The ability to maintain focus and attention for extended periods of time is essential for success in law school, and yet I’ve noticed it’s a skill that is becoming increasingly difficult for everybody in the modern world to perform. Law students are living in a world of constant distractions: notifications and alerts from smartphones; a steady stream of emails to send and respond to; and an infinite number of online resources. With all of these distractions and demands on their attention, law students must also be able to prepare for class by reading and briefing cases; pay attention during 1-2 hour long classes; and, perhaps most importantly, spend time outside of class learning hundreds of rules of law and then figuring out how all of these rules relate to each other when analyzing an exam fact pattern.
Since the ability to maintain focus and attention underlies pretty much everything students have to do to succeed in law school (and also because I’m frightened by my own inability to focus long enough to read a New York Times article from beginning to end), I did some research into what science has to tell us about improving focus and attention. What I found out is that the ability to pay attention and focus for long periods of time is a like a muscle: if you don’t exercise that muscle, it atrophies, while if you exercise the muscle regularly, it gets stronger and builds endurance. So you may be asking, how do I create a workout schedule for exercising my attention and focus muscles? Here are a few pointers:
How do you Exercise your Attention Muscles?
The answer to this question is relatively simple: do a complex task that requires intense focus and attention. There are different terms for the type of attention you are trying to achieve. Some people colloquially refer to it as “being in the zone.” Psychologists refer to intense attention and focus as “flow:” the mental state that arises when one is engaged in energized focus and complete absorption. Computer scientist and author Cal Newport recently coined the phrase “deep work,” which he defines as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” Whatever you want to call it, that sustained level of focus and attention is what is required for successfully completing most tasks in law school.
When should you Exercise your Attention Muscles?
Set aside specific times each day when you are going to work on a task that requires intense focus and attention. As noted above, many of the tasks in law school require intense focus: reading and briefing cases; outlining; doing and reviewing practice essays; studying for exams. You should schedule the times you are going to perform each of these tasks. As for how long each exercise session should be, be realistic and keep in mind that science tells us the human brain can handle intense focus for about 90 minutes before needing a break, and the brain can only handle a few 90 minute sessions per day. Ideally, to help routinize your exercise schedule, you should schedule your sessions for the same time each day.
Also, keep in mind that muscles need downtime to relax, recover, and repair to maintain optimal performance. So too your attention muscles, so make sure you schedule blocks of downtime. Downtime should involve an activity that involves interesting stimuli, but doesn’t require directed attention (which means binge watching the new season of Man in the High Castle is not a recommended way to spend your downtime). Listening to music may work for you; or going for a walk or a run in a park or on a trail (ideally, avoid walking or running on the street because it actually requires a surprising amount of focus to avoid being hit by a car); or just hanging out with friends.
Where should you Exercise your Attention Muscles?
Plan in advance where you are going to do your workout. Wherever it is, the place needs to be distraction-free (my school had aptly named distraction-free rooms called “weenie bins” in the bowels of the school library). Science tells us we have a finite amount of willpower to ignore distractions, which means every time you see or hear something that distracts you, you are depleting your willpower. That’s why you may be able to ignore your phone the first few times it pings you with a notification, but by the 4th or 5th ping, you are probably out of willpower and will succumb to the urge to look at your phone. To prevent this depletion of willpower, turn off your phone or leave it on silent and in another room. Remember: it’s only for a 90-minute period.
What do you Need for your Exercise Session?
Plan in advance what you’re going to need for your workout. If you are going for a run after work, you need to make sure you pack your shoes and running clothes in your work bag. Likewise, you need to think in advance what you will need for your attention workout session so you don’t waste time during your 90-minute session trying to track down that material. Ideally, you want to avoid using the internet during your 90-minute session (in fact, it’s probably a good idea to turn off your wifi or use another tool to avoid the internet), so you should also download and/or print anything you think you will need from the internet in advance. This will avoid the inevitable distractions and interruptions every webpage on the internet will throw at you.
Like all workout regimes, results will likely be gradual but steady. The more you use your attention and focus muscles, the stronger they will become and the easier it will be to maintain long periods of concentration on your law school work.
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