A Thoughtful Take on Distraction Addiction

If you thought meditation, mindfulness and clear focus required years of Zen training, Professor Shailini George’s book argues that’s just not so.
Professor Shailini George
Professor Shailini George

While many law students may think they are excellent multitaskers — able to text, fire off a quick email, scan social media, check the weather or a sports score, and then quickly toggle back to complex law school assignments—research shows otherwise, argues Professor Shailini George in her new book, The Law Student’s Guide to Doing Well and Being Well (Carolina Academic Press).

“Once your brain is used to on-demand distraction, that becomes a powerful addiction which impacts your brain’s ability to concentrate when you want it to,” she says.

George cites studies in the National Review of Neuroscience showing that the more we use our brain’s parietal lobe to take in distractions, the more we weaken our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain needed for deep focus. And the very presence of one’s phone—even if it’s turned over on the desk—may reduce cognitive capacity, because we use up our brain’s finite resources resisting the temptation to pick it back up.

“Frequent task-switching trains your brain to constantly want novelty and weakens the mental muscle responsible for organizing the many sources vying for your attention,” she writes.

How desperate are we for distraction? George describes a Science magazine study in which participants were required to sit alone for up to 15 minutes, with no cell phone, reading material, or music. “Afterward, most subjects reported that they found it difficult to concentrate and that they did not enjoy it,” she notes. Then researchers asked the participants to do it again, “only this time they gave volunteers the added option of occasionally giving themselves a mild electric jolt.” Deprived of technology, two-thirds of the men—and one-quarter of the women—shocked themselves at least once.

“Our brains crave novelty and distraction,” she says, “but that distraction does not bode well for the optimal brain performance you need for success in law school and later in practice."

Law prof and wellness coach

Part self-help guide and part cultural commentary, George’s book does something important: It takes the terms mindfulness, resilience, and wellness, beaten into a stupor by pop culture, and revives them with some practical lawyerly tools: research, process, and organization.

If you thought meditation and mindfulness required a mystical bent and years of Zen training, George argues that’s just not so—and makes her case by offering relevant research, simple explanations, and step-by-step worksheets. Her engaging, plainspoken approach is just right for a perhaps skeptical audience that prefers hard data and the clarity of outlines.

Download video transcript [PDF]

‘Getting in the zone’

According to George, experts contend that most of us can deeply focus for only four hours total per day, and that we can only maintain our attention on a task for about 50 minutes before our brains need a break. To maximize that four-hour window, she suggests that law students take a few concrete steps to get themselves “in the zone,” including:

  • Scheduling their day to include not only the work they will do, but planned breaks for exercise and the occasional technology fix
  • Writing down the specific goals they hope to accomplish
  • Putting their phone in a different room
  • Turning off laptop auto-alerts
  • Deep-breathing for as little as two minutes before starting work

Saying no to the late-night cram

The time-honored image of a diligent law student groggily pushing onward into the wee hours doesn’t jibe well with George’s approach. She argues that late-night cram sessions are generally fruitless, and that working with focus is much more efficient. She also recommends something counterintuitive for most law students: setting a time to stop working. It is important to give the brain true rest time, she says, because it is during such interludes that the brain processes information, makes connections, and gets inspired (remember that brilliant thought that came to you in the shower).

“If you are able to internalize some of the book’s practical techniques for calming your brain down, the time you spend working will be more productive,” George says. You’ll also have more time for activities like healthy eating, exercise, and adequate sleep, all of which help dispel mental fog and put both brain and body on the path to wellness.

Step one: Admit we are powerless over our cellphones, she says. “Many students think they’re the ones who can make quick pivots from texting to torts or con law to email—and our brains just aren’t built for that. Coming to terms with that just might help those students not only perform better, but also be better.”