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Stop multitasking – start focusing better

Our brains work best if they are allowed to focus on just one thing at a time, research has shown. When we force our brains to do several things at once, they retaliate by doing them badly. The problem is that most of us don’t notice, since we are so used to having our attention divided.

Checking emails while listening to a lecture or reading course literature at the same time as doing a take-home exam might feel like efficient approaches. However, this way of working leads not only to more mistakes because we lose focus, it also results in each task taking longer in total. So, we are in fact wasting time, while believing that we are saving it.

Why are we so bad at multitasking?

In actual fact, it is not just difficult for us to do several things simultaneously – it is impossible. What happens when we try is that we quickly shift focus between different tasks, constantly disrupting our own concentration as we do so. Every time we interrupt an activity to check our phones, answer a question or see what that noise is, it takes a moment to return to the same level of focus as before. 

Those who access teaching via a computer or mobile phone often have more difficulty focusing than those sitting in a classroom, because there are loads of other things to do just a click or an eye movement away. There is even research that demonstrates that your focus suffers through simply knowing that your phone is in the room – more on that later in this article.

There is no point, then, in trying to improve the efficiency of your studying by trying to get better at multitasking. The smartest way is to practice your skills in doing one thing at a time – unitasking.

Start unitasking – five concrete tips!

  1. Plan ahead

Often, we multitask because we don’t have a plan. A first step to getting better at doing one thing at a time is to plan ahead. Round off each study session with a to-do list for the next one.

Read more about how to write a good to-do list

Plan your breaks in advance, too. Schedule suitable break activities, preferably involving movement and ideally avoiding screens. For those working from home, this could be practical chores such as washing-up or folding laundry. Someone who has written “make the bed” as a defined break activity is not at risk of ending up ceaselessly scrolling or clicking in a way that affects their next period of work.

  1. Set a timer

When you do sit down to study, choose an interim goal: a specific task that you are going to work on for a certain predetermined length of time. Write down what the interim goal entails and what results you want to achieve when it is reached. After that, set a timer and focus on your interim goal until the time runs out. Think about how long it is reasonable to focus on the interim goal – often 30-45 minutes is about right before it is time to take a short break.

For reasons that will become apparent if you continue reading, it is better to use something like an egg timer than setting an alarm on your mobile phone.

  1. Make a note of things that distract you

Each time you get distracted while working towards your interim goal – write down the cause of the distraction on a piece of paper. Make notes of both the thoughts you have that are not to do with your goal and any other distractions. This is a good idea for two reasons. First of all, it is easier to let go of a thought once you have written it down. Many of us expend a lot of energy keeping various practical reminders in our heads, because we trick ourselves into thinking it is more efficient, but if you make a note of things that are important to remember, you can dedicate your full capacity to the current interim goal instead.

Secondly, you can learn a lot about yourself by studying that distraction page afterwards. Looking at the list, is there anything you can do to reduce distractions? If you are constantly being disturbed by different sounds, maybe you should try earplugs. If you notice that you are worrying a lot about getting everything done in time, perhaps you should change your planning strategies. If you check your phone often, it might be best to turn it off while you are studying.

  1. 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 whole study here – journals.uchicago.edu

  1. ‘Automate’ simple tasks

Despite all this, there are things you can do to get better at multitasking: by practicing simple skills so that you can eventually complete them without thinking. For example: you could spend some time learning about the functions in Canvas or Word so that you don’t need to actively think about them when using the computer for your studies. You could revise concepts and subject words separately, so that you will not need to look them up when reading course literature. Learn about referencing, so you can avoid looking through different guides during your take-home exam. But! Do not start learning all the shortcut commands on your computer as a way of procrastinating when you have five hours left till deadline or when you should be reading before a lecture – plan to fit in the ‘automation’ when you have plenty of time and are able to give it your undivided attention.