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  • Amirah Ahmad Shah

Online Learning: Poor Concentration & Distractedness. Why & How to Fix it.

Do you struggle with online learning?


Do you find yourself getting distracted when listening/ watching lectures on the computer...?


Maybe reaching out to your keyboard to reply to an outstanding FB message?

Or checking stock prices?

Or looking for a recipe for dinner?


Maybe I am the only one, hey?


During my 14 days of journalling through Vlogging on FB recently, I expressed my frustration with myself, for getting distracted even when trying to engage with content I am passionate about.


This Vlog resulted in a myriad of explorations around the topic amongst family and friends, and this is a summary of our discussions:


#1 Pairing:

We tend to get used to doing things together, that's also how we develop and retain certain habits. So perhaps the laptop- from which I watch lectures from, is generally paired with typing. Furthermore, we now use our devices (laptops, tablets etc) to do a range of activities from recreation and entertainment, to purchasing, to writing, reading, socializing, calculating, formulating, completing forms, accessing government services, job applications, literally ALL admin tasks... the list goes on. It feels almost unnatural to sit and stare at a laptop for me, without actually touching it. I can do that easily in a physical class, although I normally doodle, but I would be entirely focused on the lecture in a classroom setting. This is not the case when watching a lecture on a laptop. (P.S. I was born in the 80s)

It feels almost unnatural to sit and stare at a laptop for me, without actually touching it.

#2 Efficiency: Pairing is part of attaining efficiency, it's part of the mechanism. However, is there a point to be efficient for the sake of efficiency? Perhaps for some tasks. But at what point does it yield diminishing returns in terms of productivity- or maybe we are working at a level of pseudo-productivity. Yet efficiency is still positioned as a prevalent concept in our time, as the ideal. Perhaps this shift occured when we shifted to the information and technology era, when we increasingly move towards a life of automation and speed.


#3 Multitasking:

Multitasking is seen as a valuable skill by most of us. In fact, I used to brag about how I seamlessly I would be able to multitask. I would also playfully shame (not seriously at all!) family and friends who struggle with it. I now wish I can somehow unlearn multitasking with certain tasks, like learning without simultaneously cleaning or cooking. To be able to multitask is undoubtedly a fantastic skill to be able to exercise when a situation calls for it.

To be able to multitask is undoubtedly a fantastic skill to be able to exercise - when a situation calls for it.

But is it always necessary?


We are often busy- but has busyness become a status symbol of our time? Something we use to covertly brag about how productive or demanded we are? Does this equate to productivity? To what end are we going to busy ourselves with, and what would it ultimately achieve? (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/03/busyness-status-symbol/518178/)

We are often busy- but has busyness become a Status Symbol of our time?

#4 Podcasts:

A good friend of mine brought to light that podcasts are the perfect example of the efficiency mechanism. They pull us towards the direction of learning or being entertained whilst being engaged with something else. Not that this is a problem, especially when the areas of operation within the brain do not clash. And we do stop and realise sometimes that we aren't necessarily retaining the information we are exposed to in podcasts. I find myself repeating from time to time because my mind wanders to the physical task on hand.


This brings awareness to the medium in which we receive information/ or learn from.


#5 Perpetual Student:

Also what does it mean to learn ALL the time? What is the value of being exposed to phenomenal quantities of information (not yet considered knowledge)?


Is there an undercurrent narrative where continually trying to learn something new is a marker for intelligence and curiosity? Does this accurately reflect our capacity of learning, and the purpose we learn? At what point is it better to stop and focus on certain areas to deepen our knowledge, rather than expanding the breadth of our knowledge?


Diving deeper into fewer areas, but more meaningful areas of knowledge, can allow us to craft our ideas, develop our opinions and an educated stance of important matters. It allows us the capacity to explore nuances of what we learn, through experience and reflection- instead of perpetually engaging in surface/ superficial learning.


#6 Psychosocial:

Also, we have to consider our psychosocial positions. Are we satisfied with where we are in life? Have we achieved what we'd planned to by now? The larger the gap between our expected life, and reality, lies our sense of inferiority, and dissatisfaction. Hence, fuelling our psyche to do more, produce more, achieve more, whether consciously or subconsciously. Along the same vein, we should also factor in the messages and beliefs we have been exposed to early in life.. Messages and beliefs about where we should be headed, what constitutes of accomplishment, how we are valued, what we should know, and how we should be? (Notice all the 'shoulds'!)

The larger the gap between our expected life, and reality, lies our sense of inferiority, and dissatisfaction.

And then there's the neuroscience of how our brains have been wired due to our exposure to social media, the need to be stimulated on multiple levels at once, how our attention span has been drastically reduced due to the bombardment of information and continuous micro-tasks that demand our attention, and so on.


I realised: Over-saturation of information = More distracted. I start moving further away from being able to digest the information and converting it into knowledge (let alone retaining it). We can only cope with so much without mind-enhancing substances (and even that is short-lived). Too much demands our energy and attention today, and I don't know if we are that evolved to cope with what we think, we should be able to- not yet maybe...


Okay, after all that philosophical exploration, let's look at some practical strategies for online learning:


These strategies are based on my own experience, so it is far from an exhaustive list.


1) A differentiated environment.

I decided to set myself up away from the normal areas in which I learn, as I would already have learned distractions in these proximities. In my case, when listening to lectures, I placed myself in my meditation room, a room associated with calmness and relaxation- and more importantly, no learned distractions.


2) Intention.

I set myself the intention to complete a short lecture of only 26minutes. And that is all. No other expectations from self. Result? I finished 2 lectures without much effort or thought.


3) Mindfulness.

Catching myself when I am distracted. Although I was distracted fewer times given variables 1) and 2), my mind did wander from time to time, and I got quicker at being aware of that, therefore did not end up sending that text or looking up that recipe! Also, closing all other opened tabs helps tremendously.

Trying to be superhuman, to get through all these tasks on tabs.

4) Taking a break.

So being oversaturated with information is a real phenomenon. Taking a day off, properly, i.e. giving myself the permission to do f*** all work but instead did some art, and serving the community just made me crave doing real work the day after. I couldn't WAIT to get back to my lectures, and my research.


It was an organic desire too. It is possible that this rings true because I am passionate about what I do, and truly enjoy it at the core. But that aside, I cannot deny that when the pressure is off, I learn better. And when I aim to do less, I end up doing more, and with depth- not breadth.


I still continue to fall into the pitfalls of efficiency, productivity, over-saturation and the demons of my own psychosocial complexes, but having reflected on this with some depth- I am more aware, less agitated, and less attached to the consequences of circumstances and ideals.


Thank you, dearest friends and family, to all of you who have sincerely contributed your insights to this topic. May we all never stop growing.

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