Do Just One Thing – The Power of Presence

The following activity is part of a series we’re creating to support students, teachers, and caregivers, during this unprecedented time. Read more about the project here. If you try this activity with your student(s), we’d love to see what you do. Share your journey via the #Inspired2Learn hashtag on your preferred social platform. 

Created by: Aleta Margolis
Discipline: self!
Age level: high school, middle school
Time: a few minutes to a few hours
Materials: smartphone or other time-keeping device; writing materials

What to do: All of us, and particularly teenagers who’ve grown up as digital natives, have become skilled at doing a lot of things at once. Multitasking is our norm – we watch TV while updating social media; talk on the phone while driving home from school or work; check email while cooking dinner; chat with friends while doing homework; update our calendars while participating in a conference call…the list goes on. There is value to multitasking. We get a lot done. We’re able to collect, and distribute, a great deal of information. It takes hard work to be able to spread our attention across multiple tasks. However, it also takes hard work, and practice, to be able to focus all of our attention in one place, on one thing.

During this extraordinary moment in history when we are forced to make big changes in our everyday lives, we have an opportunity to reflect on the ways our brains and bodies learn, and on where we choose to put our attention. What might happen if we try to spend a period of time – a minute, an hour, even longer – doing just one thing? This activity challenges students (and teachers and parents!) to build the skill of being fully present, of focusing full attention on one thing at a time.

  1. Choose one thing to focus on for 60 seconds. It can be a tree outside the window. It can be your breathing. It can be the sound of the refrigerator, or the melody and lyrics of a song. It can be writing down, or saying out loud, as many US states as you can think of. It can be running in place, or sprinting down the street. 
  2. Set your timer for 60 seconds, then do the activity you’ve chosen for the full 60 seconds.
  3. Pause.
  4. Try it again with a different type of activity. If you chose to do something that kept your body still the first time (i.e. observing a tree or listening to music or watching your dog sleep), try something that gets you physically active the second time (running or writing or singing out loud).
  5. Set your timer for 60 seconds, then do the activity you’ve chosen for the full 60 seconds.
  6. Jot down your observations.
    • What was each experience like? Easy? Hard? Interesting? Boring?
    • Did you have to use particular skills to focus on one thing for 60 seconds? Which skills did you use? 
  7. Now take it further. Choose one thing, and do it for 30 minutes or more. For example:
    • Watch an entire TV show, or an entire movie, without pausing, without eating, without checking your phone.
    • Play one game on your phone without pausing to Snap a friend or check your Insta feed.
    • Cook a meal without consulting the internet.
    • Choose your outfit for the day without consulting the internet.
    • Sit down and have a conversation with someone who is living with you without checking your phone, without getting up out of your seat for any reason.
    • Look outside the window, not at anything specific, just to see what’s there – keep looking for the full 30 minutes.
    • Go for a walk outside without listening to music, talking on your phone, responding to texts.
    • Listen to a book on tape, without folding the laundry or checking your phone or straightening your hair.
  8. Finish that entire activity before you start something new.
  9. Jot down your reflections again. Consider the questions in #6 above again, along with the additional question: Are these skills still necessary in today’s world?

Extensions:

This activity can spark discussion and debate across generations, and among students of the same age.

Teachers – if your students are engaging in group discussions using Zoom or other platforms, schedule small group discussions centered around the questions posed above, or other questions you create.

Parents/guardians – talk with your children about this activity. Ask what they discovered, how they felt. Do it yourself if you are able, and talk about your experience.

Challenge yourself to avoid lecturing the young people you’re teaching (saying “See, I told you your phone is rotting your brain!” may feel good in the moment, but is unlikely to inspire young people to make meaningful changes). Instead, listen to what they have to say, or write, about this experience. Invite them to offer you feedback about where they see you place your attention.

Decide together whether there is interest in continuing this activity in the days and weeks to come. Perhaps students will choose to spend a period of time every day focusing on just one thing. Perhaps young people, and adults, will apply this experience to larger projects, spending focused time writing a paper, reading a book, creating a webinar – all without pausing to multitask. 

Connection to Inspired Teaching Instructional Model:

The Core Element Wide-Ranging Evidence of Learning speaks to the importance of deep reflection on the learning process, not only on the part of the teacher but also on the part of the learner. This activity requires young people, and adults, to engage in introspection – about how we spend our time, where we put our attention, what skills we prioritize. 

Mutual Respect, another Inspired Teaching Core Element, is at the center of this activity. It challenges us to recognize a reality for most young people (and not-so-young people) – it’s tough to do everything that’s expected of us if we don’t multitask. The activity also challenges all participants to learn, or re-learn, what it feels like, and what we’re capable of, when we focus our attention on one thing at a time. The Core Element Student As Expert is also strong here, because student agency and decision-making are critical components of the activity.

Because this activity challenges young people and adults to look inward to reflect on how we learn, and to engage with one another about our habits of mind, it also strengthens our integrity, one of Inspired Teaching’s 4 I’s.

See our instructional model here.

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