Long, sleepless nights with mounting cans of empty Monster Energy, toothpicks strategically placed to keep the eyelids open, a blanket embracing your torso as the young morning brings a chill to the air. The cliché imagery from every university comedy montage is cliché because it’s common. Many imagine that it is long hours of study that will bring the best results.
Research however tells a different story. Research shows that highly successful students actually spend less time studying than their contemporaries but study more intensely and efficiently in their shorter space of time.
It starts with shredding, burning then flushing the idea that you can easily multi-task while studying. Multi-tasking has become more prominent in the digital age where weapons of mass distraction are hidden in plain sight. They have become so much a part of us that they may as well be surgically attached. According to a 2016 study funded by the National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia, more than 50% of young adult to middle-aged people carry their phones in their hands or pockets and more than 50% sleep with their phones no more than 50 cm from their heads.
When a person has moments of shifting attention, even if briefly or passively, those are moments where the brain has to jump from context to context, meaning it has to waste energy refocusing on whatever it is that is meant to be receiving primary attention.
This is not to be confused with the interleaving method which we talked about in the last episode, where attention is carried through to different topics and connections are made. This is having a TV show on in the background, notifications pinging, dinging and ringing while your flatmate is singing this is not bridge building, this is taking long jumps from planet to planet to the point where your energy is so zapped that you struggle to get back to where you should have stayed.
If that example seems odd you may want to check out the ‘Educate This’ podcast episode that we sponsored on “interleaving”.
There is a formula touted by Cal Newport in his book “How to Become a Straight-A Student” which reads – “work accomplished = intensity of focus X time spent.” Actually a lot of my thoughts today (and in a lot of what I put out in fact,) are inspired by this author and so I recommend checking him out if you haven’t already.
The work that you accomplish, the value that is retrieved from a study period, is a direct result of multiplying intense focus with a solid block of time. The beauty is, that that time doesn’t have to be long compared to the vision of that college movie studying montage we mentioned earlier.
Less time but greater intensity. That needs to become a mantra for every student wanted to kill it at school. Or even if studying as an autodidact, at home or in the library.
Let’s say you are studying for your final exam on Animal Behaviour and Psychology. During your allotted time you check messages and texts, you drop in on social media, you go a little wayward with a couple of videos… You could “study” for 3 hours. If even just half an hour of that is off-topic, that’s not 2 and a half hours of study value because of the in and out, here there and everywhere before coming back to it nature of the activity. Your brain is also now having to contend with multiple bits of information. It’s having to figure out where to store things, what goes with what.
In studies done on why elite athletes can sometimes “choke” one of the reasons found is that distraction, not just in the moment, but prior to performance, due to the mind having to think about too many things rather than having one hyper-focus, can disable a person.
Here’s a problem with simply knowing this stuff – we don’t! That is to say that, the younger generation especially, but all generations in pockets, don’t necessarily agree. You may not agree. Why? Because we are so used to these weapons of mass distraction that we feel we have a good grasp on it all. We feel immune. How many here, and/or how many here know of people who swear that are excellent multi-taskers.
From the summary of a research article by the University of Illinois, published in Science Daily,
“Although experts say using electronic media while doing schoolwork negatively impacts learning, many students believe they’re immune to any ill effects because they’re good multitaskers, according to recent research.”
Continuing with a direct reading from this article,
“Researchers in psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience found that media multitasking during schoolwork interferes with students’ attention and working memory. Students’ learning is shallower and spottier; they understand less and have difficulty recalling what they have learned and applying it in new contexts. Their reading comprehension, note-taking ability, test performance and grade point averages all diminish.”
Listening to a lecture and interacting on social media draw on the same region of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. They are demanding tasks that require their own space. Rarely can the brain effectively carry 2 complex tasks simultaneously.
SOCIAL ANXIETY LEADS TO POOR PERFORMANCE
Then there is the strong and alarming research that has found that too much time on mobile devices can inflame social anxiety including the “fear of missing out” AKA FOMO. That FOMO, research shows, will often entice students to interrupt and sometimes postpone indefinitely their study in order to read and respond to posts and messages. It goes without saying that this is far from ideal for a student trying to ace their education.
However, a student who buries the weapons of mass distraction for a time and doesn’t dig them up until purposeful study is complete, will get far more out of a shorter period of study than the distracted peer.
So to recap:
Don’t think you’re the one anomaly that can have your phone or other devices next to you, or TV on in the background etc. and still give 100% focus to the subject needing your undivided attention. Science, studies, research, hell my own personal anecdotes – and yours I reckon if you want to be honest – say otherwise.
Did you ask for a personal anecdote? Okay you twisted my arm! I remember listening to some Metallica while trying to study in High School. No internet back then. I had every album on cassette tape. My dad told me I’d be better off listening to something non-lyrical while studying. I knew better of course because I was a teenager and that’s the prime age for prime wisdom right? So I continued pseudo-studying while singing along to Metallica’s ‘One’ (among other gems,) “I can’t remember anything. Can’t tell if this is true or dream.” How appropriate where those lyrics? I struggled to remember anything. My recall of World War history was not as good as it could have been if in my exams I didn’t have James Hetfield’s growling vocals bouncing around in my head.
Here’s the truth: The world will not crumble if you don’t check in on your friends, enemies and frenemies every few minutes.
Put the distractions away and go beast mode with your study focus.
I’ll leave you with a quote by author Anne Katherine.
“When we clutter our lives with imagined obligations, unnecessary activities, and distractions that only kill time, we dilute the power of our lives.”
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