Conan O’Brian used to be the only person who could motivate me to work late at night. That is, television shows like his. I would switch the TV on right after cross country practice, and it would stay on until I finished my work and went to bed. As I grew older, I decided that late night television was too distracting, and instead motivated myself by listening to music, chatting with friends, or periodically stopping to surf the internet.
Like a lot of people my age, I thought that distractions focused me, or at least did no harm. They kept me from getting bored, kept me awake, and allowed me to accomplish twice as much in the same amount of time.
It turns out that multitasking is not as harmless as I once thought. Psychologists have long understood that multitasking limits your ability to concentrate. Multitasking takes a bite out of your complex reasoning skills, as well as your long-term and short-term memory. It causes you to spend a large chunk of your study time switching your attention from one place to another. Plus, it uses up the time you would otherwise spend on actual relaxation, which your brain desperately needs.
How often have you looked up from your work to realize that you have no idea who that patient is on Gray’s Anatomy, or that the album you were listening to started over a few minutes ago? If you can’t think about television while you work, you definitely can’t think about work while you watch television. And how much raw time would you say you spend in limbo, in the act of switching your attention from one place to another? It’s a good estimate to say that your brain takes five to ten seconds to completely switch back into homework mode from relaxation mode. If you switch back and forth a few times every minute, those seconds add up.
Not that you can’t use distractions to your advantage sometimes. Here are a few tips, from my own experience:
· Work with friends. You and your friends can distract each other via text message, but it’s a lot harder to help each other that way. When you are physically in a room with people, it is easier to tell when someone is “in the zone” and when they are in the mood to talk. Plus, asking questions is a way of getting something done while taking a break.
· Take a real break. If you feel like you have to stop or else you’ll scream, then just stop. Get a snack. Watch a full TV show, from the couch. Then, when you’re relaxed, pick up where you left off.
· Stagger your work. Work may be less onerous if you switch from one task to another every once in a while. Instead of reading your 100 page reading assignment and then starting your 20 physics problems, alternate 20 pages and four problems. Make sure to finish with the assignment you find the easiest or most enjoyable.
· Choose your music carefully. If you have to listen to music, make it something you have heard a million times before. It is also better to pick music without words.
· It’s OK to do just one thing. One of the reasons I like to multitask is that I feel guilty doing one thing at a time. Why just read a book, if I can read and watch a lecture, or read and talk to friends at the same time? Just remember: not being able to multitask efficiently doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you a person.