You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 54 - how to stay focused and why we let ourselves be distracted. If you have a teen who wants to reduce their susceptibility to distractions (and let’s face it, most of us could use that in this day and age) then listen in to find out my advice on helping your teen resist the lure of the phone or the temptation to open a new tab on the laptop when they should be studying.
Hey VIPs! How’s things? I hope you’re doing great and that for those of you here in Aus, that the semester exams and assessment are going well for your teen.
I want to start off with a MASSIVE thank you. Especially if you’re a long time listener. But also if this happens to be your very first episode you’re listening to. We are just about to cross 10,000 downloads of the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast in less than a year. I checked and the first episode went out on the 25th June 2022.
Now, I have no idea actually if that is a good number for the first year of a podcast and I actually didn’t set a goal for that stat to be honest, which isn’t really like me. I am a bit of a numbers person and I like a good goal-setting exercise but to be honest, it was really about creating a way to share more free information and get my message out and help more parents and students benefit from my experience and knowledge. But I never imagined the moment I’d be talking about 10,000 downloads and I HOPE that it’s an indicator that lots of parents and their teens are finding the podcast helpful, because that was the whole point of making it. So if you are and if you haven’t already listened to every episode then make sure to go and find any unlistened to episodes, get them downloaded and lined up in your playlist on your podcast app. AND please, please share this podcast with any friends and family that might find it helpful.
I don’t run any ads for the podcast, so word of mouth is the only way it grows, and if you’ve found even just one small thing helpful and you can spare just a quick 20 seconds right now, then pause this episode, and leave me a 5 star rating and a super-quick review just saying what you like or something specific that you’ve found helpful. That would be amazing. I’ll be super grateful and because it’s the ratings and reviews that get the podcast apps to recommend a podcast to more people, then you’ll have put out an amazing amount of good karma out in the world to come back to you at some point in life, when they discover these insights because you took those 20 seconds. So share, rate and review and I bet that by the next episode, I’ll be celebrating the big 10k with you all.
Now, today I’m making this particular episode as a bit of a follow on from last week’s where I shared my motivation mindset hack. And just like last week, what I’m going to share today are just things that I’ve learnt or heard about, tried and used and they’ve worked for me and many of the students I work with, so I’m sharing them here with you. If they help, great and if they don’t sound like a good fit for you and your teen, no worries. AND, as always these are strategies that are geared towards parents of hardworking teens. Those students who do want to do well, and in the case of today’s topic, just for whatever reason (and we will get into the reasons) they can’t seem to stay focused and get a task done. In general, or on a particular task. They find themselves reaching for the phone or opening up a new window on their laptop or whatever it is that kinda gives them that moment of relief and escape.
Because I do think that in this kind of situation, that’s what it is. Just a moment of relief and escape, a quick brain break from something they would probably rather not be doing, or that feels challenging. And I got the idea to make this episode from a coaching session I had with a student recently. He actually told me that something he wanted to work on was being more productive and not letting himself be distracted at the times he’d set himself to study. Because this student is dedicated and committed, but is also human. AS WE ALL ARE. And he said to me, ‘it’s like I’m not even aware that I’m doing it, before I know it, I’m looking at my phone, or I’ve started looking at something else on my laptop.
You wanna know a secret? This is so ironic, I wish I could say I did it on purpose, but I even found myself over checking my emails halfway through planning out this episode. I intended to stay on task the whole time I was working on it, while I’m writing out the points I want to make about staying focused and not getting distracted, and I literally got distracted and didn’t stay focused while doing it!
So, this isn’t about anyone becoming a perfect robot student. But it is about increasing our awareness and finding ways to make our tasks more efficient, which will make our lives more balanced with other things we enjoy and remove the stress that creeps in when deadlines get tight because things take longer than they should or we’ve left them to the last minute, or we feel like we’ve got too much to do and not enough time to do it.
So let’s get into this a bit more.
I feel like it’s important to mention that I know there are students who have specific diagnoses that affect their focus. Things like ADHD, processing disorders and other challenges that can make it more difficult for them to stay focused on a task. And I am no expert in these conditions or diagnoses, so I will never profess to be able to directly help people with those situations, BUT I have had many parents whose teens have these differences and diagnoses who have completed my 10 Week Grade Transformation program or coached with me and have said that they have seen a big improvement. That having the systems and strategies makes everything clearer so it’s more easy to stay focused. So this is not something that I’m specifically recommending for students who might have these situations, but I have had parents and students tell me they’ve been helpful for them.
If your teen is struggling because they’re getting burnt out and genuinely need a break to refresh, that is not being distracted or unfocused. I’m not saying work beyond tiredness or any genuine issues. That’s not what we’re talking about here and that’s why sustainable study strategies are so important. So that these situations are reduced and ideally eradicated. So that life is more balanced, feels doable, manageable and successful.
But for all of us, no matter who we are or what our make up is, we need to actively work on our focus now more than ever. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible though, or that we can’t improve from where we’re at, or that we should just accept it and roll over and just have everything be inefficient, or take twice as long or end up getting done last minute in a rush and at a lower standard. We’ve just got to plan for the fact that we will likely feel the pull of a distraction at some point during a task.
So, here are some of the ways that I help students plan to reduce distractions, plan to stay focused when they want to be, and also deal with those moments when they do lose focus - because hey, just because we plan, it doesn’t mean everything always goes to plan.
