Are you paying attention?


The world today is full of constant distractions, constantly tempting us to flit from one activity to another without a second’s thought. How does this affect our learning, its effectiveness and our productivity?

Claire broached the subject in her blog ‘The Distraction Trap’ last year with some handy tips to reduce distractions in our work. In this blog I want to focus more specifically on learning, sharing my experiences from the ‘Learning how to learn’ course I took in January.

I started the course as I felt that I had become increasingly scatty and forgetful as 2015 drew to a close, so this year I decided to make a conscious effort to reduce distractions and improve my learning.

The concept of ‘Deep Work’

As part of the background reading for the course, I read ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport, which looks at the value of uninterrupted, focused concentration on our work and study.

A state of constant distraction in which multiple things are going on in your mind at once puts a huge strain on your working memory. This means that you will be unable to effectively retain information, or concentrate on one task properly to innovate or solve problems. As regards memory, this implies that you may use the information once but will not retain it for later use. You may say that this doesn’t matter, you have Google, but I believe that this negatively affects your productivity and also means that you are likely to advance slower than colleagues who are capable of working deeply (applying focused concentration to single tasks or problems). Being able to concentrate and to fully explore ideas, to learn and apply new knowledge acquired (relatively!) quickly through effective working is desirable in all areas of life.

How does this relate to translators and interpreters?

I believe this concept is key to both our work and learning. Translation and interpreting are professions in which you need to be able to grasp new concepts quickly, while honing your language skills. Learning how to learn and to acquire periods of undistracted focus in your day will help you to improve your translation speed (both through lack of distraction and heightened expertise), will improve the accuracy and fluidity of your translations and/or interpretations and help you to gain specialist knowledge more efficiently.

Are you really learning?

I had been increasingly finding myself in the situation at work that I knew I had come across a term or concept before but I was unable to recall its translation or meaning. I recognise that at times this is inevitable, but it should not be the norm. Here are some tips that may help you to recall past information better.

Just reading and rereading doesn’t work

As Claire mentioned in her article – are you actually reading or are you scanning? Focused reading is the first step to remembering information.

Recall is in fact one of the simplest ways to properly remember some information – just think about if you tell someone about what you have learned in comparison with if you don’t. The former stays with you much longer. This works as it strengthens the links used to retrieve the memory, reinforcing the neural pathway to this memory.

Spaced repetition (reviewing new information at spaced intervals over time) is another example which works on the same principle.

Anything which requires that you manipulate the information will help you to remember it, such as answering questions on the subject or manipulating the information to adapt it to something practical (a blog post, for instance). These sorts of activities will help your brain to analyse the information, which promotes chunking, or the collation of various elements of information into one, easy to handle piece.

Why is chunking important?

  • Means you have understood
  • Takes less effort for the brain to use
  • Can help to link different aspects of information from different areas

NOTE: the more ‘real’ learning you do, the quicker you will understand texts and be able to link previous work to what you are doing now. This highlights the importance of specialising.

Do you suffer from einstellung?

The brain applies two modes when thinking: focused and diffuse, which it switches between throughout the day. Focused thinking is when you are concentrating on a specific problem and tackling it directly. Diffuse thinking is when your mind wanders, such as when you go for a walk, or look out of a train window. Both of these modes are important for advancing your learning and innovation.

Einstellung describes when our brain gets stuck on a loop, which does not retrieve the correct answer, but our focused mind does not allow us to conjure up a different solution. The course taught us about the importance of intertwining the two modes of thinking.

Focused mode is important for a specific task with specific goals, but diffuse mode allows you to open your mind up to other possibilities. Also, in diffuse mode your brain continues to process ideas in the background while your mind wanders onto other topics. This is why if you skip an exam question you can often tackle it better when you come back to it later, or that word you were searching for so desperately comes to you in the middle of the night.

Beat procrastination!

I will only mention this briefly, as Claire wrote an interesting article about time management last year for those interested in procrastination-beating techniques. I will mention however that the course emphasised the importance of not only breaking down daunting tasks into smaller chunks but also focusing on the process, rather than the product, of the task. This means focus on doing a little bit frequently (‘I will do half an hour on …’) rather than ‘I will finish the blog post today’. This way you will reduce the amount of willpower required to embark on the task, without the added stress of feeling that you have to complete it right away for it to be worthwhile.

So, are you concentrating?

To conclude, we live in an attention-deprived era, which often promotes multi-tasking as a bonus. However, it severely affects productivity and your ability to learn. Since completing the course I have applied many of the techniques mentioned by Claire, and I already feel much more focused and productive. Just being aware of your triggers can be a great start to a new, focused you.

What do you think? Do you think multi-tasking is detrimental to your work-life? I would love to hear your thoughts on how you learn best, any tips you may have.







13 thoughts on “Are you paying attention?

  1. Jayne Fox says:

    Thanks for writing this post! I’m also reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, and am considering how it applies to translators. What did you think of it? I’m guessing you don’t agree with his advice to quit social media? And do you think his approach is applicable to service professions like translation?

