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11 April 2022

How to juggle multiple assignments (hint: you shouldn’t)

We’re now at the stage of trimester where assignments are starting to pile up. Do you have a few imminent deadlines and are wondering how to get everything done on time?

If you think you’ll be more productive by working on multiple assignments at once, you may actually be making things harder for yourself. While multi-tasking is promoted as a way to get more done, the human brain can’t do two things at once – it can only switch between the two as quickly as possible.

Dr Gillian Clark from Deakin’s School of Psychology says 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.’

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.

Don’t multi-task while you’re studying

Whether you’re reading multiple lecture notes or studying while chatting with a friend, switching tasks affects your productivity. ‘Because 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’, Dr Clark says.

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 how to study efficiently

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 not to be disturbed,’ Dr Clark says. ‘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:

Ask for help

If you start to feel overwhelmed, the below services are free and available to all Deakin students:

Edited version of an article originally published in this.

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