First up, we can probably bet on the fact that they’re going to want to check their phone. We can plan on there being a point - or a few points - at which they’re going to feel the urge to pick up their phone, even just for a second. I know I have those moments. So - they need to put the phone out of the room. Not on silent, not screen down on the desk, tempting them to pick it up and just have a quick look, just to CHECK there’s nothing that urgently needs attending to. Not anywhere in arm’s reach. Out of the room so that they would have to physically get up, leave the work space and go and get it.
I know there will be so many excuses your teen might have here. Like I need my phone because it’s got the photos I need - download them to the laptop first and then move it. Or I need to check my emails because it’s got the info from the teacher on there - so copy-paste it into the word doc or whatever they’re working on. There is always a way. But get it out of the room and - just during that time, also turn it onto silent or airplane mode, because that lure is going to be way too big to resist if you can hear it ping and it’s in another room and if it’s synched with their laptop or computer, you don’t want notifications popping up on their screen.
Honestly, and I might get flack for this, but I have no idea why so many schools let students have their phones on them. I’m sure someone will give me a thousand to one situation where it really was essential that a student had their phone on them in class, but 99.9% of the time, then if it were me, I would not have students having their phones on them at any time during class, probably not even break times to be honest either. I know I’m sounding like someone’s grandmother here, but really, really honestly, there’s a big part of me that would still have them writing in books rather than working on laptops all the time too, especially when exams are still required to be handwritten - but I digress.
I’ll wait to see if my inbox explodes over that.
Anyway, back to the other suggestions I have for you.
So, phone out of eyesight and out of arms reach. Ideally out of the room. Notifications off.
Next, set a time and task for every period or section of study time.
You can check out the concept of ‘Scheduling Outcomes’ in Episode 5 ‘More free time, without sacrificing grades’ for more on this, but for this episode, all we need to know is that we’re giving a specific time frame to each and every task or sub-task. We’re not just sitting down for an indeterminate amount of time until we’ve finished all the Maths questions, and we’re not just going to ‘work on that English essay this evening.
That’s a recipe for distraction because our brain has no idea how long it’s got to stay focused and working for. As soon as it feels like it needs a break, it’s going to want to take it. But if we know that hey, in 40 minutes, I can look at the phone, check my email, or just do whatever else we have the urge to do, then staying focused in between will feel more doable.
So specify a certain amount of time that’s going to be spent working on a specific task. Exactly what is going to get done in that time?
Obviously, use some common sense here. This isn’t about taking a break after every 5 minutes and after every single question. But it is about giving the brain a clear point where it gets a little break and a clear goal and finish line. This is also about making each and every task much more manageable and achievable. I don’t want your teen ever sitting down to write an essay. I want them to sit down and plan their content and structure, or to sit and write the first body paragraph or find and organise the quotes they’re going to use. We aren’t going to feel the pull of a distraction as much when something feels clear and doable and has an end in sight.
Remember, if your teen isn’t a lover of planning and structure, because I’m well aware that I’m coming at this as someone who does like planning structure - just a reminder here that actually, planning and structure lead to more freedom. Because if we can get this task done in half the time we would do when we’re unfocused and multitasking, then that means we have more time for doing whatever else it is we’d actually rather be doing. AND we can do those other things guilt-free and actually fully enjoy them.
Finally, let’s talk about when your teen might do all of this, and they still end up off task in some way. If they’re really desperate, they might start tidying their room maybe! I will tell you now, these aren’t bullet proof ‘If you do this, they’ll definitely stay on task’ promises. The best plans can still go off track. And these are opportunities to build awareness. Because the moment we realise we’re looking at the phone or we’ve clicked over to emails, or we’ve switched to a different task, that’s the moment to try to figure out why.
What was it that made us want to take the exit ramp?
Very often it’s because we get a bit stuck, or something feels difficult or we’re unsure about something. Maybe we’re feeling bored? Maybe we’re genuinely exhausted and tired?
Now, it can sometimes be useful to step away and come back, but we want that to ideally be an intentional decision, not just an unconscious action. Other times, it might be better to stay in the zone and persevere and work through something.
In my experience - for myself and with the students I’ve worked with, I have to say, it’s most often that we’ve hit something that’s challenging in some way. Stopping and getting some awareness around this situation myself, I realise that when I’ve gotten to something that’s going to be challenging, I do something like go and get a coffee to almost psych myself up for it. Ideally with biscuits.
Or I’ll go get a different task done instead that is much easier to do. Like - hmm, yes, answering emails. Because if we think about it, it’s totally understandable that if we’re working on something and we start to feel a bit lost, or confused or stuck or doubtful, we’ll want to go work on something else that they do know how to do. Where we can quickly feel productive and tick something off the list.
This also happens actually when I feel like something is going too slow, or it’s taking longer than I thought. I want to go do something else so that I can get something ticked and get that feeling of accomplishment. But actually, when you think about it, that’s just made the original task take even longer. I’m just reinforcing that message in my brain. It’s like we want a short-term escape, but very often, that has a detrimental effect long term.
The key here is to be able to take that moment where they feel themselves wanting a distraction or going to it, and right there and then figure out what is that feeling and where is it coming from? And then starting to train themselves that the distraction is not the solution. If they’re bored by the task, the phone is not going to make the task more interesting. It might take their mind off it for a bit, but it’s then going to make the boring thing take twice as long. If they realise they’re stuck or confused about something, the solution is to figure out what that issue is and then take steps to resolve it. The distraction isn’t going to solve it and give them the answer.
Have a brilliant and productive week. I’ll see you back here next week, hopefully with a 10,000 downloads badge or something! So don’t forget to download and catch up on any unlistened to episodes and tell your parent friends and family to check out the Parents of Hardworking Teens podcast.