Easily Distracted? Use Orienting Tasks While Learning.

I like the polar bear game. The game is simple: don’t think about polar bears. First person to do so loses.

It’s mostly a gag because it’s impossible to play. Trying not to think about polar bears causes you to think about polar bears and you lose.

The lesson of the polar bear game is that controlling what you think about is difficult. Worse, its often not something you can influence directly. Telling yourself to focus when reading a book or listening to a lecture doesn’t help much.

The solution is to use orienting tasks. Orienting tasks are actions that you can do, deliberately, which cause you to think about whatever you’re learning in a useful way. Since we remember what we think about, a carefully chosen orienting task can lead to far more efficient learning.

Orienting Tasks

A classic study for orienting tasks was done in 1969 by Thomas Hyde and James Jenkins. Participants were divided into two groups plus a control. Each group was asked to read a list of words which they later were quizzed on. The two groups were instructed to use different orienting tasks to process the words:

  1. The first group was told to pay attention to whether each word contained the letter ‘e’ or not.
  2. The second group was told to pay attention to whether each word was pleasant or not.

After the quiz was completed, the second group scored twice as high as the first group.

Why did the second group score better? Well thinking about pleasantness forces you to think about the words differently than if you merely examine their spelling. Because pleasantness forces you to recall meaning, you process the text at a different level and thus remember it better.

Interestingly, this effect was observed regardless of whether the participants were informed of the later quiz. It seems that it didn’t matter much how motivated the students were to remember the information, they remembered more with a good orienting task.

The Keyword Mnemonic

Another orienting task that works well is called the keyword mnemonic. Take a foreign vocabulary word (say chavirer, in French). Take the English translation (in this case, to capsize). Form an image out of what the foreign word sounds like (chavirer -> shave ear). Form and image out of the English word (a canoe flipping over). Finally merge the images together in your mind (an ear, shaving, flipping over in a canoe).

Part of the reason this works is that images are easier to remember than abstract information. But another reason is that using the technique forces you to orient your thinking towards what words sound like. Normally we’re interested in meaning, but when learning a new language, we’re interested in matching a sound to an idea.

Why Highlighting is a Bad Idea

What’s the best way to read a book? If we look through the perspective of orienting tasks, the answer is clear: whichever way causes us to spend the majority of our time thinking about the content we want to remember.

This suggests highlighting isn’t too efficient. Why? Because when you highlight you’re not thinking about meaning and connections—you’re thinking about which words are bolded and which sentences stick out. It’s possible to highlight without thinking deeply, so it doesn’t provide any constraints.

A better orienting task would be to paraphrase or ask yourself questions. Paraphrasing is hard to do without thinking about the material somewhat. Asking yourself questions also forces you to think about the material in a way similar to how you might be tested.

How Should You Take Notes?

When learning from lectures, seminars or videos, the same rule applies. How can you create a task which causes you to spend the majority of your time thinking about the content you want to remember?

One way is to make connections. One of my favorite notetaking techniques is to take sparser notes, but draw connections between what the speaker is saying and other concepts or my own experience. This method works particularly well for classes which discuss abstract ideas, since it allows you to repeatedly ground those ideas in examples and analogies.

Another way is simply to not allow yourself any verbatim copying. Everything must be in your own words. That way you can’t enter into lecture hypnosis, copying down things furiously without mentally engaging any of them.

Mental Engagement is the First Priority

If you want to study more efficiently, improving the quality of the time you sit in classes or in front of books should be one of the first attack paths.

You can improve the quality of the time by adopting the mindset that your goal is not to read pages or transcribe notes, but to be mentally engaged with the content. Creating documents for later review is secondary. Thinking about what is actually being discussed comes first.

Too often I see students making beautiful, verbatim notes from a class, but not really understanding what is being said. I would prefer to take notes that are a little messier and imperfect, but orient me towards thinking about what is being said.

Designing Your Own Orienting Tasks

Once you understand the principle behind orienting tasks, you can play around with your own. The idea is to create a task that you can mentally perform. That means it can’t be a polar bear game of paradoxical impossibility.

