The regular use of our minds — thinking, reading, studying, analyzing — is a necessary means to loving God in this world. God gave us a Book, and he ordained that insight into its message be given by means of focused mental effort (2 Timothy 2:7; Ephesians 3:4; Acts 17:11–12) combined with supernatural illumination (2 Corinthians 4:4–6; 1 Peter 1:23). We should become attentive readers even if only to see the glory of God in the pages of Scripture and to be equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
But the use of our minds is a critical means to loving God in a wide variety of secular occupations, too. Intellectual effort can take many forms. Some read books, others “read” equations, still others “read” historical, financial, or scientific data. But the goal for Christians is the same: Using the mind to fan the flame of worship toward God and service towards neighbor (Luke 10:27).
Youth is a particularly strategic time to develop healthy study habits. The early years are a season of developing our God-given talents into competencies by which we can meaningfully serve others and live with impact in a broken world. This requires learning to receive, understand, and evaluate arguments conveyed via words, equations, or other means. It requires attentive reading, alert listening, and active engagement.
But an endless assortment of instantly-available media and non-stop social interactions are making uninterrupted study less common for young adults in our day (and for all of us). Such distractions radically short-circuit the learning process, preventing students from reaching their God-given potential for usefulness in the kingdom and workplace. If a well-trained mind is a means to loving God and serving others, how can we help students (and ourselves) reverse this harmful trend?
The Allure of Distraction
Ashley doesn’t just do her homework after dinner; she writes a paper while instant messaging (IMing) with three friends with Facebook open while listening to iTunes. With intermittent stimuli coming from several sources, there’s never a dull moment. Each incoming message or status update is a pleasant escape and a means of social connection and validation. There’s even a dimension of suspense: How will Emily respond to my text? What will people think of my comment? Did anyone “like” my picture yet? It’s like the addictive thrill of a slot machine.
But there’s a price to pay for this unwillingness to be alone with our thoughts.
Media Multitasking Diminishes Learning
Multi-tasking is a misnomer: The brain focuses on concepts sequentially, not on two things at once. In fact, the brain must disengage from one activity in order to engage in another. Ashley is actually “task switching” — she’s going from an IM to her paper, back to an IM. Her paper will take longer to write that way, and it won’t be as good as it could have been, especially if the words of her music are competing with her attempt to write words of her own.
Recent research has shown that media multi-taskers are worse at paying attention, controlling their memory, and switching from one job to another. The reason: “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said Stanford professor Clifford Nass, “Everything distracts them.”1 Poor impulse control and a reduced attention span make it more difficult to master challenging concepts.
And it causes them to give up more easily. We have to get into a zone of focused engagement to understand a difficult book, or write a history paper, or understand what might be happening in a chemical reaction. Our best work simply can’t be done in five minute increments between text messages. Math education researcher Alan Schoenfeld, a professor at U.C. Berkeley, has found that it takes almost twenty minutes to really understand how to approach an unfamiliar kind of math problem. But the average high school student today, Schoenfeld has learned, gives up in as little as two minutes.2
Two Points of Application
So what can students do about it? Two thoughts:
1. Turn it off.
Try turning off all media (with the possible exception of instrumental music) when reading or doing any kind of class assignment. Focus your brain entirely on one mental task. This will be uncomfortable at first. Remember, the distractions you’re used to may have given you a measure of escape during an unpleasant task, but they didn’t make you more successful. Instead, lose yourself in the mental exercise: Understanding a book, solving a tough math problem, writing an essay, etc. And don’t give up too quickly. “No pain, no gain” is as true in the scholastic realm as in athletics. Moreover, there’s a joy waiting for you on the far side of self-forgetfulness in the pursuit of learning. The delights of intellectual discovery are reserved not for some gifted, lucky few, but for everyone willing to pay its price: curiosity, focus, and determination.
2. Read this summer.
To the extent that the summer months provide increased free time, consider an aggressive reading program. Ask your parents, pastors, and mentors to recommend titles. Or get ahead on reading you know you’ll need to do next year. Uninterrupted reading makes us better thinkers, listeners, and writers, because it forces us to slow down and concentrate on one thing: following what someone else is saying, even if means re-reading some sentences or paragraphs to understand the author’s train of thought. Your brain is a muscle; stretching it will make it stronger.
Whatever God calls you to do in your life, it will involve using your mind. Decide today, with God’s help, to form the kinds of habits that will prepare you for the challenges of tomorrow, so that you can walk in the good works which God has prepared for you (Ephesians 2:10).
1 Adam Gorlick, “Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows,” Stanford Report, August 24, 2009. For comparable studies performed on high school students, with similar results, see for example Brittney Moore, “The myth behind multitasking,” The Michigan Journal, February 16, 2010.
2 As recounted in Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008).