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Published 18 January 2021

Trying to meet several deadlines? Here’s why multi-tasking is NOT the answer


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As we approach exams and the end of trimester, is study becoming a bit of a juggle? You may have a number of assignments due and be wondering how to manage the competing deadlines.

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 become 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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