The Quest for a Quiet Mind

Its fourth period, about 10:45 in the morning. I have been at school for about three and a half hours and taught three classes. I ease into my desk chair as the last of my students file out of the room and into the hallway, with a mind for being as productive as possible in the 40 minutes I have without students. I no sooner uncap my trusty pen to begin marking, when my email alert chimes and I begin to read it. As I begin to read the email that has come in while I was teaching, Tweetdeck conveniently alerts me to a new batch of tweets from the people I follow. It turns out that there are some really interesting links in those tweets, which of course I click.

You get the idea. Soon, the plans that I had for the period have gone by the wayside and students are once again pouring into the room.

Certainly the positive and detrimental effects of multi-tasking have been discussed, and there is no doubt that in this case my productivity has been diminished. But today I made an observation about myself that I found alarming: its not just that I can’t just do one thing at a time any more, I can’t even just think of one thing at a time any more. Lately I have been catching myself checking email or Twitter while I am playing with my two year old son. I frequently will have multiple applications running on my laptop while I am watching the television. What’s worse is that even if I am not actually doing something else, I am thinking of doing something else. This issue reached a tipping point for me today when I caught my mind wandering to a future presentation while a student was delivering a speech in my class.

What happened to the quiet mind?

Something has changed in my mind, and I would be willing to bet that this is happening to others. I was once able to focus on a novel deeply enough to become completely immersed in it for hours. I have a distinct memory of reading Thomas Harris’ Hannibal in eighteen hours, stopping only for emergencies. Now I feel anxious after thirty minutes, wondering if there is something else that I should be doing, or my mind wanders to a blog post or website that I have recently seen. What does this have to do with education you might ask? Well, I am 34 years old. The Internet was not a truly viable thing until I was a sophomore in college, and this has happened to my mind. My students have never experienced a world without it, will they ever know a quiet mind? But maybe because this is all they know they don’t miss it like I do. How can this knowledge affect my teaching? Are there certain techniques that I can use and that I can teach my students to help with focus? Or perhaps it is me that needs to learn to cope with a mind filled with storms, and learn to effectively multi-task.

There are some software solutions out there to help you to concentrate on single tasks, here are a few highlights. All of these programs are for the Mac, sorry Windows readers.

  • WriteRoom ($24.95): WriteRoom is a word processor that blacks out everything else on your computer screen. More than that, it only types. It won’t add borders or images, it is minimalist in the best way possible.
  • Think (free): Think is similiar to WriteRoom in the sense that it blacks out what you are not working on, but it is not quite so single minded. While it is running, Think will highlight your current application but other applications are still allowed to intrude. Also, unlike WriteRoom it does not eliminate distractions that occur within the application.
  • Concentrate ($29.00): Perhaps the most intense software of the bunch, Concentrate will force you to concentrate by setting time limits, and blocking distractions (set by you). You may also launch applications or webpages from the software if you need them to accomplish a particular task.

Although these programs offer excellent support, the essential question still remains: will any of these things quiet my mind?

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6 thoughts on “The Quest for a Quiet Mind

  1. Todd Wandio says:

    Chris!  That’s it! You’ve nailed what I’ve been struggling with since last  week.  I consider myself a masterful multitasker, but I don’t think our success necessarily depends upon it, rather upon the time we focus on what is important right now.  I’m going to check out those like and see if I can’t  improve my focus in the moment.

  2. ktenkely says:

    I have been noticing the same pattern in myself in the past few weeks.  I can’t even get through reading an email without getting bored and opening up my Twitter feed on my desktop and Facebook feed on my phone.  I think that having a quite mind is something that we are going to have to purposefully teach.  No matter where I am I feel like I need to be connected, need to be reading a blog, a book, or browsing new websites.  At any given time I have 5 web browsers going, with at least 30 tabs opened in each.  I have my IM running, my Twitter feed up, and multiple projects that I am in the middle of.  The other night, we had new parent enrollment night as school.  This meant a 14 hour day.  I had 45 min to go home and eat dinner before I had to be back.  I picked up dinner on my way home and spent the entire 45 min. just relaxing. No computer, no phone, no books, just my husband and I talking and enjoying dinner.  I had forgotten how restful of a feeling that is.  It is one that I need to focus on more in my own life.  I need to take the time to turn it all off and just enjoy the break.
    It was interesting watching the release of the iPad today.  Everyone kept complaining about how they wish it would multitask.  I am secretly glad that it doesn’t…maybe it will keep my mind more focused on what I am engaged in!

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for the comment Kelly. I have been giving this a lot of thought lately. I am going to look for some research and maybe some actionable techniques to help with focus. I will let everyone know how it goes.

  3. What a fantastic post! Like you, this is something I have been thinking about for quite a while too!
    I am getting worse at focussing on one task and you have pinpointed the reasons why – so much input from so many different sources these days.
    I used to enjoy certain tv shows but now struggle to sit there and watch a show without being on my laptop or doing something else at the same time….and let’s not talk about trying to watch movies at home!
    I really think it’s important that we do talk about these issues with our students.
    I’m not sure what the answer to all this but it is certainly something I will keep pondering! I look forward to hearing about your research and techniques too!

  4. I feel like we need to form a support group! I’m glad I’m not the only one…
    The other night, I was watching T.V. and there was a commercial for being able to access your Facebook through the cable service (or something… I honestly was on my laptop with email, Twitter, blogs going… attention divided). My husband made a comment: “How connected do we really need to be?” That made me actually stop for a minute and really think… is this obsession? Compulsion? Addiction? Do I have a problem?
    I am really considering having “unplugged” days… who am I kidding? Let’s start with designated “unplugged” hours.
    Thanks for post and letting me know that I’m not alone!

  5. Hi Chris! I enjoyed your post on how the use of technology and machines impacts the way we are able to think. A number of years back I too came to this same realization that the more we work with machines / technology the more our way of thinking is altered. Suffice to say that realization was very important in finding a balance; I found the technology impacted how I was thinking and the effect was not always positive. I too cherish the quiet mind and have found each and every moment offers infinite opportunities for reclaiming or discovering anew the peaceful way of being.

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