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23 April 2020

Do you have competing assignment deadlines? Multi-tasking is not the solution!

As we approach the end of Week 6, you may be feeling like study is becoming a bit of a juggle. You probably have a number of assignments due and are likely feeling a bit stressed trying to manage the competing deadlines.

No doubt the change in routine caused by COVID-19 is making this balancing act even harder. Your normal outlets, hobbies and support networks are all disrupted or unavailable, which can make it harder to manage stress and make decisions – including what work you should do first.

Many students try to increase their productivity by multi-tasking. Do two things simultaneously – like two assignments – and you get more done while saving oodles of time, right?

Wrong. The human brain can’t do two things at once – it can only switch between the two as quickly as possible.

And, crucially, this switching leads to lower productivity. Yep, trying to do more means you actually do less. ‘We make mistakes and take longer to complete tasks when we try to do multiple things at once,’ says Dr Gillian Clark from Deakin’s School of Psychology.

Here’s what you need to know about the multi-tasking myth – and how to use it to your advantage to be more productive.

Can humans multi-task?

The simple answer is no, not really – your brain has limited resources for attention. If you’re working on one task, you can only allocate enough attention to get that task done.

It’s possible to split your attention if you’re working on several simple tasks or automatic behaviours – think walking and talking, or making a sandwich and listening to a podcast.

However, when you try to focus on multiple tasks that aren’t automatic behaviours, you run into trouble. ‘We reach a limit and our brain doesn’t have the capacity to allocate attention to everything all at once,’ Dr Clark says.

This is when the switching kicks in. ‘One way our brain can deal with this problem is by switching between tasks,’ Dr Clark says. ‘This can feel as though we’re focusing on multiple things at once, but our brain is more likely focusing on one thing, then switching to another, then switching back and so on.’

Don’t multi-task while you’re studying

Whether you’re reading multiple lecture notes or studying while chatting with a friend, the cost of switching tasks is anything but productive,’ says Dr Clark. ‘This switching to and fro is really inefficient. Because it is the case that only one task is being focused on at once, it means that we miss things, make mistakes and slow down on all of the tasks we’re switching between. Multi-tasking generally lowers productivity.’

There’s a lot of research that supports Dr Clark. Students who use their smartphone or watch TV while studying or listening to lectures tend to have lower productivity, retain less information and achieve lower marks than students who don’t multi-task.

Learn to study efficiently

Want to increase your productivity? The most effective strategy is to focus on one thing at a time. Just. One.

‘Avoid distractions and interruptions – close your email, don’t answer your phone and make it clear you’re busy and not to be disturbed,’ Dr Clark says. ‘You might not be able to only do a single task for a whole day, so allocate blocks of time for each task and ensure you focus only on the assigned task during the allotted time.’

If there are simple tasks that can be automated through practice, you might be able to complete two tasks at the same time. For anything challenging, new or varied, however, ‘allocate as much of your attention to one task at a time as you can,’ says Dr Clark.

Recognise and manage your stress

While stress is a normal part of managing competing demands, if your study load is making you feel out of control, try these tips to de-stress:

Originally published in this.

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