The key to uninterrupted focus

NICKI PADAR / AGGIE

The long-term effects of multitasking

Gloria Mark of UC Irvine reported that it takes an average of 25 minutes for a mind to fully return to focusing on a task after an interruption. This means that if students check their phones twice in one hour of studying, they have already wasted another 50 minutes trying to regain focus on their academic studies.

It may be difficult for students to pay attention in lecture or finish homework when they  are constantly thinking about their busy to-do lists or anticipating the “ding” of a text message. Robert Mangun, professor of psychology and neurology and Interim Chair of the Department of Psychology, conducts research to better understand the mechanisms of maintaining attention.

“Part of the basic principles of the attention system is that it has limited capacity,” Mangun said. “It is possible to do a few simple tasks simultaneously, but at some point the attention system runs out of capacity and that’s why you start paying attention to some things and ignoring others.”

While the current generation of college students is highly influenced by innovative technology and social media, it is easy to let these distractions infiltrate our focus by multitasking in an attempt to maintain social media interactions and academic success simultaneously. However, multitasking can work against students because it can result in lower performance on tasks and can even affect long term memory.

“When you overload the system with information, there is a cost between switching between different tasks,” Mangun said. “It’s not for free that your brain can switch from one thing to another and switch it back again. There is a switching cost because this leads to more distraction, and can result in information being lost down the line.”

Working memory, which Mangun defined as the ability to hold data in mind while completing a task, works with memory to help the brain keep track of information and refer back to it later. However, the human brain is a very simple system when it comes to managing several tasks at once, so it becomes easier to lose track of priorities and have a weaker memory in the long run. This can be seen when students decide to scroll on Facebook instead of paying attention to lecture, and then miss key information because their brains are focused elsewhere.

“‘Deep processing’ leads to information being better retained in the long run,” Mangun said. “If you have a lot of things going on and you’re not really engaged in each of the topics fully, you are not ‘deep processing’. Your brain cannot fully code all of the information properly, and this is the cost we see when we attempt to multitask.”

Mangun said that the best way to overcome this is for students to be aware of and analyze their weaknesses and strengths when it comes to how effectively they focus.

“It’s like when you’re on a diet, it’s a lot easier not to eat the cookies if you don’t buy them in the first place,” Mangun said. “If people could learn what environment helps them focus the best and manage their lives properly, this will have a much larger impact than training oneself to focus in a distracting environment.”

Nicholas Barber, a second-year cognitive science major, understands his personal strengths and limitations when it comes to performing his best academically. He has tried several different studying tactics and has stuck with an efficient method of focusing. Barber takes location into account when it comes to efficient studying; he feels more comfortable and productive in specific places and gravitates to these locations when he knows it’s time to get work done.

“I don’t really focus that well when I study at home so I like to go to the library or even find empty classrooms in Olson Hall because it’s pretty quiet,” Barber said. “I prefer to study with music as well as chew gum when I study because I am a jittery person so this helps take that distraction away and stay productive.”

Though Barber has a strict study plan, it can be easy for students like him to gravitate toward unproductive study spaces because of potential social interactions.

While it may come naturally for some students to avoid going on social media websites or checking networking apps on their phones, other students must take extreme measures like blocking sites or deleting social media apps in order to stay focused.

“I am an easily distracted person especially with social media, so I use a site blocker extension of Google Chrome,” Barber said. “[It] literally blocks me from accessing certain sites for an amount of time set on a timer.”

Annalisa Teixeira, coordinator of the study skills workshops and graduate adviser of the Student Academic Success Center (SASC), specializes in helping students discover and harness their focus.

“I see students who are scrambling or multitasking because they’ve let time throughout the day slip by and have to play catch up,” Teixeira said. “In the overcoming procrastination study skills workshop, we discuss tools like planners that encourage accountability and set up boundaries between tasks so they’re not overlapping.”

Focusing is not the only necessity for students to become academically successful. Lack of organization can cause stress to bleed into students social and personal lives. However, when students are caught up with their priorities by managing their time efficiently, they are able to be present in the moment.

“When you don’t have some unknown assignment or deadline hanging over you, you prevent this stress from affecting the time you’ve set aside for socializing or self-care,” Teixeira said. “Productivity means we can carve out time for other pieces in our lives and get the most out of our relationships and self care. Time management and organization actually helps us maximize relationships and academic performance.”

Working at the SASC, Teixeira has observed that students who are deeply focused are able to verbalize short term and long term goals.

“Finding focus is deepening the meaning of what you’re studying because a lot of times it’s because we’re going outside of the classroom in some way, connecting the theory to practice,” Teixeira said. “There’s real power in finding the things that motivate you and give you focus, and putting that on your wall as something you can look at and meditate on.”
Written by: Gillian Allen — features@theaggie.org