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Stop Getting Distracted by Learning Executive Function skills

If you’re a student who struggles with deadlines, you’ve probably often heard the phrase “stop getting distracted” from your teachers, parents, and/or other authority figures. But for many people, avoiding distractions can be challenging due to factors beyond their control. Sometimes, learning challenges, lack of learning support, neurodivergence, or the like can impact one’s ability to use a very important set of skills called executive functions.

Executive functioning is defined by the National Center for Education Research as a group of skills that help people self-regulate their activities, ignore distractions and impulses, and commit to larger goals. Many students struggle with executive functioning skills, especially students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities such as ADHD, which makes it harder for them to commit to deadlines and avoid distractions. These difficulties may begin in childhood and worsen throughout adolescence and adulthood, leading to challenges with meeting deadlines, maintaining jobs and relationships, and more.

The good news is that executive functioning can be learned and improved. Now that summer break is here, you have time to work on these skills, better preparing you for the upcoming school year. Whether you’re enrolled in a summer class or working at a new job, you’ll want to stop getting distracted over the summer and throughout the year. Read to learn more about executive functioning skills you can develop yourself.

What Are Executive Functions?

According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, executive function consists of three major processes: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. 

Working memory is the ability to work with information immediately accessible to you. Problem-solving and learning both make use of working memory. When solving a problem, such as calculating how much money you need for a shopping trip, you need to factor in multiple pieces of information at the same time, like the store you plan to visit, how much gas you’ll need, your current finances, etc. 

Mental flexibility is the ability to think about one topic in various ways. To solve complex problems, you need to look at them from multiple perspectives and choose the most effective approach. For instance, you may have the same set of clothes in your wardrobe, but your viable options will be different depending on whether you’re dressing for a party or a workout. And, in each case, you need to look at different needs and problems that could arise, asking yourself questions like: Will it rain? Will I be hot or cold? Will I be comfortable? 

Self-control is the most directly relevant to avoiding distractions. It means staying focused on important tasks and suppressing the urge to do something unrelated. You may need to stop getting distracted by your phone or avoid your impulse to go to a big party the night before your project is due.

Working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control are necessary in daily life, as well as when you are learning something new. 

stop getting distracted

Break Down Tasks

When starting a large project, it can be easy to get paralyzed by the amount of work you need to do. Our working memory is designed to only hold a certain amount of information at once. So when we need to plan all the steps of something, it can increase our cognitive load. It can also make it harder to learn efficiently because transferring information from our working memory to our long-term memory is a key part of comprehension. 

Research shows that simply breaking down a task into smaller steps is helpful in completing it. For example, if you have an essay due for your summer course, consider each stage of the project: performing research, composing an outline, writing the first draft, and more. Then plan out how you will work on each one. Consider all elements of each stage and ask yourself vital questions, such as: How will you collect research? What note-taking technique is best for you? How can you make sure the paper meets the requirements? Then use your responses to create your smaller tasks and give them specific deadlines. Try using a task management app, such as Trello or Google Reminders, to stay on track.

Set Up A Distraction-Free Workspace

During the summer, distractions are plentiful. Maybe your friends are messaging and posting on social media about plans for summer events. Or the warm summer weather is beckoning you to play outside. So you may try to complete your work at the same time as doing something fun. However, multitasking can actually decrease your productivity, even when you return to working on just one task at a time. So it’s important to avoid multitasking entirely and focus on the single task at hand – then go have fun (and celebrate your achievements) once you are done.

You can utilize technology to help avoid distractions and stay focused. For example, Microsoft Word and Google Docs both have full-screen modes that can be accessed to block out additional tabs and distractions. There are also extensions for your computer, like StayFocusd, and digital detox applications, like OffTime, which help you stay focused on your work by restricting time-wasting websites and apps. Many cell phones also have customizable “focus modes” where you can silence apps or contacts when you’re in a particular location, on your phone at a particular time, or working with a particular application. 

Media isn’t the only thing that can distract you. Make sure that your workspace is quiet, free from other people or sounds, and away from places where people congregate or do leisure activities. Just designating an official workspace can help you get into the habit of turning off distractions and getting to work.

stop getting distracted

Know Your Learning Habits (And Improve Them)

Self-reflection is very important in executive functioning. Experts in executive dysfunction find that people with the disorder tend to rush into things and burn out before they can exercise self-control or metacognition. To stop this loop, you need to pause, consider how you usually respond to tasks, and make changes so you don’t succumb to distracted behavior.

For example, maybe you have a tendency to complete your tasks last minute. To avoid this, break your tasks up into smaller chunks and schedule time to work on your project every day. Let’s say that you have a project due on Friday, but a big baseball game on Wednesday. To avoid limiting yourself to completing the big project on the day before it is due, which will result in poor quality work and unnecessary stress, plan ahead and set aside 1-2 hours each day the week before your game to work on the project.

If you’re still having trouble focusing, practice personalized coping strategies to help you “reset.” For instance, grounding techniques, such as taking deep breaths or using fidget toys can clear your mind. Or you can set up a timer system to incorporate short brain breaks. The Pomodoro Timer is one commonly-recommended method to assist with focus, where you give yourself 5-minute breaks after every 25 minutes of work. There are many strategies to choose from; the key is to find what technique works best for you, and summer is the perfect opportunity to experiment with strategies.

Conclusion

Summer can be a difficult time to stay focused on learning and work. Thankfully, you can stop getting distracted with these helpful tips, so that you can catch up and even get ahead. You can break your tasks down into smaller parts, create a distraction-free workspace, and utilize various personalized strategies.

You can help other students learn over the summer by donating to Educate. Radiate. Elevate. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to uplifting students from underserved communities. Our mission is to teach students executive functions, metacognition, and other learning and life skills that will help them become competent and conscious leaders of our society. Our evidence-based, holistic approach is proven to help students master skills and improve their outcomes. To support our mission, donate, partner, or volunteer so we can continue to make a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable youth.

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