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.







The Distraction Trap

By Claire Harmer

This week I wanted to share some insights from a book I read recently: ‘The Distraction Trap: How to Focus in a Digital World’ by Frances Booth. This post follows on from the last one I wrote on time management for translators.

In The Distraction Trap, Booth looks at how demanding email, smartphones, social media and the Internet can be and to what extent they distract us: ‘Digital distraction means that our behaviour has suddenly changed. We’re damaging our relationships and literally rewiring our brains. We are convinced that we can do 10 things at once – it all seems so high-speed. But the reality is that we’re failing to get anything done. We’re constantly overwhelmed and never have time… we are losing the ability to pay meaningful attention to anyone or anything.’

I should mention that this post is not meant to discourage people from using social media, email, the Internet etc. (far from it!), rather to encourage us to be mindful of how much time we spend ‘plugged in’. After all, couldn’t we all benefit from more ‘unplugged’ time? I must admit that I often find myself feeling ‘wired’ and as though there is a background buzz (caused by my smartphone bleeping and pinging, perhaps?!). I hope that Booth’s tips will help if anyone else feels the same.

The author talks about the importance of deciding how long you will stay ‘distracted’ for once you’ve lost focus. She suggests that you should try to stick to the time you set so you don’t spend half an hour browsing the Internet when you’re trying to work, for example. Being distracted by something online for 5 minutes might be fine, and perhaps a much-needed interruption. In non-digital terms this is a bit like going to make a cup of tea: something to break the work cycle and refresh your mind, but not tempt you into spending ages on the net (suddenly you’re looking up the average temperature in Greece in July and it’s October… oops!)

What I found particularly interesting in Booth’s book was her description of some of the things we are losing through digital distraction:

  • Reading

Do you ever find it difficult to really immerse yourself in a book? Research shows that we are so used to analysing text, clicking on links, scanning information etc. that we find it hard to read deeply and in an engaged way, without distraction. I read a really interesting article about this yesterday. Take a look:

  • Solitude

Sitting with our thoughts and being alone can provide us with ‘creative space, new thoughts, and a sense of calm’.

  • Memory

Not being engaged in ‘the moment’ (due to digital distractions) means that we only process what is actually happening at surface level. In addition to stopping us from making memories, we forget facts, dates etc. Have you heard of the Google effect?

  • Sleep

Using the computer or other light-emitting devices before bedtime can stop the body from making and releasing melatonin, which helps the body to prepare for sleep properly.

  • Journeying

Next time you take the train somewhere have a look at how many people are on their phones/computers/tablets…‘what about the world going by outside?’ Booth asks.

  • Creativity

Blogger and author Leo Balbuta argues that creating is a completely separate process from consuming and communicating – he believes that the two things can’t be done simultaneously. Perhaps translating could be seen as a form of ‘creating’?

  • Learning

Learning new things is hard work! Surely you have more chance of absorbing the information when you’re not distracted?

  • Relationships

Bringing your phone to the dinner table, not switching your phone off when you’re having some much-needed family time, etc.

So, how do we regain these things?

By creating a strategy for managing emails and your mobile devices. I’ve recently adopted the Inbox Zero approach, where you aim to keep your inbox empty or almost empty all of the time. We explored a few more strategies in time management for translators.

  • Taking regular breaks and doing something you enjoy every day, preferably something that also recharges your batteries and helps you to switch off from everything else. Perhaps yoga or mindfulness? Booth mentions that putting these activities into your diary and making them part of your weekly routine might make you less likely to skip them.
  • Sometimes, the constant stream of information can leave you feeling tired and overwhelmed. If you are planning on going on holiday, consider making it a ‘digital-free’ one, i.e. no computer, tablet or email and (if possible) no phone. At the very least, you’ll feel refreshed when you return to work and it will encourage you to make the most of your time off, rather than spending it staring at a screen! These holidays are becoming increasingly popular and more structured ones are sometimes referred to as ‘tech cleanses’ or ‘digital detoxes’. Have any readers ever been one of these?
  • Having a bit of ‘unplugged time’ everyday
  • Getting back to nature and out of an urban environment, to restore attention (Booth even talks about something called ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ – which I didn’t even know existed!).

It would be great to hear your thoughts on ‘digital distractions’ and what you do to keep these at bay!