Since we need cognitive control to deal with novel, difficult, abstract, challenging situations, like studying, risky situations with lots of change, and to help ourselves ignore distractions and interruptions, here’s some common sense advice to help you study (and drive and work) efficiently and productively. When you need to pay sustained, focused and singular attention, to learn and remember (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2016), it’s just common sense for you to minimize or zero out task switching when:
- The task is difficult or takes a lot of mental effort (studying for a challenging course).
- The task is risky – such as driving (or walking on railway tracks or across an intersection).
- Is critical (writing a paper worth 30%, studying for your final exam) or personally important (parenting, engaging with friends or loved ones).
- Is time-sensitive (near the deadline for an assignment).
How could you manage your automatic knee-jerk habit to answer every text, respond to every email notification, screen shift in class to game or shop on your laptop?
Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) suggest, in order:
- Metacognition: Bust the multitasking myth! Realize that for tasks that need your attention, like studying, learning, or driving, you need to pay sustained, focused attention, and you just can’t multitask that. You task switch instead. Understand what thousands of research studies have found about the enormous cost of task switching and the attentional blindness (and low grades, neglected children and car accidents) that results.
- Develop new healthy habits to limit access to your distracting tech while driving or in class or at work (or on a date):
- Put the phone in your bag. Put the bag in your locker or the trunk of your car. Or use the apps that block texts and calls while driving.
- In class, turn off your laptop. Write your notes in a notebook instead (apparently that is what the high GPA students do). Use apps that block certain sites like Facebook for a length of time, or will limit your time on them.
- At home or at work, set up your workspace to minimize distractions. Study away from your computer and phone and turn off the sound so you can’t hear the email notifications. Find or make a quiet environment. Go to the library! If you have to use your computer for an assignment, close down all the other apps.
- Don’t constantly check your email. Check it at a regular designated time (I do that before starting a task that needs my concentration, and at the end of the work day, but that might not work for you if you are likely to get captured in email rounds for several hours.). Put an automatic reply on your email similar to a voice mail reply that you will check your email when you are available.
- Set your smartphone to automatically turn off at bedtime. And put it away from you – apparently the mere presence of even a silent phone, even another person’s silent phone, distracts us. Make the bedroom a tech free zone and turn off all screens an hour before bedtime. You will sleep a lot better.
- A radical solution – turn off Facebook. You will be surprised how little you miss.
- Reduce Boredom: since boredom tempts you to switch tasks.
- Gazzaley and Rosen (2016) suggest listening to familiar music while driving or studying (the right music, familiar and not too interesting – or too exciting or annoying).
- Plan and take brief breaks at regular intervals (exercise, nature, doodling, talk to a friend, get tea or coffee and a snack, read fiction, even take a quick tech break) every hour or two, depending on your attention span. But do stop the off-task activity when the break ends!
- Reduce Anxiety: since anxiety is another reason people text or email or Facebook when they should be concentrating. I might miss something!
- Set up auto responses when you are in class or driving, or at work to let others know you can’t answer right away. Change your – and others – expectations that you will immediately respond.
- Learn meditation or mindfulness practices to relax and de-stress.Meta analysis of over 40 (randomized and controlled) studies found meditation works to reduce anxiety (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2016).
- Exercise! Always very helpful for reducing anxiety and increasing concentration.
- Work on your cognitive beliefs and interpretations. You don’t have to respond instantly. According to research, most texts and emails are not emergencies, and can be responded to later.
Gazzaley, A. & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind: Ancient brains in a high-tech world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.