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  by Steven Flores

The advent of our always-on, always-on-us technologies has put the world of information at our fingertips. It has also rewired our brains, and not necessarily for the better.

So goes the thesis of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a book I revisited recently in preparation for a talk about the intersection between college application writing and executive functioning at IECA, the national education consultant’s convention in Chicago.

Broadly speaking, Carr’s work examines the impact that technology is having on our neural circuitry as we move from a print culture into a digital one. Among his premises: Although neuroplastic reorganization based on Hebb’s rule—”neurons that fire together, wire together”—continues throughout our entire lives, our brains are most acutely transformed when we are young.  Among his conclusions: Our attention is fragmented like never before.

Most of our cognitive rewiring has to do with the fact that our personal computers and “smart” devices have supplanted so many of our other technologies: our pocket planner, our courier, our telephone, our movie theater, our discman, our stock ticker, our network news, our social calendar, our commons, our megaphone, our bank, our bill collector, et cetera, et cetera.

It’s no wonder, then, that according to Carr,  the average American adult is severely distracted, spending “on average, approximately 10 seconds per website regardless of content.” For our students, the first generation of “digital natives,” it’s often worse. The good news is that there are ways to disconnect through the use of technology.

While my recommendation for all students and parents is to read Carr’s book, my recommendation for students and parents in the midst of college essays is to consider the following strategies to block out distractions. I’ve used the following tools in both my essay coaching and in my own writing life and found them to be immensely effective.

  1. Cold Turkey Writer: This downloadable app essentially freezes the user out of all other functions for either a set word limit or a set amount of time. This is very effective at the start of writing sessions because the student must write before anything else. Often, the “fun stuff” afterwards can motivate them to get work done.
  2. Turn Off Text/E-Mail Notifications: Nothing derails a writing session quicker than a sometimes worrisome, often entertaining, and always irrelevant text or email. These blips and dings harpoon our focus, dragging our minds away from the task at hand. And while our culture extols the multitasker, pioneering researchers like Norman Doidge have shown that the brain doesn’t really multitask, but rather rifles quickly from one task to the next, making multitasking ultimately “inefficient, draining and stressful.”
  3. Simple Blocker & Self-Control: Both of these apps block “blacklist” sites for a set time period. Essentially, students can collect a list of sites that are anathema to writing—for instance, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube—and the apps will prohibit the user for accessing them for a few hours while the student works.
  4. MS Word “Focus” Mode: Microsoft Word “Focus” Mode blocks out all other distractions by giving the writer a simple view of text without distractions. Because writing is often onerous, many minds will stray toward the path of least resistance at the slightest opportunity, futzing with formatting or clicking around the desktop instead of committing ideas to the page.
  5. Disable Wi-Fi: The internet is so ubiquitous in our lives that we often forget that we can disconnect with just two clicks. Once the default routes are closed, the mind is able to refocus on the task at hand. More importantly, this creates a kind of neural feedback loop: The more you write, the more you rewire. The more you rewire, the less you distract yourself.
  6. Whatever works: The annals of writing are full of eccentric rituals. From writing in a broom closet (William Styron) to renting hotel rooms (Toni Morrison), writers do whatever it takes to get started and keep going. Furthermore, the routine is self-reinforcing, a kind of classical conditioning where the writer associates a certain stimulus with getting work done.

Hopefully, these relatively simple techniques will help struggling writers regain the focus necessary for deep thinking and writing. While this blog focused on how to “keep going” (attention), the next blog will help struggling writers “get started” (initiation) and “get unstuck” (flexibility). Lastly, I will be giving a talk about writing and all of the executive functions at our Mequon (Milwaukee) office on July 9th at 7:00 PM. I hope to see you there! 

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