Help Students Help Themselves: Make Them Put Their Phones Away

I am leading a writing lockdown right now.   Am I locked in a room writing? Not quite.  But I am in a quiet room, with about 25 other people, mostly students, who are similarly focused on a piece of writing.  We are all hoping that at the end of these two hours, we will exit the room with an accomplished piece of work.  But with careful planning and thought, we can make it more likely that will happen, and not just a happy coincidence. One thing we can do to improve focus and concentration: put our phones away!

I’ve written here before about the challenges we and our students face as we navigate the distraction filled world.  I titled an earlier blog post and law review article which dealt with the negative affect of distraction on learning Teaching the “Smartphone Generation”How Cognitive Science Can Improve Learning in Law School      (  At the time that I wrote that law review article, I wanted to call it “Do Smartphones Make Us Dumber?”, but I was advised against that, hence the somewhat more academic and scholarly title. Since the writing of that article in 2013, more research has emerged confirming that our constant attention to phones negatively impacts our ability to pay attention. In fact, this summer, I was tickled to see this headline “Are Smartphones Making Us Stupid” (I guess I could have gone with my title).  My article argued that the constant shifting of attention between work and phone, to check email, text, check social media, etc. was not multitasking, as many believed, but rather, task switching, which negatively impacts mental efficiency.  The new article, which summarized a study recently published by the University of Texas at Austin, came to an even more distressing conclusion: “the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity”. The study’s authors found that cognitive capacity, that is, the brain’s ability to hold and process data, was significantly improved if his or her smartphone was in another room while taking a test to gauge attentional control and cognitive processes.  Even if the phone was turned off or put face down, the mere sight of one’s own phone seemed to induce “brain drain” by depleting finite cognitive resources.

So, back to the writing lockdown. Here’s how it works.  We invite students to sign up for a two-hour session and to bring a writing project.  We begin the session by encouraging students to put themselves in the best position to accomplish their writing goals.  First, we ask them to identify their goal, that is, to set their intention for what they will accomplish during the session. Second, we have students clear their physical space of any unwanted, unneeded, and potentially distracting material, including encouraging them to put their phones away. Not just turned down, but in a bag or someplace they cannot see it. I briefly explain why, referencing the recent study.  Third, we guide them in two minutes of deep breathing, helping them to prepare mentally for the work at hand. We suggest that distracting thoughts be jotted down so they will not be forgotten, but also need not be nagging at them while they are working.  Finally, we tell them to dive into the work.  This process, I have found, helps set the tone for a productive writing “lockdown”.

By the way, I did not bring my phone to the lockdown, and I accomplished my goal, too:  I wrote this post!

One Response

  1. What a terrific idea! And I love the way your blog post demonstrated your own personal achievement.

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