Neuroscience of Achievement: Part 3

This is going to be a very practical post about how you can structure your studying sessions based on neuroscience to maximize your efficiency and learning, so that you have more time to do what you enjoy. If I could sum up this article in one sentence it would be:

Do NOT Multi-task 

You may ask why? When I check my text messages while studying it only takes 5-10 seconds to check my messages. That 5-10 second distraction is NOT what is so insidious about the multifarious distraction available to one during this modern age. What is so mentally draining and disastrous is the disruption of your concentration, and a possible flow state. Multi-tasking is a MYTH. You brain can NOT do two things that require rapt attention (yes you can chew gum and walk) at the same time. What it is doing is constantly jumping back and forth between the two tasks. Which is very draining on your limited mental resources and tends to cause increased the time to complete a task and the error rate. The reason tasks so much longer than they would if you were NOT multi-tasking is that every time you switch between activities your brain has a ramp-up time to regain its prior concentration for the task at hand.

Lets look at a hypothetical example to clearly demonstrate how insidious these “minor” distraction can be. Lets say you began studying and you were studying for about 10 minutes but then you got a new text message. All of sudden the ringing/vibrating of your phone completely disrupts your concentration (or even the phone screen turning on if you had it on silent). You then check your message and quickly respond and in five to ten seconds you are back to your work. You may think no biggie. But you then realize that 10 minutes has passed and you have done NO work because you are trying to re-orient yourself. You may attribute this to various sources but the reason is because  your brain needs to ramp up its activity to get you back into the flow state of intense concentration you were previously in.

This is all great and all but how can you structure your studying to maximize your learning and efficiency? Firstly you need to realize that your brain has a limited capacity to focus, and therefore the longer your study session drag, the more and more likely to seek out that distraction via Facebook, Twitter, email etc and receive that nice little dopamine hit. To counteract this you need to take frequent breaks, but it must be done so in a structured way. What I prefer and has been well substantiated by plenty of other high achievers at elite US colleges (also described in this amazing book by Cal Newport) is 50-55 minutes of studying followed by a 5-10 min break. Another method that some of my peers find helpful is the Pomodoro Technique, which in it essence is just 25 minutes of studying followed by only a 5 minute break so you do NOT get break momentum and have your break drag out. I prefer 50 minutes on/5-10 minutes off, but choose whatever works best for. Lastly, it is key that during these breaks you make some effort to move around as activity is key to keep your brain sharp and focused.

However, it is great and all to have a structured plan to attack your studying, but how do you prevent the aforementioned insidious distraction from wreaking havoc on your studying. The key is to increasing the activation energy to pursue these distraction. You may be thinking what the hell? You may have thought that you left activation energy in your General Chemistry class, but it is an important concept that can apply to all aspects of your life. As can be seen in the diagram below it is the energy needed to get the reaction started. You can think of any task in your life of having an associated activation energy you need to input before you can begin the task. The problem with the slew of distractions we are bombarded with today is that the activation energy is so high.

download How can you combat and control the flow of the constant barrage of information and stimulus society throws at you? You need to increase the activation energy in pursuing these distractions. How can you do so? Below are some suggestions that have helped me immeasurably while studying.

1. Turn your phone on Airplane Mode while studying so you can’t get any incoming messages and if you fall into temptation, usually the 5-10 sec wait for my phone searching for service is all I need to turn Airplane Mode back on and not look at my text messages/Facebook/twitter etc.

2. Turn Wifi off on my Computer – If I am not using the internet for my studying I turn my wifi off. The extra 5-10 seconds it would take me to find and connect to the appropriate network helps prevent me from surfing the web.

3. Keep phone in a different room – This is one of the most helpful tips I have found for myself. If my phone is in a different room or different location then I am studying I am absolutely NOT going to get up just to check my text messages.

These are just a few suggestions, but be Creative! You do NOT need an overly elaborate or complicated scheme. The beauty of this is that you usually need to only increase the activation energy by 5-10 seconds to completely curtail the bad behavior. If you happen to have any specific strategies to increase the activation energy that you use that you may think will help other readers please comment below! Also as usual please feel free to ask me any questions you may have by making a comment below.


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