Head, Heart, and Hands at the Same Time: Teaching Kids to Play and Work Without Distractions

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing.”  -David Allen

Wow.  Scary.  Sad.  Powerful.  And true.  When was the last time you had a large block of time and you worked with full concentration and engagement on one endeavor?  Never, perhaps.  Yet David Allen, who has explored this topic in-depth, goes on to point out that until very recently, as little as thirty or so years ago, this was not the case.  Human beings, for tens of thousands of years, only had to generally think about and do one thing at a time.  They were present to their task, fully engaged, and in the moment.  And it turns out, this simple practice of being fully engaged in the moment, is what many mystical masters argue is the key to happiness.  Yet, these days, it’s the thing that eludes us.  It’s the thing the especially eludes our youth, who rarely have a minute free to sit, think, contemplate, and focus on a single task.  But we can do something about it.

I make a great effort to lock myself away in a distraction free-zone to do my work, yet there’s no hiding from the chirp of the cell phone, the all-encompassing Wifi, the flash of the 2 for 1 sign on the billboard outside, the scream of the kids wanting to play, and the nagging feeling that I should mow the lawn.  I wonder if I know what it is like to have nothing on my mind except what I’m doing.  I wonder how this can be achieved.

I think about my students and my own kids, who have a zillion toys (and nothing to do). I think about the world they grew up in, the world we created for them.  I recently took a peak into one of my students backpacks and was shocked at the number of entertainment and communication devices: an ipod and a phone and a game system and, of course, a fancy calculator (which my students always figure out a way to play games on).  I know my own kids can choose between streaming a movie, playing a video game on the Wii or the computer, and if all else fails, watching something on regular TV.  Or use those toys they never touch. We don’t have cable, yet the options are still endless.

Bottom line is kids, teens, and adults, we all need large chunks of time where we can focus and think, uninterrupted, on a single task.  This is essential to building real skills, to solving big problems, and to creating great things. As adults, we must remember to take an afternoon to read or write or paint or bike or work on our car or whatever.  Great things can happen when we waste some time at an outdoor coffee shop. We complain about distractions, but the truth is that we love them. We need to practice working without them.

This can be harder for our kids to do.  They have so much going on around them.  We over-book our kids.  I know I do.  But we have to remember to under-book them sometimes as well.  Organize a day of nothing.  Engage them in a giant lego building challenge. Go on a super-slow hike in the woods.  Have a family puzzle night. Cut out distractions and enjoy a few hours of focused, single-tasking.

I’ve found with my own kids and students, there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to distraction-free, single-tasking. At first, there’s resistance. Kids, teens, adults, we all love the constant input of technology. Our phones, screens, TVs, webpages become like drugs, little jolts of pleasure. It can be startling to force a kid out of the house and off the phone. My students at the Juvenile Detention Center tell me that they actually crave Facebook like a drug (and they know a lot about drugs). They have ticks where they keep touching their leg, looking for a their phone. (I think I have that same tick). When I take my own kids out for a long day of nothing, to the woods or camping, and give them open, un-distracted free-time, they sometimes take a while to get into the grove.  They want me to entertain them.  I’m the same way after a busy week.  I find it hard to sit down.  I pace the house, moving from mail to the computer to my phone, waiting for something to jump out at me.  Then I remember that what I really need to do is sit down, take a few moments, and figure out how to redirect my energy into an important, single task, whether it’s reading, writing, music, or family.

Homework:  Book some distraction free time for you and your family to single-task.  Get your kids involved in a big activity they can work hard at over a long period of time.  This will help them learn self-control, focusing skills, and perseverance. It also tends to lead to happiness.


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