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?