Freedom Focus

View off Bentley Road toward Campground Road.

We have a class called Junior Leadership. It is a connection class, or a middle school version of an elective class. Students have two electives per quarter and these classes rotate. At the end of last year, teachers in this class conducted an experiment. They wanted to see how many times students’ phones dinged, buzzed, vibrated, or alerted in any way during a given class period (approximately 47 minutes). The results were shocking. The average disruption via technology for a 7th grade class was 200. 200 times in one class period of 31 students some kind of device went off that attempted to hijack students’ attention from the teacher. 

As we digested this information, it became appallingly apparent we needed to provide classrooms free from technology. This prompted a stricter cell phone/device policy this year. This policy allows students to focus specifically and freely on the content they are learning, instead of who is posting on social media, texting them or alerting them in any other way via technology. 

What about adults! Never before is the impact of technology more apparent than right now in our culture. Go into any restaurant, public place or setting and just observe. You will see a majority of adults on their phones. Never before has boredom been as banished as it is today. Standing in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for busses, planes or in line for, well, anything. There is no longer any need to be impatient since there is information literally at your fingertips. All. The. Time. 

I am as guilty as the next person. I am not proud to admit I have chosen to plug in over watching my own children play sports. I have plugged in when out at a restaurant with someone I love. And I can honestly say that I didn’t even think about the trade off at the time. It was something I did not process in that way nor do I believe others do either. Because when I did start paying attention to it I changed. Like Maya Angelou said, “When we know better we do better.” And I noticed more and more that often engaging in our technology is easier to engage in sometimes than those in front of us. Now I have to intentionally put my phone away or leave it in the car in order to not be distracted by the ease of plugging into my phone.

Cal Newport author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World that specifically addresses higher education and the role technology plays. He recognizes that while the issues aren’t isolated to college classrooms, it is just one more area impacted by distraction, and a choice made by the student to check his phone instead of being present in the moment. No different from a parent choosing to check their phones while sitting with their children, or a teacher checking his phone while in a staff meeting. Bottom line – when we are not being actively engaged, we have a tool that will actively engage us.

Another point of research is found in the recently published Harvard Business Review article, “4 Ways to Help Your Team Avoid Digital Distractions,” by Amy Blankson. Blankson points out that the long term impacts of constant distractions may outweigh the short-term efficiency that being connected all the time provides. In this article Blankson notes our phones have moved from a tool of efficiency to a tool of compulsion. I believe this compulsion is robbing us of valuable time with those who matter most in our lives.

I also believe there is a price we pay for this lack of time, for this lack of boredom. It is subtle but present, nonetheless. The impact is directly on our ability to focus. Focus is becoming a scarcity. Focusing on one thing for a prolonged period of time, uninterrupted, is rare and often has to be very intentional. According to Michael Hyatt, author of Free to Focus, he points out that, “focusing on everything means focusing on nothing.” 

And how true! He continues by saying that information is no longer scarce, but attention is. Think about it – many have had to resort to medication to not feel overwhelmed, distracted and panicked. If we don’t choose to use medication, we look to meditation and mindfulness or essential oils. We look for ways to simply slow down enough to remember to focus. 

Let’s look for a moment at a bigger picture and one outside of education. Many well-renowned and well-respected leaders in our world today carve out time to focus. Look at Bill Gates, who actually schedules time alone for months to focus on what is important in his life. Newport also published  Deep Work, and shares the impact of building in time to focus on his calendar every day. 

More recently, The New York Times published an article, “Stop Letting Modern Distractions Steal Your Attention,” by Anna Goldfarb. She highlights how David Roth, CEO of The Neuroleadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, credits long periods of uninterrupted time the key in focusing enough to write his books. He claims that “making ourselves inaccessible from time to time is essential to boosting our focus.” According to the article, checking emails work, circling social media feeds, responding to text messages all the time – all are associated with higher levels of stress. Linda Stone has coined this as “continuous partial attention.” Stone is a former Apple and Microsoft executive who speaks about this phenomenon. She describes this continuous partial attention as an “always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.” 

I can relate to this while at school sometimes. I know that when I am jumping from email to email, text to text, issue to issue, I get stressed. I wonder how to handle certain things and before I come up with a solution, I’m onto the next issue. Before long, I’ve circled many issues and solved none of them. I’ve focused so little on any one that I’ve created a sense of panic in all that hasn’t been done. It is a cycle that usually leaves me feeling stressed out, unsure of myself and irritated. 

For those of us in educational leadership – we know that there are days that these are simply unavoidable. The angry parent demanding your attention, the student crisis that must take precedence over everything else, the sick teacher who needs immediate coverage, the testing materials that need to be verified, the upcoming IEP meeting that is wrought with unhappy stakeholders, the PLC meeting you really want to attend but can’t – all are easily found within a day. And let’s face it, in those days, the best we can hope for is to face each situation with the ability to extend clarity and grace to those we serve and to ourselves. 

The excitement, unpredictability, emotional rollercoaster, all are what make leadership in the school setting thrilling… and frustrating… and exhausting…. And the most rewarding job ever. The solution to this? For me, I hope to learn from this awareness in order to lead more effectively and focus on what is in front of me authentically despite what else may be pulling at my focus.  Because the present moment is where the growth is; the person in front of me is where I have the opportunity to be vulnerable, to be honest and to give grace. Anyone can quote research and recognize the challenge with technology. This is not new. I have found since my awareness has increased around this reality in my life, that changing it is not so easy. While I still fall into being distracted and sucked into technology, I am more aware and therefore, catch myself and recognize it quicker. It allows me to make a different choice. The irony is not lost on me that, while at night and away from school on the weekends, I am writing about focus and the impact of distraction, and creating space and intentions and, then by day I am running around at school in a role where I am continually providing student and teacher support, putting out fires, trying to calm emotions or trying to catch up on some deadline that is either quickly approaching or just passed. Some days, my entire day and calendar is simply not met. Student needs trump meetings. Teacher needs trump other items that may be on my calendar, like meetings or observations. This reality of educational administration is not going to change, no matter how much I practice newly learned techniques to focus, allow for space in my day or increase my energy by getting more sleep. However, I can change the way I look at these important, yet at times, distracting tasks. Can I tell a different story? Tune in next week to see. 

Keep learning. Keep leading. Keep inspiring, and thank you for you. 

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