Listen Up! How to Pay Attention

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Hey, you! Yeah you! Have I got your attention? Good. Now I’m going to help you figure out how you can keep it.


In the 17th century, during the earliest years of the Plymouth Colony (which would later become Massachusetts), the residents lived a very strict and austere lifestyle. At the center of this ascetic existence was the ascetic Puritan faith of the people. So rigorous was this “old-tyme” religion that the inhabitants of Plymouth were required to sit through hours upon hours of fulminating, ponderous sermons every Sunday. Not surprisingly, some of the churchgoers would doze off during these drawn-out homilies (an experience that readers of this piece might sympathize with right about now). However, a man with a long wooden rod stood at the back of these houses of worship, and if he caught someone snoozing, he would walk over to where they were seated and jab them back into consciousness. Talk about your rude awakenings!


Nowadays, though, attendees of lectures don’t have the luxury — if it can be called that — of a surly guy with a pole who can poke them whenever they get start to feel sleepy. Nor will teachers usually shout at them forcefully, in person or in print, as I’ve done at the beginning of this article, as their minds start to wander. Nope, attention is something that has to come from you. That said, there are some approaches that will help you sustain greater concentration on lectures, labs, books and other knowledge-building tools.


Admittedly, it’s not easy. Paying attention is harder than ever these days, with iPods, cell phones, Blackberries, laptops and other gizmos that might’ve distracted even the most devout Pilgrim from his Sunday service. And unlike in his day, when information was transmitted in lengthy speeches and essays that might have taken hours to get through, data today is delivered in quick hits — 30-second TV commercials, 30-minute TV shows, 300-word magazine articles and so forth.


And that’s really where any lesson on paying attention ought to begin: getting rid of distractions and learning to focus on a single thing over a prolonged period of time. First, think of all the disruptions that pull you away from tasks that require concentration. If it’s a friend or relative, simply avoid that person while you’re reading a book or contemplating the concepts you learned about in class. If it’s a particular technology (I’m looking at you, Blackberry users), just keep it in a drawer at home. Or if you have to have it with you, turn it off and only use it during mandated breaks in courses or reading. Simple, right?


The second part — maintaining mental concentration for a long time — is a little more complicated. Let’s face it: We’re conditioned by the various forms of media we consume to have short attention spans, and making us to focus on something more than an hour is just asking too much. Yet few of the classes you’ll ever sit through will last less than an hour, and if you’re participating in an intensive study regimen — like a summer semester at college or a certification boot camp — you’ll be looking at several hours of courses per day with only a couple of very short breaks.


The amounts of time demanded by education aren’t going to change soon, so you’ve got to get your mind geared up for long-haul learning. By removing potential distractions, you’ve already taken a step in the right direction, but you still haven’t eliminated the ultimate distraction: boredom. You could take a class in a windowless room with bare white walls and still succumb to this attention-killer. Therefore, my bit of advice for maintaining a state of mental attentiveness would be to limit your learning topics you’re genuinely interested in whenever possible. The more you want to learn about something, the less likely you are to get bored. Also, an enthusiastic instructor and an engaging, lucid book never hurt, either.

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