Things like: paraphrasing, analogizing, question making, making connections, creating examples, diagramming, creating mental pictures and imagining practical uses are orienting tasks. Things like “focusing on the main ideas” or “listening carefully” aren’t.

When you try out a new orienting task, reflect on what you ended up focusing on during the class. Did you spend your time thinking about the material in a way conducive to how you’ll use it later? Or did you frequently enter a hypnosis where you realize you weren’t paying close attention to what mattered?

Good orienting tasks require you to think about the content in a useful way in order to proceed. I prefer paraphrasing to verbatim notes because the latter can be done automatically, the former requires thinking about the ideas first. If there are no constraints, it’s not a good orienting task.

Good orienting tasks also balance the needs of the task with the cognitive demands of the class. Making analogies is a great orienting task—provided you can still keep up with the class while listening. If the class is too difficult or too fast, you may need a less demanding orienting task so you can keep up with the pace.

A good orienting task can be powerful. It works indirectly, so you can avoid the paradox of avoiding distractions by telling yourself not to be distracted. More importantly it can provide constraints which assure you that you’re processing the material and not just letting it pass over you.


  • Scott

    “One hour of steady thinking over a subject (a solitary walk is as good an opportunity for the process as any other) is worth two or three of reading only.”

    Carroll, Lewis (2011-03-30). Feeding the Mind (Kindle Locations 106-107). . Kindle Edition.

  • Manvir

    Very helpful post, I will attempt to implement these tips into my studying. I’ll let you know how it goes, thanks Scott.

    On another note: I have this friend at school who is in my physics class (highschool) and all he does is sits, watches and listens to the teacher- then afterwards just socializes etc… Everyone else is writing notes (filling in this notes booklet)/paying attention/doing the given homework etc..
    This friend doesn’t write notes, do homework(plays Xbox all day at home), yet he does very well in most of his classes. He does especially well in physics 90-100% easily on tests.
    Everyone is very envious of his prowess aha. Any input you have on this?

  • Tony

    Hi Scott,

    Awesome idea.

    Could you share your thoughts about the following questions?

    1. How do you prevent the lost of your favorite material if you are just taking notes on paper?

    2. How do you take notes when reading articles from the internet?

    Regards,
    Tony

  • Ebrahim Khalil

    I don’t think it’s as much a method to stop getting distracting as much as it is a method on how to learn.

    I guess, if you just focus on how to study, you’ll inevitably stop getting distracted. Assuming you have clearly defined steps and that you’ve done them long enough that is.

  • Sian

    Interesting post, thank you. I am very easily distracted (it’s ridiculous) and have to force myself to focus, but once I do, I do it very well. When going back to study as an adult, I was concerned I wouldn’t be as good at the studying process. Turns out, it wasn’t a problem for me. I found the key was 100% Mental Engagement in what the lecturer was saying. This focus and attention truly helped me retain the information and I hardly ever reviewed notes. Just listened and learned. Notes when taken (very messy) just reinforced a point.

    Now I live in another country (Spain) and have been learning a second language. Sometimes I use the keyword mnemonic, but usually it’s more auditory for me to recall. Perhaps some people are more auditory than visual or tactile in their learning, or more visual than auditory and tactile etc. That just comes down to who you are and how you learn. But understanding the WAY you learn is such a fantastic thing once you do get there.

    So…. gracias para compartir tus ideas y además por ayudarme!

  • ajay

    hi scot
    its my pleasure to get in the net somehow. in fact am so naive in using computer and mails.i have computer for the last ten years but till date i am not confident even in using mail. i feel discomfort , though i know i have to do that. however my problem is huge.
    i went through your suggestion but for god’s sake i cannot say a single word on that.

    i did my graduation in english literature and have been teaching o’level english for the last ten years. how stupid and and poor i am in this subject that i still am not confident in that. one more problem and the
    worst one is that the truth has appeared before me. for the last two month i have been trying to do a good score in IELTS GT for immigration . sorry to say for the second time i horribly failed. first in oct i scored 5.5 ,6, 6.5, 6 and in nov 4.5, 5.5, 6.6, 7.5 reading, listening writing and speaking respectively. what can i do friend.

