stay focused. However, the ability to stay focused can have a great impact on our lives.
When we focus we pay attention to what is going on around us. We remain fixed on a central purpose.
Without focus, we meander from one task to another. Our To-Do list grows because we have not focused long enough to truly accomplish any tasks.
According to Dr. Jim Taylor, “Focus is so important because it is the gateway to all thinking: perception, memory, learning, reasoning, problem solving and decision making.”
As I grow older my ability to maintain focus has decreased. I jokingly refer to it as adult-onset ADD, but I really think it has more to do with all the distractions that are just a fingertip away- my phone, laptop or Kindle.
“Focus is so important because it is the gateway to all thinking: perception, memory, learning, reasoning, problem solving and decision making.” – Dr. Jim Taylor
As I child and teen, I could read a book for hours with a single-minded focus that allowed me to tune out everything around me. Now, I struggle to write this blog without grabbing my phone to check social media, a news app or email.
While we like to say we are multitasking, research shows that multitasking is not a time saver. In fact, a study by Rubinstein, Meyer, and Evans showed that “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
My inability to stay focused proves detrimental in making good use of my time and you may find yourself with the same problem.
Choosing to focus
As an amateur photographer and photography teacher for two decades, I am especially excited about Focus as our February Word to Live By.
Photographers select the focus that best serves their needs for a particular shot. The focus can make a subject stand out from or blend into its surroundings. It can draw the viewer into the photograph, and done well it can create an emotional connection.
The same can be true of our focus. What we choose to focus on shows the importance of that object. It can tell our colleagues they are important, or it can tell them we do not have time for them. It lets our students know that we hear and see them.
Likewise, it tells the people we love how much we value them. If we are distracted by grading, our phone, TV or a book and don’t take the time to focus on them, we are not showing them as a priority.
I am guilty. I sometimes become a slave to all of the above and get focused on the wrong things. That is why I have chosen to learn to stay focused for my February goal.
In photography there are different types of focus that we can apply to our own lives. So to learn more about focus, let’s look through the photographer’s lens.
Continuous focus on a camera allows you to track an object and keep it in sharp focus as it moves. It refocuses continuously. This is the kind of focus we use all day long in our classroom.
It is the kind of focus that allows us to notice Johnny hopping beside his seat while across the room Hannah waves her hand and Oliver has just put his head down. We constantly track our classroom and refocus our attention. This kind of focus in the long-term exhaust us because we are always “on.”
Being aware of what is going on at all times is obviously necessary in a classroom for safety and good discipline. However, I have a hard time turning off continuous focus outside of the classroom as well.
When I am home, I hear all the conversations, the radio and TV. I see people walking in and out of the room and am hyper-aware of what is going on around me. That is why I do not understand how my sons and I can have a full conversation in the same room with my husband and he never hears a word!
Learning how to turn off the continuous focus when we are out of a situation that requires that will make us more productive. Granted, it is not as easy as turning a dial like on my camera, but with practice it can happen. One way is discussed in the next section as we learn how to focus on just one thing.
Single focus allows for no continuous adjustment. We hone in on one object once and remain focused on it. This is the type of focus we need when we are grading papers, planning lessons, writing blogs or having a one-on-one conversation. A strong single focus allows for great productivity and results because we put away all other distractions.
This is the kind of focus my husband has when watching TV or doing most tasks. He tunes out everything around him. I can talk to him, and he never hears me. Again, I think his career makes this easier for him. He uses single focus most of the day solving computer network issues in an office by himself. He maintains focus on one task quite easily because he rarely has multiple distractions like we do as teachers.
Since I do not have that luxury, I have trouble with single focus. I have learned that I need a quiet, distraction free zone. I need an atmosphere with no music, no TV, no people and no electronics to accomplish single focus. So when I have something important to do, I remove myself from the distractions.
Ask yourself: where do you need to be and what do you need around you to work most efficiently? Once you figure out how you best focus on one task, you will notice that your productivity increases. The amount of time it takes for you to accomplish tasks will also decrease because you will complete them more quickly.
Selective focus is when you select a particular object to focus on and choose to make the rest blurry. The foreground might be blurry and you focus on an object in the background, or maybe you want to ignore the background and only focus on what is right in front of you.
You do this when you ignore everything else around you. This type of focus is important so you can ignore the elements that cause distraction. This type of focus allows you to concentrate on grading while you sit waiting for your son’s soccer practice to end. There is noise and action in the background, but you blur it out to focus on the task at hand.
We do the same thing in the classroom when we are helping a student and another student is waving their hand or saying your name repeatedly. Selective focus allows us to concentrate on the immediate task at hand and ignore the distractions thrown our way.
Selective focus is an important skill to teach our students so they can work productively in the classroom. We often ask them to read, write, work math problems or do other in class work, but our classroom provides hundreds of distractions.
Classmates who fidget or talk, people entering or leaving the classroom, a teacher walking around the room, pencils being sharpened and elaborately decorated classrooms can make it difficult for many students to focus. Often teachers play music during this time as well. For some students that might work, but for other students like me that could hurt their ability to focus.
5 simple classroom focus ideas
- Give students one task to complete before they can move on.
- Teach students how to break large tasks into steps so they can focus on one part at a time.
- Allow students to find a place that works for them. When I gave high school students time to write, I let them choose a comfortable place. For some it was at their table, for others it was the floor and a couple wanted to go out in the hall where there were even fewer distractions. Some liked to listen to music with earbuds while others liked silence. I did not play music in the classroom for that reason.
- Require an exit ticket, check-in or turned in assignment which help students focus on an end goal they need to accomplish. If it is just work time without a set goal, most students do not take it seriously and easily lose focus.
- Remember to change up activities about every 15-20 minutes. Think about how you feel when you are in a faculty meeting for an hour and how hard it is to focus. Now imagine that lasting all day long, day after day. That is what our students face. Breaking up the class period makes the time go faster. This also allows students a quick brain break between activities so they can refocus.
No doubt most of us need to practice staying focused. With effort and practice, we can increase our focus and productivity. We can also teach those skills to our students to help them increase their focus in class.