Learning is simple. You’re either paying attention, or you aren’t. At any given moment you’re either absorbing words and turning them into images your brain can comprehend… or you’re thinking about something else.
Most of us don’t notice when our minds wander. If we do realise it's happened, we kick ourselves and start thinking about how we got distracted and how we’re not learning anything and how it’s all going horribly wrong, and how we’ll never make it to the end of this course and we’ll never get a job… and so on. We might then tune back in and be completely lost in the conversation/lecture/video. If it’s a video, fortunately we can rewind. But there’s only so many times we can replay the same video before we lose patience with ourselves.
But what if we don’t realise we’re wandering off? What if, at the end of the lecture we look back and realise nothing’s gone in but we’re not sure why? We might decide we’re not as bright as others, or that we have poor memory or listening skills. Worse still, our teachers and peers might come to those conclusions and help reinforce those mistaken mindsets for you.
No. You’re either paying attention, or you’re thinking about something else and that is something you can control.
Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time, with the exception of habitual activity. We can drive a car and chat to a friend, but we can’t learn to drive and chat. We can’t text one friend while we chat to another. We can’t learn and think about what happened on Scandal last night.
Some say this is different between genders, that women can multi-task and men can’t. There is no biological difference between men and women’s brains that enable women to focus on more than one thing at a time. Nobody can. All we can do is use part of our brain to carry out habitual tasks while we focus on one thing, or we can switch our focus between things in rapid succession, which wastes our time briefly adjusting after each switch.
So how do we stop getting distracted? Will power and self-awareness. How do we strengthen will-power and self-awareness? With meditation. This is science-backed, so if you’re experiencing some ‘new-age shit’ eye-roll, push through the prejudice and investigate further.
The benefits of meditation are endless, and Headspace does a great job discussing them. But from my experience, since I began meditating my brain has been a sponge and I can focus endlessly without getting tired. Every time I realise I’ve been distracted, I bring my mind back to the task at hand.