Captain Tangent Strikes Again: How to Concentrate on School
by Christine A. Shelly

Most of us think of multi-tasking as having a super-human like ability to complete multiple tasks simultaneously. We all do it, right? We complete that research paper while checking the sports scores, we text our friends about upcoming plans while we make dinner, and we update our social networking status while we’re waiting for an email back from our boss at work. Multitasking, and all the challenges that come with it, is a way of life for many of us. 

But in a recent study by researchers at Stanford University, multi-tasking is actually an obstacle to learning instead of a help. Because instead of working on multiple tasks simultaneously, our brains are actually shifting gears from one task to another at a rapid-fire pace. And as it turns out, our brains truly work best when they work on one thing at a time. 

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the author of the Stanford study, Ulrich Mayr, uses the example of watching television while doing homework from a textbook. While you’re following the television story, your brain won’t track with the homework. While you’re doing your homework, your brain won’t comprehend what’s going on with the story on TV. 

Mayr says to actually develop an understanding of a new idea, a student’s brain has to link the new concept with one that they already know. And if their brains are, say, engaged with Facebook during a lecture in which these new ideas are introduced, that connection isn’t going to fully happen.

The potential for distraction isn’t just among students. A 2007 joint study by researchers from Microsoft and the University of Illinois reports that an employee who’s interrupted mid-task by an e-mail or an instant message takes an average of 15 minutes to return to what they were doing. 

So you may be asking yourself, "How do I better concentrate in school?" Good question.

Interruptions and distractions like phone calls, instant messages or emails aren’t going to just go away. Students – especially working students – might want to consider a more “take-charge” approach.  Perhaps the answer isn’t to try to do it all at once, but instead to concentrate on what we’re doing – do it well – and move on to the next task. This means:

1. Plan your work and study time by setting designated “email/phone call/text/instant message blackout” periods and stick to them. 

2. Avoid the social media black hole of time during the workday, study periods and family time. Trust me. The pictures of cute cats will still be there when you go back. 

3. Ask for help if you need it. Tell your friends and family what you’re trying to do and enlist their support.
In a world where the average adult spends nearly 12 hours a day “plugged in,” it’s beyond easy to get distracted. The first step to freedom from our distracting Internet habit is to acknowledge that it can cause problems. When we’ve become accustomed to multi-tasking, we think we’re getting more done – but in reality, we’ve split our focus in too many directions. Do one thing at a time if you want to do that one thing well!

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"Weapons Of Mass Distraction" graphic by birgerking

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