Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Case for Single-Tasking

If you had to guess, how often do you think you switch between tasks on your e-devices, from Facebook to a Word document to a news site, back to your work on Word, then to your phone to answer a text, and back to Word for a bit before finding yourself looking up reviews of that new restaurant? Turns out, college students switch between windows on their laptops every 45 seconds, on average. Even more shocking is how long it might take us to refocus after a short distraction – up to 25 minutes. Some might call this multi-tasking (which have looked at in a previous post), but what’s really happening is better described as “rapid juggling” – and humans aren’t very good at it. We’re not really capable of doing two things simultaneously; our brain is actually going back and forth between the tasks, and that takes a lot of mental energy.

There’s been a lot of research over the past few years (and an excellent piece in The New York Times) about how this constant juggling of incoming information affects adults in the workplace, but recently researchers from the Departments of Informatics and Education at the University of California – Irvine have been working on figuring out how college students are affected as well. Not only does this rapid switching increase stress, but it also lowers our achievement, perhaps by 20%. That means that students who are trying to write a paper or take notes often have to use a lot more mental energy to finish the job than they should, because a lot of that energy is spent jumping around from window to window, or device to device. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon even found that the expectation of an incoming phone call or text can steal your focus enough to hurt your performance.

Interruptions to our mental focus and flow can come from others (email, texts, knocks on the door) or from ourselves (rapid juggling between windows), and the research shows we are our own most common interrupters. So how can college and high school students set themselves up for success and avoid a day of drained mental energy and too much tweeting? There are quite a few tips and resources for dealing with these habits.
  •  Let your friends and family know you’re going to be busy during a specified time, and turn your phone on airplane mode during this time so calls and texts can’t get through. Turn off all other notifications for the time being as well. 
  • Schedule your breaks, and make sure to indulge your human side – take a walk through nature, have a snack, or just look away from the screen and do some simple stretches. In between the breaks, stick to the one task at hand. 
  • Consider using free software like, which can make you aware of how often you’re switching, or an app that allows you to block yourself from certain websites for a set amount of time (StayFocused for Chrome, ColdTurkey for Windows, or SelfControl for Mac).

  • Take the Infomagical Challenge from WNYC, which gives you a week full of tasks that will help you regain control over where you exert your mental energy. Day one starts with single-tasking. 

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