I’m dodging students left and right, looking ahead at the bike path to make sure I don’t need to make longer than half a minute stop before crossing the bike path. My next class isn’t that far ahead; I like to get there with a couple of minutes to spare, and the meeting I was in ran later than usual.
When I finally make it to the classroom, I don’t even contemplate sitting in the back where it would be easier for me to slack off. I sit in the third chair from the front on the left side of the classroom, but no one sits in front of me. I have a couple of minutes to spare but it doesn’t stop me from immediately digging into my backpack for my notebook and a colored pen. There’s no need to rush—yet I do.
I’m always rushing, and it’s not because I’m running late. That’s just the way my brain is hardwired: Always thinking, always rushing from thought to thought, lingering on memories, focusing on insignificant details in my environment (like a scratch on my desk), wondering what I’ve eaten today (have I eaten?).
It’s always a struggle to pay attention during lectures, and it’s even harder to focus when the professor isn’t an engaging lecturer. So, I have a system in place for when this is the case: sit near the front, write in a physical notebook and alternate between colored pens each class, and find at least one detail that piques my interest.
And while I’ve done all this for this class, a class I’m genuinely interested in, the professor tends to repeat details a few times, linger on certain points, and double-check with her own notes a couple of times every class. My focus is easily lost.
I’m not proud to admit that she’s more than aware of my tendency to play games on my phone while she lectures. But I also know that she knows I at least try to engage and listen. When I’m not on my phone, I’m taking notes with a colored pen, diligently writing down the few bullet points she has and trying to remember what she talks about but hasn’t written on the PowerPoint. If I don’t understand a point she makes, I ask for clarification.
Sometimes, there is no need for clarification. Sometimes, the professor talks about one point more than other times and there’s no opportunity for me to take any relevant notes. That’s when I usually go on my phone, regardless of being right in the front and in plain view. How can I focus on the lecture when I’m winning a game of Spider Solitaire?
When I realize the professor has finally moved on, I have a smaller window frame to copy the notes on the PowerPoint and simultaneously listen for the details she omits in her presentations. I don’t always manage to catch up with my notes. This is where having one detail to interest me comes into play.
If I know the material we are learning that day in class is something that will just bore me to death, I make sure to focus on one detail, even if it’s insignificant, to keep me coming back to the material. For example, my class recently covered a revolutionary war which my professor lectured on, but from a political standpoint. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but talking politics just exhausts me. So naturally, my mind wandered a bit during this topic.
To keep it from wandering, I started thinking about the role of women in the war. How did this war impact them? Were they involved in any way? Is there a woman of note history remembers or excludes during this time? The need to know keeps me focused on the lecture on the off chance that my professor mentions it, even offhandedly.
I struggle to focus because I live in my head too much. I think, overthink, wonder, reminisce, ponder, imagine, and just about everything else one can do within the confines of my mind. I forget to engage with the world, so I have to force engagement through strategic planning and maneuvering in the hopes that it takes my focus from the infinite thoughts racing through my mind to my immediate physical environment. It’s the only way I can focus, even if it’s not a constant focus.