By Shailini J. George
A study published in the journal Science found that a majority of participants would prefer to give themselves mild electrical shocks rather than be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.
Last summer, a tourist in Melbourne, Australia, was so engrossed in reading Facebook on her smartphone that she walked off a pier. She couldn’t swim, but thankfully a passerby was paying attention and came to her rescue.
Reports like this no longer seem surprising, given the widespread debate over the distracting effect of the instant availability of information. The smartphone is most often blamed, as everyone from kindergarteners to their grandparents seems to have one; checking email, texting, snapchatting, playing games, often at the same time. The constant stream of information available and accessed by students has weakened the part of the brain needed for deep focus and concentration. One antidote to this distraction is mindfulness training.
While mindfulness training is often associated with meditation, its purpose in education can be more broadly seen as allowing students to learn to focus. Mindfulness can easily be incorporated into any law school class, and needn’t be seen as requiring any special tools or training.
This year in my legal writing course, for example, I forced my students to focus and work on their memorandum mindfully. With phones and laptops put away, I spread the students around the room and allotted 30 minutes to work on a particular portion of their memorandum. I gave them a checklist to keep them focused on the task; talking was not permitted.
After they completed their work, I asked them to reflect on what they were able to recognize in their writing that they may not have seen before. Many commented that 30 minutes felt like a long time, and they could not believe how much they accomplished. I then asked them to reflect on how it felt to work in this focused manner, and compare that to how they might usually work—surrounded by people, technology, and an endless array of possible distractions. This end-of-class reflection was important because it encouraged the students to be mindful of their study patterns and habits. While I had lectured to them about working free of distraction, this exercise forced them to feel that focus.
Here are a few tips we give our students (and can be beneficial for students and teachers alike):
1. Breathing is beneficial. Before beginning an assignment or project, or anytime you feel scattered, close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing. Make a conscious decision to breathe slowly, in through the nose and out through the mouth, exhaling away any tension or worry. Use breath to calm your mind and set your intention to the task at hand.
2. Multitasking muddles you. We are less efficient and error prone when we multitask. When faced with a challenging assignment, put away your phone and remove all other potential distractions. Try it for just an hour. You might be surprised at how much you can get done.
3. Disarm distractions. When thoughts pop into your head when you’re trying to concentrate, briefly jot these thoughts down, with the intention of attending to them later. That way, you’ve acknowledged their existence and can reassure yourself that they won’t be forgotten. This allows your brain to “relax” into the task at hand.
4. Train your brain. Remember that your brain is a muscle and the more you train it the better it can function. Science has proven that mindfulness can strengthen the same part of the brain that is weakened by distraction. Control your brain, don’t let its wandering control you!
Shailini J. George is a Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University Law School. Prior to joining academia, Professor George worked in private practice. Her recent scholarship focuses on the science of learning, including mindfulness training. For more information about Suffolk Law’s Legal Practice Skills program, visit suffolk.edu/law/lps.