I’m new to parenthood: I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. But even at this early stage, I’m frequently exposed to messages about the skills I must help my kids develop—from reading to basic politeness to a good work ethic. What strikes me is that missing from this list is a skill that’s rapidly increasing in value—something that can produce success in school and the workplace, and can decrease the anxiety and stress that often orbits achievement. Not only do many parents ignore this skill, but they too often allow their kids to persist in behaviors that make them worse at it.
The skill I’m talking about is the ability to focus without distraction on a hard task. Having spent the past three years researching and writing my book Deep Work on this topic, I’m convinced that focus is the new I.Q.; it’s becoming one of the most useful and prized abilities in our economy. But unlike I.Q. you can significantly improve this ability through practice.
The good news is that parents who leverage this insight and help their kids develop their ability to focus will be providing them a major advantage. The bad news is that this practice requires some drastic actions in a world that increasingly embraces constant connectivity and distraction as an unavoidable part of life for the younger generations.
Why does focus matter?
Decades of research from both psychology and neuroscience underscore that undistracted concentration is required to learn complicated information efficiently. A student who can focus intensely, for example, can master classroom lessons much faster than his or her peers working in a state of muddled attention—helping the student avoid the late-night studying and related burnout that often accompanies high academic performance. This is an effect I first encountered over a decade ago, when I wrote a book called How to Become a Straight-A Student. To research this book, I interviewed college students with exceptional GPAs to find out more about their habits. One of my most surprising findings was that many of the very best college students studied significantly less than most of their peers. A large part of the explanation for this apparent paradox is that these star students were able to work with great intensity—getting their work done in a fraction of the time required by their distracted classmates.
Focus also produces better results. Recent research on the attention residue effect, for example, reveals that when you switch your attention from one target to another, there’s a residue left behind from the first target that reduces your cognitive performance for a while before fading. In other words, if you quickly check your phone or e-mail inbox, your brain will operate more slowly for the next 15 to 30 minutes. Most young people, of course, work in a state of constant context switches of this type, meaning that most young people are working at a fraction of their mental capacity. If parents can teach their kids to work for long periods without any such distraction, the quality of what they produce—be it a term paper or answers to their calculus homework—will be of much higher quality.
Finally, giving something your rapt attention can be intrinsically satisfying. There’s a certain anxiety that seems to arise from constant distraction, and this anxiety can be replaced with deep satisfaction when you instead allow yourself to get lost in a single activity. Teaching kids how to live a life filled with focused attention means teaching them to live a life with less anxiety and more meaning.
So how can parents help their kids focus? In my experience, there are two general types of training activities that matter: those that increase their comfort with boredom, and those that increase the intensity of their concentration.
Focusing on something hard is almost always boring in the sense that it lacks a steady stream of novel stimuli. Most young people are uncomfortable with this state, having instead trained their minds to expect a quick dash of stimuli (be it responding to a text or checking a social media account) at the faintest hint of boredom. To help kids learn how to focus, parents must first help wean them from this dependence on stimuli. The best way to accomplish this goal is for parents to remove, on a regular basis for relatively long periods of time (at least an hour) kids’ access to phones, tablets, computers and television. During these periods, they may feel bored and their minds may rebel, but through repetition, these stretches without distraction will come to seem less daunting.
A productive place to enforce this disconnection is during homework time. Not only will this provide them practice with boredom, it will also expose them to the efficiency that can be gained by working without distraction. Having helped students for many years now, I know many may claim that their assignments require them to be online. If they make this claim, parents should ask them to detail exactly what part of their school work requires this connectivity, then given them a brief, timed window in which to take care of these activities all at once, after which the rest of their work is done without connection.
There are some other times during which enforced disconnection as a training exercise also makes sense—for example, family trips, family meals, or other family events such as movie night. Observing a full day of the week without any electronics (the so-called Internet Sabbath) can also be valuable, especially if parents participate as well.
The other type of important focus training are efforts that help kids increase the intensity with which they focus. A simple strategy along these lines is to draw kids into deeper states of concentration during conversation by asking questions that require an increasing amount of careful thought to answer. The key is to not let them off the hook once they discover the answer is not obvious. The simple recognition that deep thought is valued can go a long way to encourage kids to work at it.
Parents can once again leverage homework as an excellent training opportunity. Parents can help their kids break down their assignments and studying into concrete and specific tasks, and then tackle each task one by one (without any distraction, of course), with a timer to see how long each task takes. The goal is to get each task done as quickly as possible before moving on to the next—without, of course, sacrificing quality. This combination of specificity plus time pressure acts like cognitive calisthenics in that it spurs them to think deeper and therefore rapidly improves their ability to concentrate.
When kids are adept at concentrating on hard things, there’s no limit on what they can accomplish. This one skill is the foundation for low-stress academic success, it’s key to succeeding in the increasingly competitive and complicated world of work after graduating, and it can provide a deep sense of satisfaction. It is, in other words, like a superpower in the 21st-century economy.
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