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Stop multitasking – get better focus

Our brains function best when they get to focus on one thing at a time. The science on this is clear. When we force the brain to do multiple things simultaneously, it takes revenge by doing a bad job. The problem is that most of us don’t notice this because we are so used to a split focus.

It might feel like an efficient solution to check your email while listening to a lecture or to read course literature while at the same time writing a take-home exam. On the contrary, this way of working leads us not only to make more mistakes because our focus is worse, but each activity will also end up taking more time. In other words, we are losing time while thinking that we are gaining time.

Why are we so bad at multitasking?

The truth is, it’s not only difficult for us to do multiple things simultaneously – it’s impossible. What happens when we try is that we constantly shift focus between different tasks and as a result disturb our own concentration. Everytime we interrupt an activity to check the phone, answer a question or check to see what’s making noise, it takes some time before we find the level of focus we had earlier.

The person who attends classes using a computer or a phone often has worse conditions for focus than the student who sits in a physical classroom – because there are plenty of things to do that are just one click, or one flick of the eye, away. There is even research showing how people focus worse simply by knowing that their phone is in the same room as them.

Start unitasking – five concrete tips!

Therefore, there is no point in trying to become better at multitasking if you want to become more efficient in your studying. Instead, the smart choice is to practise your ability to do one thing at a time – to unitask.

1. Plan ahead

We often multitask because we don’t have a plan. Therefore, a good first measure to take in order to become better at doing one thing at a time is to plan ahead. Finish each of your work sessions by making a to-do list for the next one.

Read more about how to write an effective to-do list

Plan your breaks in advance, too. Plan reasonably long break-activities that preferably involve movement and don’t include a screen. If you work from home, for example, you could use your breaks to do the dishes or to fold your laundry. Anyone who has written “make the bed” as a defined break activity doesn’t risk getting stuck in endless scrolling or clicking that would affect the following work-session.

2. Set a timer

Afterward, when you sit down to study, choose a subgoal: a specific work task to work on for a specific amount of time. Write down what the purpose of the subgoal is and what result you wish to see once it’s done. Start the timer and focus on your subgoal until the alarm rings. Consider what a reasonable time is to focus on the subgoal – 30-45 min is often enough before it’s time to take a short break.

3. Make a note of things that distract you

Each time you get distracted by something while you’re working on your subgoal – write down the distraction on a piece of paper next to you. Write down thoughts you have that are not relevant to the subgoal as well as external distractions. There are two reasons why this is a good idea. Firstly, it’s easier to let go of the thought of something if the thought is written down. Many of us spend plenty of energy keeping useful “remember to’s" because we convince ourselves that it’s more efficient, but if you write down the things that are important to remember, you’ll be able to work on your subgoal with full capacity instead.

Secondly, you can learn a lot about yourself by going over your distractions afterward. With the list as your starting point – is there something you can do to minimise distractions? If you are constantly getting distracted by sounds, you could try earplugs. If you find yourself worried about not having enough time for your studies, you should perhaps change your planning strategies. If you are frequently checking your phone, it might be a good idea to turn it off while studying.

4. Hide your phone

In a study researching how concentration is affected by mobile phones, three groups had to solve various types of cognitively challenging tasks while having their switched-off mobile phones close by. Group one had theirs on the desk in front of them, screen down. Group two had theirs in their pockets or bags while group three had to leave theirs in another room. It turned out that group three were most successful in completing the tasks and group one performed worst.

The researchers explain that the very knowledge that participants could check their phones led to multitasking, since the brain has to actively expend energy on not falling to temptation. So, if you have a smartphone or smartwatch, you should hide it as far away as possible when you are going to concentrate. This is most important if you use your phone a lot – those who said in the study that they were dependent on their phones in their daily lives performed even worse in the tests.

Would you like to know more about the effect of mobile phones on concentration? If so, you can read the study, “Brain drain: the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity".

Read the entire study on how phones impact our concentration here –

5. Automate simple work tasks

Despite all the information on this page, there is one thing you can do to become better at multitasking: improve more basic skills so that you in time can exercise them without thinking about it. You could, for example, spend some time learning about functions in Canvas or Word so that you don’t have to actively think about them when you use your computer for your studies. You could also revise concepts and subject headings separately in order to avoid having to look them up when you read the course literature. Learn how to reference and you’ll avoid having to look through different guides when you write your take-home exam. But! Don’t start learning all the shortcut commands on your computer as a way of procrastinating when you have five hours left on a deadline or when you should start preparing for a lecture – plan the automation for when you really have the time and can put all your focus into that alone.