The White Carpet Theory of Learning (#78)

My theory is that learning is immensely improved when we focus on one thing at a time. While we love to say we can multitask, it really isn’t possible given the way our brains work. Instead, we shift our focus back and forth, losing concentration, time, and effectiveness with each change.

Students will say that they can’t focus on only one thing at a time. They have grown up with personal technology, active social lives, and heavily scheduled activities, and doing only one thing at a time seems too slow, as if they were driving 20 miles per hour on the highway.

When they are studying, they glance at their phones for incoming texts, keep Facebook on their computer screens, and have music playing. “It’s how I do it,” they say. Then they complain about how much time it takes to study, yet they don’t remember what they read.

My white carpet theory is this: Remember the last time you were at someone’s house, carrying a plate of food. Picture their white carpeting, and the slow motion of your food sliding off your plate, tumbling through the air, droplets of gravy or butter sauce, chunks of vegetables, and slices of rare meat falling, falling toward the floor. It seemed like minutes, yet you couldn’t move fast enough to catch anything and avoid the stains developing and spreading.

Can you remember every drop, every piece, every color and texture of your food being attracted as if magnetized by that carpet? Of course. And you remember each person who was there to witness the accident. And exactly where you were standing. And how you felt.

So if you can remember all those details of something that took only seconds of your attention, why can’t you do the same with studying?

Instead of trying to study for an hour, set an alarm for ten minutes. Or even five. Then use this same power of concentration to focus solely on your work, picturing each thought of the text in your mind. As soon as the alarm sounds, stop studying and walk away.

A few moments later, test yourself to see whether you remember more of what you read.

Repeat as necessary.

You can do it!


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