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Growing up, I remember watching a show on the Discovery channel that talked about different species of human beings, one of which is the Neanderthal. They had the incredible to focus on doing one task at a time, producing far greater amounts than their smarter, but “lazier” cousins. It occurred to me that in terms of production, even if you are only half as fast as someone else, you can still produce more if you work three times as long! In the end, people judge you by how much you produced, not how much you were capable of producing.
Fast forward a few years, to where I was taking 7-8 of Cornell’s most challenging courses per semester, and getting all As in them. Was I smarter than my peers? I really doubt it. My success was due mostly to this concept of focusing on one thing at a time.
Why Focus On One Thing At A Time
Our brains, like computers, really can’t think of that many things in parallel. In fact, most of the time, it can only think of one thought at a time. That means if you are thinking about donuts, you probably aren’t thinking about how to finish your project at the exact same time. In some sense, every project can be completed given a certain amount of thought dedicated to it. If it’s a computer science project, the actual change might only be a few lines of code, taking a few seconds. Therefore, most of the cost of doing something is in figuring out exactly what to do.
Following that logic, the more thought we dedicate to a project, the more likely it is to be complete. Since thinking about donuts isn’t a thought about the project, you essentially waste a “computer cycle” when you could have spent it on your project. Focusing on one thing at a time will help you save these cycles. This is a very literal interpretation of “you become what you think about”.
Secondly, thinking about several things or switching between them incurs a “context switching cost”. It takes time for you to gather the relevant information for a project into your brain. For example, if you were to consider buying a house, you’d have to remember the mortgage rates, how much you have in the bank, how much income you expect, the cost of the house, etc. All that information takes a while for you to actually comprehend before you can make a decision on whether you’d like to buy a house. What if you had to go to sleep today? Tomorrow, it might take you another little while to fetch that same information into your brain again (although it’ll probably be faster this time).
This extra fetching time can add up to very substantial amounts, especially if you are switching between two things constantly. Consider working on a project and talking with a friend on IM at the same time. Every time you switch between your project and an IM window, it takes maybe 5 seconds for you to gather yourself and figure out where you were in the conversation. It then takes another 15 seconds for you to figure out what you were working on before being interrupted. Say there’s about 100 such interruptions an hour, that’s about 33 minutes of time spent on switching between the window and your project alone!! The worst part about this is, you’re not having a conversation OR doing a project during those 33 minutes.
Someone else might be able to do their job twice as fast as you, but if they’re wasting those 33 minutes and you’re not, you’ll still produce more than them. Additionally, your work and your relationship with your friend would probably be better too, as they’ll both get your full attention.
How To Focus On One Thing At A Time
Since it’s so important to not waste your brain cycles on switching between things, how do we go about minimizing this loss of time? Well, my personal method is to use a schedule. Then, during the allocated time on your schedule, focus on the task at hand. Just having a schedule itself is helpful since it drives your thoughts towards your goal. Most of the time, our thoughts aren’t focused just because we don’t exactly know what we’re supposed to be working on.
Then, try to tune out distractions during your allocated time. Go to quiet spot where you can get things done in peace. Discourage people from interrupting you and schedule them in to other time slots. For example, if your coworkers continuously interrupt you during work with questions, ask them to use email or schedule meetings to you for less important questions. If your friends are always sending you instant messages during your study session, simply stay off IM.
Additionally, try to focus on one thing at a time to completion. That way, you don’t have to go back to it later and spending time getting into context again. These can really add up!
These are only physical distractions though. This actually also applies to thought. Since our memory is associative (i.e. you think of something and something related comes up), random thoughts can start pulling you in different directions. Therefore, when you are studying say a math problem and a thought of a watermelon pops up because the question talks about watermelons, recognize that and don’t get pulled into a memory of interactions with watermelons! My way of doing this is to give yourself a mental “slap on the wrist”. Imagine that image and start doodling it out with like a big X, all the time giving yourself a “this is bad” thought. If you do this often enough, it becomes almost second nature to hold off certain thoughts.
There you have it: Many, many extra hours per day – if you choose to use them!
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