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Updated: Mar 8

“The successful person is just the average person focused.” - Unknown

When energy is very focused, it is extremely powerful. A 3-watt light shining in all directions may have difficulty lighting a small closet, but a highly concentrated 3-watt laser can cut through steel and stone. This principle can be rightly applied to our intellectual endeavors, such as creating innovative science lessons or evaluating student work. Excellence is the result of focusing relentlessly on a goal and working decisively to achieve it. 

In a world full of distraction, anxiety, and hurry, it is becoming harder for us to focus our energy and effort. How many times do you start a task and within a few minutes get distracted by another person or even your own thoughts regarding another task?

Many of us inhabit school cultures that are more focused on clerical and other bureaucratic tasks than creating engaging lessons, crafting interesting questions, and inspiring students. Many of those tasks are essential, but they should consume less than 10% of our daily work time and energy. In practice, however, clerical and bureaucratic tasks have consumed us to the point that they push out the higher goals of teaching. We have to set and enforce clear boundaries on our time or we will be doing a grave disservice to our students.

It has been well-documented that most societies have historically squandered the intellectual capital of their geniuses. In contrast, the places where the modern scientific revolution started were societies that were designed to harness the intellectual capital of their brightest minds and went to great lengths to keep them focused on their work. Universities were a prerequisite for the breakthroughs that led to the era of rapid scientific advancements that began in the 1500s. Today, we have research institutes and partnerships with large corporations to focus and fund the work of our greatest scientists and engineers.

What is less well-known is that large sectors of our post-modern society are squandering the intellectual capital of most of its citizens through its lack of understanding or even an outright loss of respect for people doing cognitive work. Two generations ago, it was considered terrible manners to interrupt a person in deep thought. Today, many people don't hesitate to do it. Each of us has a little genius to offer the world. It would be unfortunate if we weren’t able to discover it because our friends, family, and colleagues won’t allow us to delve deeply into it. As educators, we need to deliberately design systems and practices to cultivate high-cognitive activity in both teachers and students. 

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” 

- Steve Jobs

Focus is largely about saying “No.” You get to choose what is your most important work for the day, and you get to choose when and where you put your energy. Ultimately, it’s about deciding when you will focus on your work and not allowing others to interrupt you. This is perhaps the hardest part for educators because those who are drawn to the profession are disproportionately kind. We innately want to say “Yes.” But others feel entitled to interrupt us at every whim and will inevitably take advantage of our kindness. To prevent this, go to a place that is rarely disturbed. Close the door, and lock it if necessary. Let your colleagues, students, spouses, and children know you will work undisturbed for a defined period of time. Control your location, lighting, sound, phones, seating, and any other environmental influences to prevent your surroundings from becoming a distraction. Interruption is the enemy of progress. We have to be vigilant so that we are prevented from achieving our goals because we are responding to false emergencies of those around us. Research indicates that a single poorly-timed interruption lasting mere moments can set back progress on a task involving higher-order cognition by as much as one hour. Re-entering the flow state requires a significant interruption-free entry period that varies depending on the individual.  Frequent interruptions reduce productivity by as much as 35% in even the most adaptable individuals. 

Pay attention to your energy cycles and focus on your most important tasks when you have your best energy. Do the clerical tasks (ex: email, phone calls, etc.) during your low-energy periods of the day. Other people cannot determine when you will perform high-cognitive work. If others dictate the terms of your work time and practice, it is likely you will not be able to enter the flow state at all and you will be far less productive. If you attempt to work on someone else’s schedule, while it is convenient for them, you will experience frustration and disappointment. 

We have all experienced periods of super high productivity referred to by researchers as the flow state, highly productive periods of high cognition where you are totally absorbed by and deeply focused on the task at hand beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with your work. You can accomplish more high-cognitive work or study in 15 minutes in the flow state than you can in 6 hours outside of it. Some people describe this feeling as being “in the zone.” This is the flow state.

As I reviewed the biographies of several of history's greatest minds (Newton, Einstein, Tesla, Darwin, Curie, etc.)  for this blog post, I detected a pattern: they regularly went for extended walks of several hours in nature alone. Many reported that it was during these times alone in the woods that they had their greatest insights. Is three hours in nature alone a near-perfect environment to access the flow state? Some of them wrote that it was as if the insight was given to them from another source, the Cosmos or God. I got the sense that genius is just the ability to listen to God more closely than others do. I fear that modern society’s addiction to screens will rob us of our access. We need to regularly disconnect from technology for extended periods to achieve optimum mental performance.

If you do high-cognitive work such as preparing lessons or grading papers, it is vital to design a work environment that allows you to get into the flow state and stay there. This is especially challenging when you are working in a busy school environment or at home because it requires clearly communicated boundaries and the cooperation of others to respect those boundaries.  

This leads us to some important questions: 

What are the truly important high-cognitive activities that we want our students and teachers to focus on?

If we expect teachers to innovate and create high-quality STEM lessons and provide valuable written feedback to students, how do we create school environments, spaces, and schedules that enable them to do so?

How do we design our classroom spaces and lessons so that students can effectively enter the flow state during the school day? 

Alternately, if we decide that students will do highly-focused academic work at home (many do not agree with this proposition), how do we educate parents and guardians about designing a home environment that effectively enables high-cognitive work?

For the sake of teachers and students, we should focus on seeking good answers to these questions.

Simultaneously, educators should honor the gifts they were given by defending some time each day to focus on their work. Let’s recommit ourselves to identifying the work that is most worth doing. Then, let’s focus on doing that important work.

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