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By Kerry Gallagher

This educators’ series on digital wellness is being published in partnership with MASCD.

Cognitive wellness refers to our overall ability to think, problem-solve, and create. We actually have the power to improve our brain’s ability to acquire, understand, and apply information. But sometimes our screen use can get in the way. As you read in the first two articles of this series – What is Digital Wellness? and Digital Wellness is Physical Wellness – I am exploring how our use of digital media, tools, and devices can impact our overall wellness in positive and potentially negative ways. In this post, we will look at how our use of screens, apps, and other tech tools affects our cognitive wellness.

Improving Focus and Concentration

You may have noticed that you are more likely than ever to scroll through Instagram while sitting and watching TV with your family. While this habit is common, it is essentially “untraining” our brains in the skills of focus and concentration. We can only consciously think about one topic or idea at a time. Researcher Dr. Brené Brown recently posted about the flashlight/brain metaphor on her Instagram. She interviewed Dr. Amishi Jha who explains, “You only have one flashlight… And your flashlight can only ever be shining at one thing at a time. In a day when you do a lot of task switching… You’re going to become slower, more error prone, and emotionally worn down.” In another research study of work habits, those who tried to respond to emails as soon as they came in—such as in the middle of a meeting about a different matter—rather than intentionally setting aside separate time to respond to emails actually lost 10 IQ points due to task switching. So, taken together, the research reveals the scary truth that when we attempt to multitask, we are actually harming our cognitive wellness.

While this is discouraging, we can apply this research to our habits to actually improve our focus and processing speed. For instance, create a classroom or workspace with limited distractions to help avoid task switching:

  • Classroom: Teachers can create a classroom routine specifically for quiet reading. Consider giving students a chance to stretch or move their bodies just before quiet reading time to limit fidgeting. Provide varied seating options, even if it is just the floor or a safe windowsill so that students know they can get themselves physically comfortable. Using white noise can limit sound distractions as well. Students will know they can count on a quiet environment that will help them focus. At first they will struggle and may only be able to handle 5-8 minutes. Tell them you will challenge them to work toward 10, 15, or even 20 minutes depending on their age and developmental abilities.
  • Adult Workspace: Do the same for yourself when settling in to plan lessons or give students feedback. Maybe take a quick walk around the school building to move your body first. Then find a quiet space or put up a “Thanks for the Quiet Work Time” sign for coworkers to see at your cubicle. Add white noise or music free from lyrics with your earbuds. See how long you can focus on one task before your mind drifts. Then track your own progress over time.

Once you make these strategies a part of your daily routine, you will find the ability to focus for longer time periods becomes easier, bit by bit.

Flow and Languishing

Screens tend to be our go-to distraction. They provide on demand content that tempts us to procrastinate. Despite this, it is possible for us to maximize our creativity and efficiency while avoiding the urge to put off certain tasks. To learn how, first we need to understand the concepts of FLOW and LANGUISHING.

Flow is a term coined by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1988. Flow is an ideal cognitive state we experience when we are completely concentrated on a task that is intrinsically rewarding, we feel in control, and time passes quickly. Screens can be a barrier to experiencing flow. While time tends to get away from us while we are staring at our screens, we do not step away feeling fulfilled or that we were in control.

Languishing is a mental health term that has been around for a while but has become more well known recently thanks to Adam Grant. He explains, “Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work.” Often, we find ourselves on our screens when we are languishing. Avoiding work or other enjoyable cognitive tasks.

The solution is to start noticing these habits in ourselves.

  • What app do you open as a default when languishing? Is it Instagram? TikTok? Or is it a game like Wordle? Check the built-in screen time tracker on your phone to find out what your languishing screen time adds up to.
  • When was the last time you experienced flow? Were you exercising? Creating digital or physical art? Working on a home project? Look for instructional videos and other resources online to help you come up with ideas for more flow-inducing activities.

Once we are able to recognize our own tendencies we can talk about it with our partners, coworkers, and the children we serve. Our own awareness and modeling will help them develop self-awareness too.

Next Steps

Use the research and strategies I’ve shared here both in your home and in your classroom to improve your Cognitive Wellness. Then share what you’ve learned with your young learners. Just as they can build muscles, they can build strength and stamina in their own thinking and concentration with your help.

I’m looking forward to seeing you back here soon. Our next Digital Wellness post will tackle our moods, feelings, and sense of self with Emotional Wellness.    

For additional installments in our series on digital wellness: What is Digital Wellness?, Digital Wellness is Physical Wellness and Digital Wellness is Emotional Wellness.

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