How to use unusual notes to help you focus

I am not the best student. Here's an example:

I was sitting in a classroom in Mexico at 6:30am stressed out of of my mind. The dark classroom, the short, middle aged man who was obviously passionate about his topic, but not passionate enough to stand up, and the feeling that I was wasting my time where all too much for me to handle. I started doing what I have done since grade school when I am stressed and stuck. I started messing with my hair and wriggling in my chair.  

I was counting how many more years I would have to put myself through this torture. 

I guess it was notable on my face (and probably my hair) because after class my friends where inquiring about what was wrong. I explained how I couldn't believe I had 5 more years of school left. The boredom was too much for me to handle. I didn't know how to handle boredom in the classroom, and so eventually I dropped out of school.

As far as boredom goes, not much has changed since then.

Facing my nemesis again:

This past weekend I went to a conference for my current job. I was looking forward to the conference since I knew there would be many talented public speakers there. I also knew that my weakness is sitting still and paying attention. The irony that I am now a teacher never ceases to amuse me.

I decided that I would take a notebook and observe the public speakers. I will be teaching public speaking this next school year and thought I could at least gather some content for the class.

The accidental discovery:

Well, I was able to take notes, but not the notes that I thought that I would take.

I started taking notes on the public speakers, but found myself becoming more and more bored. I should have been fine! The speakers where engaging and funny, but after about 30 minutes, I couldn't pay attention.

So I decided to switch my strategy and learn a way to take notes and stay engaged.

I was skeptical. I have tried for years to pay attention in a classroom setting and have failed multiple times.

However, to my surprise, I learned a lot of tricks that actually helped me pay attention!

Here are some things that helped me take notes at this conference:

4 tips to take notes and pay attention

1. Don't follow the lines. I read Switch on your Brain by Dr. Caroline Leaf. In the book, Dr. Leaf suggests journaling in a notebook without lines. The idea is that your brain doesn't necessarily think in lines. It thinks in pictures, textures, sounds, word associations and more. We shouldn't limit ourselves to the lines on our paper. Although there were lines in my notebook I didn't use them all the time and found that helped.

2. Use Metacog: Again, as Dr. Leaf mentioned in her book, group ideas together. She calls it "Metacog" in her book. It is a way to take notes using a central ideas, lines, pictures, and color. I have seen it used in schools before as bubble notes. For me, the details of the method where not important, it was the lines and arrows that I used to group ideas that helped me connect ideas. Write a central idea and from there draw connecting branches to other ideas. To see an example click here.

3. Write down your rabbit trails: One of the reasons that I have trouble focusing is that my mind will suddenly start thinking of something else. Usually what I am thinking of is not even related to the topic. Then I start paying attention to that thought instead of what the speaker is saying or I focus on resisting the thought so much that my fight distracts me from the speaker (I'm complicated....I know).

This time, I decided to pay attention to those thoughts. Even if the thought wasn't necessarily on topic, if there was something that was on my mind, I wrote it down. It was amazing to see how having documented that thought helped me bring closure to it, and I was able to focus again on the speaker

4. Doodle: I am not sure if this will work for everyone, but doodling helps me to focus. I am an auditory learner, so I can pay attention by just listening, but my mind also has to be doing other things. For example, I can't just sit and listen to an audio book. I have to be doing something while listening like mowing the lawn, washing dishes, or driving. So this time I decided to doodle. Again, I doodled whatever was on my mind at the time. Here are some pictures of my doodles. As I doodled I wrote down important points that the speakers said, and it worked. The doodling helped me stay engaged!


There is hope!

It's no exaggeration when I say that my battle with attention has been going on for over 20 years. However, I was extremely encouraged after this weekend. I finally found a method to help me focus that actually worked.

I know that us as teachers, students, or parents either struggle with focus or know someone who does. Tell them to try some of the above methods. If it can help me, it can help them!

What about you? What do you use to help you focus?