Resist the Tyranny of the Urgent (Part 1)

If you are typical, when you’re studying you may suddenly remember something you want to check on Google, or an email you need to reply to, or something you want to say in an online discussion. It can be tempting to act on thatimpulse right away, especially if you think, “This will only take a minute, and if I do it now then at least I won’t forget.”

We suggest that instead of letting yourself be subject to the tyranny of the urgent—and often the not so urgent—that you keep a list of all the things you want to do online and then attend to those things later when you’re not studying. So if there is a webpage you want to look at, an email or text message you need to reply to, or a video on Youtube you think it would be fun to watch, simply jot it down on your list and return to it later, even if it has to wait a few days.

When we have a plan for something—even if it’s as simple as a things-to-do-list—then those things are less likely to flood our working memory. We can temporarily shelve the things on our list—clearing space in our working memory in the process—and know that we’re still in control. As you do this, you will be resisting the temptation to let yourself be inundated with information of immediate interest but which will have little or no relevance next year, or even next week.

Again, don’t just take my word for it, because there is a growing body of research to back this up. Here’s what the website Psyblog has this to say about the importance of avoiding interruptions as well as making plans:

In a series of studies researchers found that while trying to enjoy reading a novel (amongst other tasks), participants were frequently interrupted by intrusive thoughts about an unfinished everyday task.

But when researchers told participants to make very specific plans about that unfinished goal, while reading they experienced less intrusive thoughts about the other activity. In fact the intrusive thoughts lessened to the same level as a control group. This finding was repeated in the lab with other activities.

Making plans helps free up mental space for whatever we are doing right now, allowing us to be more efficient in the long term.

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