  • Yu

    Hey Scott,
    One question about tasks that i tried to dig at your site and was not able to find…
    Some context:Currently i work for a company and happened to be supporting 4(!) projects. But i guess, all teams i am supporting understand that is impossible (so much for context “switch”) that in reality I support 2, and other 2 trying to “not to bother me unless they really have to”. Nonetheless, sometimes tasks do pop up on on those “remaining” 2.
    So here is the problem: “deep down” something within me “struggles” against those tasks!
    And the bigger problem: in my life I’ve experienced such “struggles” quite a lot! When i had to do something that was not necessarily leading to the main goal, but had to be done as some auxiliary requirement.
    So to formulate the question:
    how to overcome “the hate” for the task , that you really don’t want to do; but really have to …(reasons for necessity won’t matter..)
    ( i do understand logically that i have no choice and have to have it done and thus work on that task, but the “struggle inside” takes up all energy; and i did notice – any kind of distraction regardless being small or large, very easily deviate my attention from the task at hand. Conversely, I can assure you that when a task at least has partial interest to me, such “struggle” would not happen, and i have no problem focusing on task)

  • Johnfavour

    Hi Scott,
    These are great suggestions on making the most of attending lectures! Do you have any advice for helping kinesthetic learners? I can’t really just stand up and move around while I’m sitting in a two-hour lecture, but for me it’s really necessary so I don’t get too tired.

  • Helene Pulacu

    @Manvir
    Regarding your comment/question:

    I don’t know about your friend, but it surely reminds me of my own experience at school.
    Mind you, I was terrible at physics, math, and the like (never interested in the subjects), but I was stellar in language arts. I’ve grown to speak 4 languages, including my native one, and I’ve been working as a translator for the last 15+ years.

    Sooo, I rarely took notes too. My teachers were exasperated, because I prefered to watch the clouds, draw on my notebooks, talk with my classmate who shared the same desk with me. The thing is, whenever they asked me about what they were explaining at the moment, or about the previous lesson(s), I was always ready to answer.

    Engaging part of my brain in some other activity, actually helped me (and the rest of my brain) stay focused on what the teacher was saying. WHAT? Yes!

    In fact, you could tell how focused I was on the lecture by watching me for a few seconds: was I doing something irrelevant? That meant, I was listening. Was I watching the teacher in the eyes, seemingly absorbed in his/her words? I wasn’t listening a word they were saying.

    My brain NEEDED to do two things at a time: so, if I engaged it in some other activity, it could focus on the teacher’s words. If, on the other hand, all I let it do was listen to the teacher, it would soon “fly away” and start daydreaming.

    In the end, there was that teacher, who realized that telling me “Stop talking with your classmate, because (you get distracted and) this hurts YOUR learning” was absolutely inaccurate. Instead, she used the following: “Stop talking with your classmate, because (SHE gets distracted and) this hurts HER learning.”

    I don’t know why and how this happens, but it does.

  • Michael Thomson

    Hi Scott,

    This article is all about reading. I’m interested in whether you think there’s a way to write in such a way that the reader has
    a) a fun time reading it and
    b) better recollection of the content
    I think there is, and if pressured would point towards Malcolm Gladwell as a good example of this method (though I don’t understand how he does it), and would like to hear your thoughts on it. In this article you talk about reading techniques for cognition with a focus on recollection. Have you come across similar writing techniques?

    This is a great article by the way! One for the bookmarks. I’m studying to be a (maths) teacher (and I write novels) so it’s all very relevant to me.

    kind regards,
    – Michael

  • Vishakha

    hi Scott
    Your ideas really entertain my mind but sometimes implementing them becomes really difficult.But i am still on it and thanks for this.

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