Can't sit still (don't want to)

Written with one leg bouncing like crazy. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Hello, Understandably! Kate here today while Bill continues his well-deserved summer sojourn.

I have to admit, getting my brain together to write these intros is a challenge—I’m never quite sure whether to try to say what Bill might; go on my own tangent; or keep to the facts and just the facts.

This time, obviously, we’ve gone with Option #2. And as I’m writing, I’m noticing just how antsy that choice is making me. Which leads us to today’s topic, conveniently enough…

Had trouble focusing lately? You’re not alone. The stress of the pandemic, coupled with new routines and the shift to working from home, has led to a massive uptick in anxiety, depression, and other issues.

We’re all restless. What to do about it? It turns out intentionally being more restless might help—at least for some people.

Even though people who find themselves super-distracted in this time often don’t have clinical neurological differences, research on ADHD may hold one of the keys.

According to Harriet Dempsey-Jones, a clinical neuroscience researcher at Oxford, one of those tricks might be to fidget.

The idea is that using senses other than the primary one you need for a particular task can activate different parts of the brain, releasing additional neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. That, in turn, boosts the primary sense you need to accomplish whatever it is you’re working on.

Basically: use touch to improve listening comprehension, and so on.

The research here is still in preliminary phases, but don’t you just love that there is an entire cohort of researchers working on this? 

In 2018, researchers from the University of Santa Cruz and New York University conducted a three-month study to figure out the fidgeting habits of grade school students. Among their findings: Everybody fidgets.

All of the children in our study were found to fidget. Even if one source (a parent or the child himself/herself) responded that a particular child did not fidget, we always heard from another that said child does indeed fidget, along with a description of when, why, and the properties inherent in the fidget items that said child uses.

For a more work-related study, consider this one from 2009 out of the University of Plymouth in the UK, which suggested doodling while on a telephone conference call helped participants remember more details from the call.

Researchers here asked 40 participants to listen in on a “monotonous mock telephone message” and to try to remember a series of names that were mentioned during the call.

Those who doodled remembered 29% more names afterward. (It’s a pre-pandemic study, so they were on a conference call; maybe some of you can try this for us on Zoom and let us know if it works.)

So, where does that leave us? Three words: fidgeting with intention.

Attention researcher Katherine Isbister of UC Santa Cruz says, “The fidget items most therapists recommend can be used without looking and don’t attract other people’s attention too much with motion or noise.”

In other words: fidget to improve your focus, but not in a way that breaks everyone else’s concentration on that boring Zoom call. A few practical ideas:

  • Chewing gum

  • Doodling

  • Tapping your toes inside your shoes

  • Walking or pacing (might be harder during Zoom, but turn off the camera)

  • Wearing a highly textured piece of jewelry and running a finger over it

  • Squeezing a rubber ball, Silly Putty, or stress clay

  • Looping a rubber band over two fingers and stretching them apart

  • Taking notes with multiple colors of pen or highlighter

  • Putting on a playlist designed to mimic ambient noise from a café, office, or elsewhere

Personally, I have a small arsenal of fidget jewelry ranging from a gear necklace to a small metal folding globe based on an ancient navigational tool. (Yes, I’m a nerd).

Call for comments: Do you have any techniques you’ve used to stay focused when you just cannot anymore? Or a notebook full of doodles? Share in the comments!

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