I was the class 'toe-tapper'
I’m standing in front of a classroom giving a presentation. I’m speaking clearly—maybe a little too fast but my classmates are following along. That doesn’t stop my professor from scribbling furiously on his notepad. I know what the problem is: I’m swaying as I speak. You see, I fidget. Not just when I’m nervous, or giving a presentation, or going on a date. I'm told I fidget all the time. I don't feel much like stopping so you can imagine how excited I was to hear that fidgeting can actually help me to focus and be a better student.
We are often quick to discipline children for not “sitting still” in class or at the dinner table, but research suggests there may be a reason children—and adults, like me—move so much. A study published in April 2015 found that male students diagnosed with ADHD had better performance on tasks that required concentration when they were moving or spinning in chairs. "...part of the reason is when they're moving more they're increasing their alertness,” says Dustin Sarver, an ADHD expert at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
But fidgeting isn’t exclusive to teenaged boys with ADHD. Fraser Smith, who researched the spectrum of this disorder wrote, “The theory is that nobody can focus 100% of their working memory and attention to a single task, there is always a little bit of floating attention keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings.” Roland Rotz and Sarah D. Wright, authors of Fidget To Focus: Outwit Your Boredom: Sensory Strategies For Living With ADHD, believe this “floating attention” distracts the part of the brain that’s bored so the other parts of your brain can pay attention to whatever it is you’re reading, watching, or listening to.
Fidgeting can be beneficial to everyone, not just those with ADHD
Children with ADHD are urged to cope with distractions by “unconsciously giving their floating attention a nice mindless task” such as fidgeting to keep that floating attention occupied while the rest of their working memory focuses on the task at hand, says Smith. This is a practice that could be beneficial to everyone, not just those with a proclivity for distraction. However, if your “nice mindless task” is a tapping foot or pen in a quiet library, you’ll probably be shushed often—like I am.
Research consistently shows a positive correlation between physical movement and learning. An April 2014 study determined that mindless doodling can actually “boost memory and attention span” and that writing by hand—as opposed to typing on a computer—is more likely to help individuals better process and retain information. Another study from 2005 found that even hand movements and gestures could help children “think, speak and learn.”
“There is something called the cognitive load hypothesis, suggesting that when we have to deal with complex thoughts or problems we offload some of the cognitive load into movement, thus freeing up resources to devote to the mental process,” says Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire who researches gesturing. She believes this is why people tend to move their hands more when stuck in a tip-of-the-tongue moment. While she does point out that her research and findings aren’t a “conclusive explanation” for why people fidget, it does suggest, “[fidgeting] may be linked to the way in which an individual processes their thoughts and speech.”
Fidget to win it?
If fidgeting can be linked to processing thoughts and speech, and research has shown a positive correlation between physical movement and learning, then I'd say thats a bit of good news. Adults could even fidget easy. Integrating our habits in the workplace could be the difference to living a more authentic and productive life. Some experts even suggest getting up from your desk every 25-30 minutes to take a brief walk, or stopping your tasks altogether and taking a few deep breaths. If you're stuck at your desk, however, perhaps picking up a Fidget spinner may be the way to go. Fidget spinners, while not a favorite among parents and teachers, are said to help occupy the distractible brain with a mindless task while the part of the brain that prefers to focus can remain hard at work.
There are many ways adults can incorporate movement into their work process—from tapping a foot to shaking a leg to rocking in a chair to better manage their attention spans, increase their overall alertness, and potentially even enhance their ability to learn. Even simply mixing up a day's work with sitting and standing can help to get your ya-ya's out. As for me, I’ve embraced my need to fidget. I’ve accepted that when I’m incredibly focused on a stationary task—such as writing this blog post—I nod my head, or move my shoulders back and forth in a subtle dance. I like to pad around on my Topo mat. And now I’m able to finish tasks in half the time with half of the distractions. Does it look weird? Probably. It's not going to earn my any points in presentations. But does it help me focus? Absolutely. And it might help you, too.