My #1 Study Tip: The “Zone”

“Who dares to teach must never cease to learn”

Is this quote about the teacher possessing an unending fountain of knowledge to share, or that he must be able to relate to the nature of being a lifelong student?

Recently, I spent time relearning some higher level math. This material required focus, multiple passes, and drilling exercises to truly drive home the point and “own” the concept/knowledge (ie: be able to recognize it in the future and/or explain it to others). While requiring this 100% focus, I realized how many looming distractions I had at home which interrupt deep focus and thinking. The efficacy of superficial multi-tasking was debunked several years ago.  (More on that here, here, here).   It is one thing to get mindless work done while distracted (answering emails, etc), but it is a different matter entirely to learn something new and challenging with even minor distractions.

This made me reflect on my undergraduate studies in Mathematics and Computer Science, which routinely required deep focus and persistence.  In the early 1990s, dorms still resembled army style barracks with cinderblock walls and few amenities.  No TV, no cell phone, no texting, no landline phone (payphone at end of hallway), no laptop, no PC, no Web, no Facebook/Twitter (just a campus computer lab for typing papers). Despite such simplicity, it was *still* easy to get off-track in your dorm room (socializing friends, background noise, relaxing on the bed, listening to the stereo, etc) Therefore, we quickly learned that it wasn’t effective to study in your dorm room; it would take twice as long to do half the work.  Most students opted to do their serious work in the university library.  I took it a step further, and made a wooden “cubicle” in the isolated library basement my study place. Here, I could get into “deep zone” study for hours on end, with zero interference or stimuli to knock me out of the zone (See diagram below)

 A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.  -Virginia Woolfe

For certain types of work, sometimes the ideal environment is just quiet room with a desk.  As a high school teacher, I have told my students to find a quiet place at home to study free from distractions (siblings, TV, pets, Facebook, etc).  Today, I realize that I can’t stress this point enough.  I have noticed that some students now almost involuntarily check their cell phones without even realizing they are doing it.  While technology can be used as a learning tool, it can also open the door to interruptions and distractions.    This prevents them from entering (or staying in) the “flow/zone”.  A student must keep this in mind when establishing his ideal study environment in high school, college, and beyond.


Diagrams adapted from: Orientation to College Learning

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.


NYMag: Distraction

  • Poor retention:  ”…when forced to multitask, the overloaded brain shifts its processing from the hippocampus (responsible for memory) to the striatum (responsible for rote tasks), making it hard to learn a task or even recall what you’ve been doing once you’re done.”
  • He sees our distraction as a full-blown epidemic—a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought. He compares it, in fact, to smoking. “People aren’t aware what’s happening to their mental processes,” he says, “in the same way that people years ago couldn’t look into their lungs and see the residual deposits.”
  • If John Lennon had a BlackBerry, do you think he would have done everything he did with the Beatles in less than ten years?”

Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality



Computers at Home:  Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality

The Duke paper reports that the negative effect on test scores was not universal, but was largely confined to lower-income households, in which, the authors hypothesized, parental supervision might be spottier, giving students greater opportunity to use the computer for entertainment unrelated to homework and reducing the amount of time spent studying.