Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Where Our Attention Goes, There Goes Our Life

We call our's the Age of Information, but it would more accurately be called the Age of Attention because when information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource. But the truth is that human's have long felt that they lived in a time of information overload. The French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes complained in the 17th century, "Even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life." I imagine that even our most distant ancestors, while star gazing, would sometimes feel overwhelmed by all those celestial bodies up there vying for their attention.

Whatever the case, our attention, being limited and rare, is a valuable thing, yet most of us squander mountains of it over the course of any given day. Social media is a major attention thief for many of us today, but before that it was TV or radio or, as Descarte points out, books.

What we focus on grows; where our attention goes, there goes our life. People who are able to focus well report feeling less fear, frustration, and sadness. They are better able to plan and regulate their impulses. This makes it more likely that they will achieve their goals, which in turn feeds the cycle of feeling less fear, frustration, and sadness.

Hungarian researcher Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi has found that the more time we spend in what he calls "flow activities," the higher our sense of wellbeing and the better we get at focusing our attentions.

Most of us, I hope, know what it feels like to be "in flow." For me it generally shows up when I've undertaken a challenging self-selected project that has personal meaning to me. When I'm in flow, I'm thinking by doing, overcoming obstacles, and stretching myself, at least a little, beyond my comfort zone. Time on a clock may say one thing, but time, while I'm in flow, stands still, I don't find myself checking the clock (a major distraction in the rest of my life), but then, when I look back on what I've done, the time seems to have passed in a flash. That's the nature of flow.

As a play-based educator, I try to make focus my focus, which is to say, I strive to create environments in which I've curated potential distractions. At the end of the day, when someone asks, "How was your day?" I want to be able to honestly reply, "It just flowed." 

When I say I curate the distractions, one of the first things I do, is limit, if not eliminate screen-based technology. This is not because I'm a technophobe, but because I know that the children in my life have plenty of access to these technologies, and their distractions, during the rest of their lives. Indeed, two in five American children live in homes where the television is kept on all or most of the time, a fact that has been linked to attention challenges. In other words, I'm not worried that they will miss out or fall behind when it comes to technology. Yes, they are part of life itself, but they are distractions with an agenda of their own: they seek to command our attention to satisfy their own ends, while flow demands self-motivation.

I likewise seek to minimize the impact of scripted toys, especially those linked to movies or programs, but really anything that "tells" a child how to play with it. A ball or a doll is one thing, but a Paw Patrol play set is quite another. I also hope to reduce the impact of timekeeping distractions by limiting transitions. I even strive to remove myself as a potential distraction to the degree that's possible, by stepping back and avoiding direct instruction or too many questions or just generally inserting myself into the play.

At the end of the day, I want the other children, nature, and unscripted (or open-ended) loose parts to be the primary "distractions" in the environment because, when we put our attention there, I've found that a state of flow is much more likely to emerge, both for individual children and groups. Screens, scripts, and schedules demand our attention, whereas people, plants, and parts spark our curiosity, our education instinct made manifest. Self-motivation emerges which is the impetus for flow.

Our attention is perhaps our most precious possession. When we learn to apply it deliberately, with intent, research tells us that not only are we more satisfied with our lives, we are more creative, more conscientious, more empathetic, and less aggressive. There will always be distractions, there always have been. The key, I think is to pay attention to our attention, value it, choose deliberately, and let it flow.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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