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Have you ever had to work with a colleague who endlessly clicks their pen during meetings, jiggles their knees as if possessed by some kind of deranged wind-up toy or loves to flick elastic bands at the shared office rubbish bin? ‘Fidgeting Phils’ are seemingly everywhere and while they can drive us to distraction, they might also have an advantage over the rest of us; the ability to stay focused and on task for longer.

As Alanis Morrisette would say “isn’t it ironic!”

Fidgeting, far from being a mindless activity serving no useful purpose other than to annoy everyone else around you, can be a useful ploy to improve productivity.

For years we’ve been told that to improve focus we have to sit still and pay close attention, and that part of our education starts way back when we’re at school.

At my school, “Sit still and no corfing” was the rule of the day, every day especially during morning assembly when 900 pupils and teaching staff came together to listen to important notices, sing a hymn and listen to the headmistress share a few pearls of wisdom.

The headmistress was a tiny woman with steely blue eyes that could paralyse from 50 meters. She would clip neatly across the stage to take her place at the central throne, dwarfed by her voluminous black academic gown as we stood to attention prior to being given the instruction to sit down cross-legged on the floor.

The blue laser beam of disapproval was directed at anyone who dared squirm, wriggle, giggle or speak.

We all learnt that “corfing” was a BAD thing matched only by that other hideous misdemeanour of fidgeting.

However, it turns out that far from being a sign of laziness or civic disobedience fidgeting is often the body’s way of helping us to pay better attention.

Children with ADHD can’t sit still and research has confirmed that trying to make them do so in the classroom is counterproductive. Occupational therapists have devised a number of ways to allow these children to move (while not distracting the rest of the class) and it’s helping them to focus better and learn more.
But general fidgeting can also help the rest of us. A number of desk toys and fidget widgets are now available to help us to work better. 

Did you know that taking notes in longhand is superior for information retention compared to using a laptop or tablet? It’s also been shown that those doodles we produce during boring lectures or while on the phone serve a useful purpose to keep us from mind-wandering and boost cognitive performance.
Current work by Karlesky and Isbister from the Polytechnic Institute New York University is now providing some useful food for thought to help us determine what works best for different individuals to optimise cognitive performance.

So whether you like silly putty, squishy stress balls, popping bubble wrap or the latest Fidget Cube there’s something to be said for using a seemingly mindless activity to keep us more focused on the primary task we are thinking about. 

Do you use fidgeting to help yourself pay better attention?
Is doodling something you find helpful to prevent mind-wandering?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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