The older I get, the harder I’m finding it to concentrate over long periods of time. I have a constant barometer in my life that lets me gauge how that ability seems to be declining – building skills. In my 20s I would get up at the crack of dawn, frame houses on a construction crew all day with high energy and wild enthusiasm, take an hour for dinner and then go and frame and raise walls with my friend Eric on his house until we could no longer see the nails to hit them.
In my 30s an eight hour day on the job was about all I was good for. In my 40s I could spend half a day on the job and the other half planning the next day’s work, shopping for building materials or bidding new work. In my 50s, a couple of hours with the tools strapped on was the best I could manage. Now here in my 60s, an hour at a time is all I’ve been able to put in on the home office addition I’m currently in the middle of.
Riding the Horse in the Direction It’s Going
But guess what … things get done. More things. Different things. I research and write blogs, read and edit graduate theses and dissertations. I design workshops and give talks and create Powerpoints to accompany them. I enjoy myself. Rather than label my reduced concentration ability as some kind of deficit, most often I simply ride my energy where it wants to take me. Which frequently includes a daily nap! and/or a long, meditative afternoon walk around town.
Part of my comfort with this change in concentration has come about as a result of John Medina’s Brain Rule Number Four: We don’t pay attention to boring things. And in fact, most of our brains have attention spans of ten or fifteen minutes on average. After that, the brain wants to change things up and go novelty-seeking. So, there’s nothing really weird or wrong with me. I just don’t much conform to conventional cultural or workplace norms that were never designed to be brain-based anyway. But guess what: I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Good Good Good Good Vibrations
One thing that’s interesting to me is the internal experience of losing my ability to continue to pay attention in the moment. A kind of anxious nervousness seems to keep drawing my energy and awareness away from the task at hand. And I only seem to get relief when I stop what I’m doing. Which sometimes means I only take a few slow, deep intentional breaths and then, when I’m sufficiently settled, I return to the needs of the moment.
Researchers finally seem to be agreeing with my way of attention-paying. Studying what they call “vigilance decrements,” psychology professor Alejandro Lleras at the University of Illinois has determined that we are much better off when we deactivate and then reactivate our attentional energy for the tasks and goals we’ve set for ourselves. Related to this is something I tell my dissertation students and myself when I’m working on a book or a long paper: I can quit any time I want to, just so long as I make the time to write the next sentence/paragraph/page. At some point in time.
Towards a Brain-Based Education
Most public schools unfortunately, are not brain-based in accord with this expanding and contracting attentional ability. With teachers often required to be surrogate parents, police and truant officers, social workers as well as teach to National Standards, there doesn’t seem to be much room left for innovation that would result in a brain-based curriculum.
And yet there are wonderful models and great success stories out there. One only need look at the work produced by any of the Milken Family Foundation Education Award winners each year. Or the programs spotlighted by the work in Edutopia on social and emotional learning and authentic assessment that Milton Chen inaugurated and has been researching for the George Lucas Educational Foundation for many years.
Who knows, one day in the not-so-distant future, we might see parents and kids excited about applying to and attending ADHD University!