In our previous post ‘Multitasking and Your EPPP Exam Prep (Part 1)’, we talked about the importance of achieving the right work-life-study balance. Most students studying to pass their EPPP inevitably have several projects on the go at once, such as employment, family and internship work. Because this type of multitasking is an inevitable and natural part of life, it is important to learn to do it effectively.
Having said that, there is another type of multitasking that should be avoided completely, which happens when we allow ourselves to be constantly interrupted from the task at hand. I once sat next to a woman on a train who was reading a very interesting book, but every thirty seconds she was interrupted when her phone beeped and she felt compelled to read incoming text messages and emails. Just watching her made my train journey incredibly frustrating. Referring to these types of constant interruptions in an article for Forbes, Travis Bradberry observed that
“Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers also found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.”
Putting this into practice, it is important to give all your attention to whatever project you are currently working on, whether its studying key terms or giving your toddler a bath. When you are doing EPPP prep work, turn off devices that are going to distract you. (For more about this see our posts “The ‘Off’ Button” and “Three Skills for Online Learning that no one is Teaching.”)
Still there remains the legitimate type of multitasking where one has to sequence through numerous tasks everyday, each of which is important and each of which cannot be neglected. How do you do that? How do you juggle your EPPP studies with cooking dinner, paying bills, housework, and the thousands of other little pressures that push in upon us?
Sequencing Through Things
I once spoke to a Project Manager of a manufacturing plant in Canada who had to simultaneously keep track of numerous moving parts and procedures, and who was able to do this very effectively. “What’s your secret to being such a good multi-tasker?” I asked.
This Project Manager explained that he had formerly been in the military, where he had been in high-stress combat situations that forced him to attend to numerous things simultaneously. For example, imagine storming into a hostile building and immediately having to be attentive to an enemy combatant on the right that needs to be taken out, a man with radio on the stairs that needs to be carefully monitored, innocent civilians on the left that need to be protected, other people who need to be told to get down on the floor, and other variables that one cannot predict in advance. In such a situation, it simply will not do to address one problem completely, then move onto the next thing, then bring the third problem to completion, and so forth. If you do it that way, you’ll be dead before you finished attending to the first issue.
What my friend eventually learned was to treat the entire situation as a whole by sequencing through each item, addressing each problem a little and moving onto the next, without ever feeling like each issue had to be fully resolved all at once. My friend used the analogy of having to push 5 shopping carts across the parking lot. One way to get 5 shopping cards across the parking lot would be to push one cart to the end and then come back for the next, and so forth. However, another way would be to treat the entire situation as a whole and to put the 5 carts to side by side and then give little frequent pushes to each one. First you push cart one, then cart two, then cart three, and so on, before coming back to the beginning of the sequence.
In a high-stress anti-terrorist operation, soldiers have to learn to multi-task like this, sequencing through things without even thinking about it. The value of this method is that when the brain is dealing with one part of the sequence things are still happening in the other slices because of what you’ve already set in motion, like the momentum of a shopping cart that you’ve given a little push to.
This type of work-flow, which some psychologists call “set-shifting”, has the added advantage of creating a natural rhythm for the type of strategic breaks that are essential for avoiding the neurotransmitter depletion effect. When it’s time to switch between tasks, that is your reminder to take a brief break. As Paul Hammerness, MD, and Margaret Moore wrote for the Harvard Business Review,
Set-shifting refers to shifting all of your focus to a new task, and not leaving any behind on the last one. Sometimes it’s helpful to do this in order to give the brain a break and allow it to take on a new task. What can you do? Before you turn your attention to a new task, shift your focus from your mind to your body. Go for a walk, climb stairs, do some deep breathing or stretches. Even if you aren’t aware of it, when you are doing this your brain continues working on your past tasks. Sometimes new ideas emerge during such physical breaks.
How to Multitask Without Going Mad
My friend told me how he followed these same principles in his work as a Project Manager. In organizing his work-flow for each day, the temptation is to think about work-flow diachronically rather than synchronically. To organize one’s work flow synchronically is to sequence through each item until little by little progress begins to be made on all fronts. By contrast, people who try to organize their work-flow diachronically make the mistake of trying to bring one project to completion before moving onto the next, and so forth. But this only sets the worker up for exhaustion, for the following three reasons:
- If you feel like you must bring each project to completion before moving onto the next, then you have to spend a lot of time thinking about what is the main priority in order to determine which project to focus on first;
- If you feel like you must bring each project to completion before moving onto the next, then because each project inevitably takes longer than you expect, your mind will begin drifting to other projects that are creating problems for being left undone for so long;
- If you feel like you must bring each project to completion before moving onto the next, you end up expending more mental energy than necessary because you have nothing to switch to once you hit a mental wall and feel like your creative juices are drying up.
Building on this last point, the Project Manager explained that with any project, you have a limited amount of energy and creativity that you can expend on each project in a single work session. For example, it’s common to find that the first 20 minutes working on a project goes really well, but after that you begin to lag. When you are pushing ahead with a project and getting exhausted, with diminishing returns for your effort, when you are no longer “in the zone”, it’s good to have another project to switch to. Then come back to the first project later. As you do this, what you’ll find is that when you return to the earlier project that was causing you trouble, not only will you be fresh but your unconscious mind will have been working on it during the interim, thus making it easier to see your way forward.
Scientists have found that one of the things that uses up the most mental energy is making decisions. So you should avoid spending a lot of time at the beginning of the day deciding what you’re going to do or what order to do things in (“is this priority number 3, or 4?”). This will only lead to decision fatigue. If there is something that is an obvious priority or urgent, then you won’t have to think about it because it will be obvious that you should be attending to it. Just get on and do it. Then with everything else that is of a lesser priority, don’t waste mental energy trying to decide which task to do next, but simply attend to whatever you want to do until you’re ready to sequence to something else in your work-flow. When we attend to the work item that we want to do, then we are working with our state of mind at the time. By all means, spend a few minutes organizing things if you need to, but no more than a few minutes. Otherwise you not only expend too much mental energy, but you also get overwhelmed by all the things there are to do.
The Taylor Study method lends itself to the type of work flow that this Project Manager was describing. Using our state of the art online tools, you can customize your study schedule into short sessions that you can repeat multiple times each day as you sequence in and out of your other work. Some people prefer 3 sessions of 20 minutes each day, others prefer two sessions of 45 minutes a day. The point is to find a study schedule that works well for you and that can flow around your other commitments.