In my training as a mother, I developed a 20-minute attention span. It was a natural evolution. You know—kids. Something’s liable to happen every 20 minutes.
The problem was they grew up and eventually flew the nest while I was left behind still locked in my 20-minute attention span. And now I was back in college, trying to read heavy books—not only weighty in girth, but deep in intellectual stuff. I was nearly paralyzed trying to figure out what Heidegger was really saying, when my mind would be seduced by a random thought, leaving me wandering about the hinterland of nothingness. It was awful. I had to do something, but what?
And then I remembered raising kids. (There were advantages besides the pure joy of it all.) Politeness, taking turns, and waiting did not come with the package at birth. Those attributes had to be learned which meant that someone was training them. Somehow, my kids had all turned out to be polite, respectful, and willing to wait their turn. Was it possible to train my mind like I had the children? It was worth investigating.
So I began to do what my mentor Fernando Flores had recommended. I started observing. Something in my mind was turning off at 20-minute intervals. If when the thought arose, I stopped working on the important task and followed the thought, I’d be completely off purpose and the task I needed to do would be ignored. That wouldn’t work. I had to find another way.
It seemed that my subconscious mind was doing its thing to catch my attention. Just like the children. They had done the same thing. Often, while I was on the phone or at some important task, they’d come up, grab my sleeve, and say, “Mom. Mom. Mom!”
All I had to do was turn to them and look them in the eye. “In a minute, I’d say.” And they’d quiet down and wait. Just acknowledging them seemed to satisfy them. Then the moment I was finished with whatever I was doing, it was their turn. Would this work with my mind? Somehow I had to find a way to acknowledge the random thought (crazy as it might be) and go back to my task. I tried several things, unsuccessfully. And then I did the “on my mind” thing on a piece of paper. It’s simple. I put a blank piece of paper on the desk and when a thought arose, I wrote it down and went right back to my reading or writing. When done with the important task, I could either do the "crazy thought thing" or cross it off the list. Took a while for my mind to catch on, but it did. I can now go much longer without being interrupted by my “thinking.” I’ve been on task here for over an hour!
As an educational therapist, I used this technique in my learning center. The reception never varied. When I’d introduce the idea, the kids always said, “But what if I’m hungry—want a cookie.”
“Write down, ‘want a cookie.’”
“Yeah, but what if I have to go to the bathroom.”
I was undaunted. “Write down, ‘go to bathroom.’ Then go back to the task for at least a minute. You’ve got to train your mind just like you would a bratty kid.”
They always got it. And it worked.
To my amazement, I read an article in WIRED 19.07 magazine about feedback loops. Made me feel great. It’s nice to be supported by the smart guys.