Yep.  I said that.  Squirrels. Those skittery critters, famous for short attention spans. Or, more appropriately, the thing that distracts Doug the dog in Pixar’s movie, “UP.”

But, let’s face it.  In the attention-economy, we’re all a bit skittery. Our brains are hardwired to prioritize “scan for threats” over “focus for food”.  If that weren’t enough, our screens and “black mirrors” don’t help much with that “focus” thing.  Add on to the pile a recent global health event that has forced people to combine “work” with “home” and “child/parent/pet/other care” into the same space, and timeframes.  And in the midst of / on top of this, we’re still expected to spend what little focus we have on learning? In a class?? And more frequently in a virtual Environment??

Yup. It’s exhausting:



Photo by Trac Vu on Unsplash

It should also be enough to change the way we think about teaching and learning. Or at least recognize and accommodate some of the changes that are already happening.

With this in mind, and specifically the idea that attention is short and hard to come by, I thought I might break this into 2 parts: One for learners,  and another for trainers, teachers, educators.

So, looking at your next class w. Dread?  Here’s few quick principles I encourage participants in my classes to consider:

  • Take it Easy on yourself
  • Get what you can / Set Micro Goals
  • Draw a (mental) map and Keep (yourself) coming back
  • Network Network Network…

I think these are pretty self explanatory, but if I’ve still got your attention and you’ve not yet scarpered off in search of other stuff, I thought I might break these down a teeny bit more:

Take it Easy on yourself

  • Many training organizations (including my own) have already begun adapting to the changing demands of learner(s) already divided attention (shorter classes, micro-learnings, office hours, and more).  However, there is still (and I think will always be) learning content that simply requires prolonged and ongoing study.  Not everything can be learned in 2-3 minute vignettes on YouTube.  Recognize that.  Accept it.  AND accept that you may not have the attention to be able to simply absorb everything like a sponge.  Accepting and recognizing this will help you to get strategic in the next steps.

Get what you can / Set Micro Goals

  • Once you accept that there’s going to be some content / learning objectives that will be more than you feasibly absorb in the current circumstances of divided attention, you can start getting strategic about the content you can absorb.  Take a look at the Outline / Syllabus / Book.
    • What things do you already know??  (these might be areas where your attention can ‘coast’ a bit if you have to… but be careful about this…)
    • What things do you think are learnable?? (these will be areas where you’ll most need to focus your attention, take notes, make connections, and maybe identify other folks who also are in the same boat for future review / study…)
    • What things do you think are “over your head”?? (this is a tough one, but important: this is the area where you might need to give yourself a “pass” rather than put so much effort on attention that you “lose” the learnable stuff mentioned above – if it’s a multi-person class, identify other people that “get it” for follow-up possibly – or note other resources for later…)
  • I think these strategies are core for managing / learning heavy or deep content in today’s focus-starved environment.

Draw a (mental) map and Keep (yourself) coming back

  • We’ve already established there’s probably more content than you’re going to be able to keep in your noggin from a multi-day class.  So what to do with all of the little (ahem) acorns of knowledge?
    • I didn’t pick squirrels at random (honest). One of the fascinating things about squirrels is that they can find these seemingly “randomly” buried acorns later.  Evidence suggests they do it by connecting to other cues – and I’d recommend doing the same – review the pieces you’ve learned and connect them with other things you know really well
    • Review Review Review – I know this is boring, but there are dozens of resources about this.  Like the squirrel, spend some of your time going back down the path(s) to the acorn(s) you’ve discovered.  Keep connecting and reconnecting them – so you can retrieve them when you need.

Network Network Network…

  • Networking is not just schmoozing for job opportunities – it can be schmoozing for collaborative learning opportunities
  • In any class – look for (and to) the other students as well as the instructor / content:  Who’s asking the questions that are similar to yours?  These might be good people to partner up and/or follow up with to study with.  Who’s struggling on content you understand? (sometimes lending a hand is the best way to learn even deeper) Who seems to really get the parts you’re struggling with, or might have missed bc of a meeting? (maybe a good person to reach out to for a little help?)
  • As a participant myself, I often find the other participants the most valuable part of any class (no offense intended to my instructors over the years)

I think to sum things up as simply as possible, it’s about recognizing, and honoring your, er, squirel-ness. When it comes to learning, your attention and focus is your most precious commodity.  Don’t fault yourself for having a very limited amount of it.  Instead, recognize it, and spend it deliberately, strategically, wisely.

So, before you “Squirrel On” to the next thing(s) calling for your attention, lemmee ask you:  What tips do YOU have and use to help yourself get the most out of long(er) trainings in today’s attention starved environment?  

Would love to see your thoughts in the comments!

Originally published in LinkedIn September 2021


Published On: June 23rd, 2020 / Categories: On Learning, Certification, Study and Work /

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