Learning Skills

Excerpts from Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life

  • Learning tennis is best done between the ages of 8 and 15.  The longer you delay, the harder it will be, and your ability to play will suffer.  This principle applies to all sorts of skills, both physical and mental, including the ability to concentrate, direct your focus at will, manage your time.  Kids also need to work at developing the capacity for the concentrated, sustained attention required to succeed in many endeavors.
  • The young can get away with IM’ing while playing a computer game, but there’s a risk.  If you grow up assuming that you can pay attention to several things at once, you may not realize that the way you process such things is superficial at best.  When you’re finally forced to confront intellectually demanding situations in high school or college, you may find you’ve traded depth of knowledge for breadth, and stunted your capacity for serious thought.
  • Studies show that through practice, you can expand your capacity to focus.
  • Where big breakthroughs are concerned, getting to “That’s it!!” requires not only the intense focus and explicit learning …but also plenty of (non-conscious) incubation, mind wandering, and implicit learning.
  • Science has determined that multitasking, for most practical purposes, is a myth.  Focusing on 2 demanding activities simultaneously is a skill that requires months of drilling to acquire, and, even then, is confined to just those two tasks!
  • You may think you’re multitasking, but what you’re really doing is switching back and forth between two activities.  The extra effort involved actually makes you less productive.  Your overall performance will be inefficient, error prone, and more time consuming than if you had done one thing at a time.  If your train of thought is interrupted even for a second, you have to go back and say “Where was I?”  There are startup costs each time as you reload everything into memory, and people aren’t as good at is as they think they are.
  • When you focus on a demanding task, your brain’s hippocampus, which is important to memory, is in charge.  However, if you try to work while distracted by instant messaging, or the like, the Striatum, which is involved in rote activities takes over.  As a result, even if you get the job done, your recollection of it will be more fragmented, less adaptable, and harder to retrieve than it would be had you given it your undivided attention.


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