One Thing at a Time
The not-so-smart habit you’ve been getting away with is even less smart in college.
By Jasmin Suknanan, Stony Brook University
Remember when you were the genius in the room if you could write a perfect paper, eat your spaghetti dinner and answer your best friend’s paragraph-long text messages at the same time?
And if you could watch TV, solve calculus problems and shovel spoonfuls of chocolate cake into your mouth, you might as well have been valedictorian. Those were the days when it seemed like productivity was at 100 percent and you could actually go to sleep before midnight.
Why wouldn’t this be the most efficient way of getting multiple tasks done in a short amount of time? Instead of taking three hours to finish three separate tasks that it would have taken you an hour each to complete, you could do them all in one go and shave off two hours. In high school, as a die-hard multitasker, I saved myself a lot of time and even won a few extra hours of beauty sleep by tackling multiple assignments at once.
In fact, multitasking was how I did about 90 percent of the assignments I had to get done for school. I’d sit on my bed or at the dining room table, and I’d lay out all my homework and study materials right in front of me. I could choose to start reading the assigned chapters in the history textbook for about twenty minutes, before I decided that I wanted to catch re-runs of “Hannah Montana” while I read. I could also watch YouTube tutorials on how to solve a physics problem I was stuck on, while I annotated and highlighted chapters in the textbook.
But, I’d never mix subjects when multitasking. You can’t read a book for English class while you solve rate of change problems; that’s just stupid. Completing my tasks two or three at a time was my secret to getting good grades and still being able to sleep adequately at night. But, then I left high school, and my habits proved that there was a fatal flaw that I had overlooked.
It’s really hard for your brain to concentrate on more than one task at a time. In a CNN article, Dr. Sanjay Gupta describes how even when you’re juggling two activities at once, you’re actually not. Wait, what?
Essentially, your attention is constantly being diverted between the two activities. Moving your attention from one part of your brain to another takes a lot of energy, and can leave you feeling drained if you aren’t careful. You’re basically using one activity to distract yourself from doing the other activity properly.
It’s no secret that humans can shift their attention in a split second—you probably experience this every time you get distracted by a cute puppy on the street. But, according to Dr. Gupta, this isn’t as important as the frequency of signal transmissions (bandwidth) your brain requires in order to move attention back and forth. This is where you might find that the quality of your finished work has diminished.
You might’ve been able to get away with multitasking when you were in middle and high school, when the work was much easier. Getting poor results from multitasking in college doesn’t mean you got less smart over the years. College work is much harder and requires a deeper level of thinking and understanding. Your high school economics class was probably a piece of cake. But, if you’re like me, you probably thought that an intro level college economics class would basically be the same thing, and then you wanted to drop the class so badly.
A common realization that a lot of students make after a semester or two of college is that they can no longer bullshit assignments the way they could in high school. Unfortunately, some students make that realization a little too late. Research papers become far more complex; professors demand more in an analytical essay; responses to class material must be more thoroughly thought out and more deliberate.
Needless to say, college work requires 100 percent of your attention, so sitting in front of the newest episode of “How to Get Away with Murder” while you do homework will probably earn you a less than desirable grade on the assignment. Do this for most of your classes, and you might not like the transcript you see at the end of the semester.
If you love watching TV in your dorm room while you study, minimize the likelihood that you’ll distract yourself by re-locating to a spot where there’s no TV and no Netflix.
Get your studying done and then return to treat yourself to an episode of your favorite show.
If singing along to your favorite songs while you work is your weakness, try listening to a different genre of music to remain focused. Listen to composed, instrumental pieces that don’t contain lyrics. I’m talking about pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Gustav Holst and, my personal favorite, Steven Reineke. Sometimes, listening to words in songs confuses you when you’re doing something else. I cannot be the only person who’s ever accidentally written down or typed what I’m listening to in a song while I’m doing homework!
If you insist on not staying up past a certain time to complete homework, designate specific days for doing certain tasks. Instead of trying to finish five assignments in one night, do two one night and save the remaining three for the night after. This requires some planning ahead, but you won’t feel the need to rush or do more than one assignment at the same time.
Sure, your GPA isn’t everything, but it still counts for something. Good academic standing is important for joining collegiate honor societies, receiving scholarships, being part of some Greek Life organizations and even some on-campus job and internship positions. It’s heartbreaking to know that you were road-blocked by something you could have changed if you had done things a bit differently.
Most students go through a semester when their grades aren’t quite where they want them to be, and the best way to get back on track is to commit to quality work in your classes. Just make sure your comeback plan doesn’t involve multitasking!