    I’m only a third of the way through so I still can’t really judge the concepts, but I did skip ahead to the chapter on social media. 🙂 He’s right about social media having the potential to be hugely distracting, but when used carefully, they can also be extremely valuable tools. So I don’t think I’ll be quitting Twitter or LinkedIn anytime soon.

    I’m also wondering who the book is aimed at – my feeling is that it’s focus is on men with minimal family responsibilities. But perhaps I just haven’t got to his suggestions on role-juggling yet!


    • Sandra Young says:

      Hi Jayne! Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you liked the post. I found the book to be very interesting, and I think there is a lot that we can take from it as translators. Cal himself is speaking from the point of view of an academic, but throughout the book he uses different examples to show how different people adapt deep work to their careers/lives (and also highlights careers in which this sort of work is not appropriate).

      As regards social media, while I don’t advocate necessarily totally quitting, I do agree in part with what he says. I find that social media, when I use it during work hours, is a great drain on productivity and concentration (as you say yourself). Since I have read the book/done the course, I have limited my use of social media (no Facebook or Twitter during work hours, for LinkedIn only if I am doing some specific market research, for example). Personally this has had an incredibly positive impact in the short term on my level of focus and I have not seen any negative effects from not being connected during the day. I have used his stance more to be conscious of my use of these tools rather than quitting them.

      As I mention in the blog, I believe that translation is a profession in which if you are really going to excel you need to be able to grasp new information, specialisms and concepts fast, so yes, I do think that his approach is applicable to our profession. I am not sure how far you have got, but he does look at different ways of fitting deep work into varying schedules – including fathers with full time jobs doing PhDs, so don’t worry, it is not all about being able to lock yourself away in your university office and put the “do not disturb” sign up! I have taken his advice to try to help me to develop techniques that will allow me to focus better and therefore learn more efficiently and be more innovative. I believe that by improving in these areas will have a knock on effect on my translation skills, rather than specifically applying deep work to translating.

      What do you think? What made you decide to read the book?


  2. Marga Burke-Lowe says:

    Thank you for posting about the Learning How to Learn course. It sounds very interesting and useful (to me both as a translator and an MA tutor), and I’m planning to sign up for the next one.

    Your conversation with Jayne had me wondering. I agree that social media can be a good marketing platform, but also that it can be a big time drain that affects concentration and productivity. Part of the problem is that sites like Facebook are deliberately designed to have this effect (the more time you spend on them, the more exposure you have to their paying advertisers) and some people are less immune to it than others! I like the idea of not using social media at all during the working day, but I also find that using it in the evening / at weekends cuts into my time with my family. Have you found a solution to this?


    • Jayne Fox says:

      Hi Marga, do you use social media for business purposes? If so, perhaps you could dedicate a small time slot during the working day to catching up and posting updates. I try to do this, and find it works reasonably well. You can do the same in your free time – set a limit and stick to it. The problem is that it’s so distracting, so you have to find a way to purposely switch off. I have reminders that pop up on my devices and tell me to go and do something else – which works for me!


    • Sandra Young says:

      Hi Marga,

      Glad you liked the post! I can thoroughly recommend the course, while it goes over a lot of things I would expect you to know deep down, it brings you attention to them, and also goes further, giving you concrete ways to improve your learning and concentration skills.

      As regards social media, Facebook for me is the particular boon. Twitter and LinkedIn nearly exclusively on a professional basis and with specific tasks (Twitter less so but it has been very easy to manage specific “slots” as Jayne says below). Really what I am trying to do is use Facebook as little as possible, as I realised that my time can get swallowed up for hours and I come out of it having learned little. I think that Jayne’s suggestion is very practical. I thought of removing the app from my phone and just leaving the messages (living abroad a lot of people just contact me through Facebook).

      It all depends on your daily habits – you mention you have a family so mornings when you get up might not be ideal, but I tend to have a quick scan when I am making my cup of tea and then try to switch it off for the day. Then in the evening if I really feel the urge or a specific message/interesting thread has appeared, but personally I feel better in myself the less time I spend on there. This is all my personal point of view, because I am sure lots of people use Facebook wisely, but I don’t – at least not to the extent that it makes the distraction worthwhile.


  3. Jayne Fox says:

    Thanks for your reply, Sandra! I’ll look forward to more non-academic examples in the book. 🙂 Actually I’m reading it because a few people recommended one of his other books, ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’, and I bought both at the same time. I’m reading this one first because I’m looking for ways of being more productive during the working day, which may also help me carve out a bit more free time. Another book on my reading list is ‘Focus’ by Daniel Goleman, about careful use of your attention. Looks like I’ll have to set aside some serious reading time this weekend!


  4. Jayne Fox says:

    Just wanted to say that I’ve read a bit more of ‘Deep Work’ and am back on board with it. For a while I thought Cal was suggesting we should all take a monastic approach to deep work, cutting ourselves off from the world, forgoing email and being as inaccessible as possible. I couldn’t see how this was going to work for translators. 🙂 But then he goes on to describe other, more practical ways of fitting deep work into your schedule, using routines and rituals. Which is definitely my way of working!

    However, I’m still disappointed with the lack of female examples. If you went by the case studies, you might be led to believe that deep work is ‘men’s business’. Pfff. Someone should introduce the author to some high-achieving women.


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