Have you ever looked around the library and noticed how many people are talking, staring at their phones, or looking anywhere but the schoolwork in front of them? When I begin studying, there is an initial burst of productive workflow–but it never lasts. Not only is it short, but it is also easily interrupted. It feels great to be in that period of focus, but how do we create an environment that helps us stay there? As college students, our focus directly impacts our assignments’ quality and our ability to get them done. Here are three ways that psychology has shown can improve our focus and productivity.
Make a To-Do List
Most people are familiar with to-do lists and use them daily because they are a staple strategy for productivity. Studies show that creating a to-do list reduces anxiety, even if the tasks are not completed immediately, because it gratifies the mind’s need for a goal. To-do lists also give us a sense of achievement that overrides the brain’s tendency to focus on what needs to be done instead of what has been accomplished. It can seem like assignments are never-ending, but looking over a to-do list can help reassure us that work is being accomplished. Psychologist David Cohen also points out that to-do lists provide structure and a goal. To-do lists allow our minds to adopt productivity rather than panic by creating a clear plan and laying out the necessary steps to achieve our goals.
One definition of compartmentalization is to “divide your thoughts, emotions, or experiences into distinct mental ‘compartments’ to manage them more efficiently.” Compartmentalizing our academic goals means choosing to focus on individual tasks, instead of allowing many tasks to preoccupy our attention. Studies show that when applied to tasks, compartmentalizing improves focus, productivity, work-life balance, and stress levels. Using this strategy with your workload allows you to devote your full attention to one thing at a time. This way, you spend less time stressing about the whole of your work and more time focused on getting things done.
Multitasking breaks your workflow rather than maximizing it. The problem with multitasking is not just the quality of our work; it is also self-defeating. The National Library of Medicine states that multitasking is neurologically impossible– we are not focusing on multiple things but quickly shifting focus from one thing to another. We also overestimate our ability to “multitask.” What we think is getting more things done at once is causing us to overwork our brains instead. Psychology calls this the “mental price”; the “switching cost” interrupts your focus as you shift between tasks. The switching cost is the amount your “speed or accuracy” is reduced when you return to a task after shifting to another. Knowing how multitasking diminishes production output, tackling one task at a time is better to keep your focus uninterrupted.
These are three simple ways to boost your mind into productivity. By recognizing what habits we can begin and what habits to eliminate, we boost our minds to help them stay focused. As midterms approach, I encourage you to figure out how to maximize your workflow and reduce stress this semester!