There is an annual, world-famous dog-sled race in Alaska known as the Iditarod race. Named after the Iditarod trail which was used in 1925 to transfer life-saving medication for those suffering from Dyptheria, since 1973, mushers and their heroic dogs have attempted to race this 1,600km natural trail. It takes between 10-14 days to complete this race with mushers from all over the world participating. Conditions are grueling with competitors forced to ride through blizzards, up and down mountains and navigate their way through unchartered territory inhabited by wild and dangerous animals. The standard strategy for mushers was always to run for 12 hours at a stretch and then rest for 12. Many ran during the day and then rested at night. This all changed in 1986 because of Susan Butcher, a veterinarian’s assistant who loved her dogs and was acutely aware of their biological limits. She trained her dogs to run 4-6 hour spurts and then rested them for the same length of time. She used this system to participate in the Iditarod race, and she together with her dogs won this race four times.
Susan Butcher trained her dogs the same way top athletes train in most sports; an intense workout for about four hours, and then rest. Experts agree that this routine is the best for our bodies to attain maximum performance. Anders Ericson, a psychologist at the University of Florida who studied top performers, has found that world class performers from weigh lifters to pianists limit the strenuous part of their practice routine to a maximum of about 4 hours each day. Rest is as much a part of their training regime as is their actual training. Performers are encouraged to push themselves to their limit, not past it.
This work-rest cycle also applies to helping our brain maintain maximum focus at school or at work. Concentrated focus allows us to use our skills at their peak. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that when people perform at the top of their game, they are completely absorbed in the task at hand. Regardless of a brain surgeon mid-surgery, a basketball player making a 3-point turn or a student about to begin an English exam, each are totally focused allowing them the best chance to succeed.
There are clear signs that the very ability to focus is becoming a real challenge for our students, our children and ourselves as adults. Anyone who has children or knows children can vouch for their addiction to their mobile devices (I am not sure we as adults are any different). As far as social norms are concerned, the rules have changed. It is no longer considered rude to ignore the people you are with. Staring into a screen is the new normal. Primary and High School students are able to take notes, check emails, scroll through Instagram and snapchat and play games all while listening to their own playlist on Spotify. It is no wonder that teachers are reporting that more students are having a harder time than those in the past sustaining their focus on more complex tasks. This may well foretell a future generation of employees who have trouble understanding intricate ideas and paying attention for extended periods of time.
The neural circuitry for attention and focus continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Sustained periods of concentration strengthen this circuit and distractedness undermines it. It is not just our cognitive control that is impacted, our ability to effectively empathise with others is also threatened. Our emotional intelligence and ability to relate to each other is so vital for success in any field. It begins as soon as we are born. We learn from our parents, family, friends and, yes, even our teachers. Any interaction can provide us with valuable lessons, even if it means learning how not to behave. The more our children and students spend isolating themselves, staring at digital screens, the less opportunity they will have for such important learning.
Top performance requires full focus and sustained focus requires significant energy. Our brains need rest in order to function, just as our bodies need it. Without rest, our brains force us to become distracted, irritable, and we find ourselves checking facebook, Instagram and snapchat instead of training for that game or revising for that assessment.
It is interesting to think that each time our mind wanders, and we all experience those moments, we may be missing valuable opportunities. Today, many practice mindfulness on a regular basis which is based on the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change with repeated experience. Being able to recognise that your mind is wandering is the first step in being mindful. If we are aware that this is happening, then we can do something about it. If we learn to become aware of it, then we can train our brains to do this. This is the equivalent of a mental workout. Simple exercises like this will allow us to strengthen the circuits connected to maintaining focus.
It happens to all of us. We are working on a task and we realise that for some time, we’ve been lost in what seems like an alternative universe thinking about something completely different. We have no idea how or when we lost track or for how long we have been following this track to nowhere. Experts suggest that the following are small steps we can take to help us stay focused:
Managing our temptations
If we know what it is that is tempting us to slide off track, then we need to try and remove such temptations. More often, it is our mobile phones. Switching to silent or placing them in our drawers may remove the temptation but our inclinations are not strong enough to deter us from opening that drawer. Much better to switch off, leave it in a room at the other end of the house or to hand it our parents or neighbours instructing them to give it back once we have completed the task.
Noticing when our mind wanders
If we are able to train our brains into telling us when we wander, then we can get a reminder, like an alarm that flashes “your mind is wandering again”. This will stop the wandering allowing us to reengage and activate our circuits to return to the task.
No one is expecting us to remain on task for several hours before taking a break. Set ground rules that are achievable and rewards that motivate you if these goals are achieved. Spending 30 minutes in the fresh air, going for a walk or shooting hoops outside are examples of a worthy (and healthy) reward for a student who has just spent an hour revising for an assessment. Sure, they can check their phones during that time as well, so long as they return it once they open their books again.
In Jewish consciousness, often before performing a mitzvah, we say ‘Hineni muchan u’mezuman’, ‘behold I am ready to perform this mitzvah’. It is a declaration to apply our minds for a certain period of time to perform a specific action. We close off other compartments and focus. The same can be said while reciting a brachah (blessing) before eating a food or as part of our Tefillah. We acknowledge that we are about to begin a task, focus on the task at hand, and become conscious of what we are doing trying not to become distracted.
No one says focusing is easy, but we all have to do it from time-to-time. If we can get used to practicing how to focus from a young age, we will become much better at it as we grow older. It is this that will afford us a much better chance of achieving success, no matter what we set out to do.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.