Managing Email (part 2)

Another key step to efficient online learning is knowing how to manage your messaging devises.

When you’re studying online, close any email readers so you are not tempted to check for new messages when you’re supposed to be studying. This includes exiting any websites like Gmail or similar sites that can access your email. You should also turn off any panels or pop-ups that allow for instance messages and you should turn off any RSS readers. If you have a smartphone or i-phone, turn that off too, or move it to another room of the house away from where you are studying.

This advice may sound unnecessary, but once again it is rooted in research on how the human brain works.

Cognitive processing skills—including the part of the brain that remembers information—are impaired when the brain’s working memory is flooded with too much stimuli. Just as a computer will work slower if too many programs are running in the background, so the human brain will slow down and become less efficient if too many things are competing for its attention.

The problem isn’t so much that checking your email, or even reading email, consumes time that might otherwise have been spent studying. That is not the issue, since checking and reading emails or text messages can sometimes be a very quick process.

Rather, the problem is the redeployment of cognitive resources. Shifting attention from one thing to another—even very briefly—requires a temporary orientation of the brain around the new activity. When we then return to the original activity, there are other things buzzing in the background of our mind, depleting the amount of working memory available to us. As Maggie Jackson explained in her book on multitasking, “the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out cognitive interference from the previous, still-vivid activity.”

Developmental molecular biologist and research consultant Dr. John Medina has made similar observations on his website. He points out that

 The brain is not capable of multi-tasking….The brain is a sequential processor and large fractions of a second are consumed every time the brain switches tasks…. Workplaces and schools actually encourage this type of multi-tasking. Walk into any office and you’ll see people sending e-mail, answering their phones, Instant Messaging, and on MySpace—all at the same time. Research shows your error rate goes up 50% and it takes you twice as long to do things. When you’re always online you’re always distracted. So the always online organization is the always unproductive organization.”

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