21Jan2021

How to Achieve Excellent Academic Results While Maintaining an Active and Balanced Student Life – Mete (Germany)

I’m writing this to confess something.

I’ve been doing it in the past, and I recently started doing it again. I do it, especially when my responsibilities and deadlines for university and work seem unbearable.

It’s the valve I use to get rid of stress and pressure. Indeed, this activity reached the stage of being a habit. In the beginning, I could last for only a few minutes, but with practice over the last few months, I reached the state in which I can perform it for several hours without interruption:

Turning off my phone and storing it somewhere out of reach.

But why am I telling you that?

I assume that you’ve also had or still have hard times when it comes to assignment submissions, studying for exams, or work deadlines. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, right?

The previous point is simply one small example that contributes to achieving the bigger picture of tapping into a hyperfocus state. Some people also refer to this as deep work. I call it the holy grail of productivity.

I am constantly researching and exploring ways to develop my performance habits. I have come across some very interesting discoveries from neuroscientific studies that can allow you to access this state. To help you skyrocket your academic performance while maintaining a balanced and active student life, I’ve summarized the essence of my findings in this blog post.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

The nature of different tasks and the depletion of willpower

Prioritizing among tasks can of crucial importance when it comes to developing the ability to hyperfocus.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s differentiate between deep and superficial work. Deep work describes cognitively demanding tasks that add high value, like writing a complex project plan or thesis or solving a novel technical problem. Things that require a distraction-free environment.

On the other hand, superficial work does not add high value or require high cognitive effort and is therefore easy to replicate. Things that fall into this category are constantly checking emails, responding to push notifications, or organizing things that do not need to be organized – busy work. These activities can also be performed while someone is distracted, or in most cases: These activities are the distraction themselves.

By coming to this conclusion, we can already guess that prioritizing the work by its type and required cognitive effort will be an important initial step towards achieving higher productivity.

We all have a near-natural perception and sensitive feeling for our energy level throughout the day. This energy level can also be referred to as willpower, and as with every muscle in our body, willpower gets exhausted at some point – but can also be trained.

This willpower depletion is a natural procedure and comes in a different intensity based on the activity or task that we are performing or are about to perform. One could also say it is the amount of discipline converted into energy, which is required to begin with an activity. The following section will show how switching between tasks can not only cost you valuable time but consume your willpower quickly.

Attention residue and the ugly truth about multitasking

When we shift from task X to task Y and back, not 100% of our attention follows. Some of it usually remains at the original task that we’ve been performing previously. This phenomenon is called attention residue and is usually the strongest if we switch from superficial tasks to cognitively more demanding ones. That’s exactly why focusing on writing that paper or code is so hard when you’ve been just scrolling through your social media previously.

What might appear to you like multitasking, is in reality, a sequential switching between tasks. You’re shifting your focus quickly back and forth. When you’re switching very fast, it may feel as if you’re multitasking at that moment, but science can prove that you are not.

Neuroscientists claim that the switching process in your brain from task X to task Y (or back) takes up to only around half a second. The time required for switching itself doesn’t sound much, right?

Researchers at the University of California in Irvine found that getting back to a focused state in a new task will take up to 23 minutes. If you’re constantly checking your phone with each notification, you should also consider a temporary IQ decrease of up to 15 points.

Surely not a desirable result if a deadline or an exam date is close.

If you’re planning to study effectively for, say, 4 hours a day, subtract 23 minutes for each time you respond to push-notifications or check your inbox. By doing the math, you will soon realize that it adds up to several hours, which your brain would need, to come back on track.

On top of that, each time you decide to shift your focus to a cognitively demanding task, you’re sacrificing a certain amount of willpower. Once it reaches zero, the only thing you’ll have the energy for is superficial tasks. This is anything but effective.

Photo Credit: Mete Cilingir

Simple strategies to trick your brain and access the holy grail of productivity

First and foremost, get rid of the idea that you’re a talent at multitasking. You are not. No one is. It’s a harsh reality that you’ll need to face if you want to get better results with the same (or less) time invested in studying.

The best way to do this is to define your most critical activity that requires your willpower and attention on a particular day. You can do this either the night before or as one of the first things in the morning.

As defining an activity alone will not lead you to accomplish it, you should consider doing it as early as possible – ideally as the first thing after your morning routine.

If your current morning routine includes checking your messages, emails, or any other social platform built on the idea of interaction, stop it. Eliminate the idea of having to check your phone. Otherwise, you will fill your brain with unnecessary stuff before you’ve even got your engine running properly. By doing so, you start into the day with a reactive state of mind instead of approaching the day’s responsibilities proactively. A reactive person cannot be in control.

I know that some people prefer studying at different times of the day, either in the afternoon or at night. That’s fine. Just make sure to turn off your phone and store it somewhere out of reach. By doing so, you will ease the process of tapping into working more deeply and achieving hyperfocus.

The last strategy that I should mention is about boredom. Boredom is great! Especially when you’re taking small breaks in between challenging study or work-sessions. Do not reach your phone or open up a new tab that leads you to YouTube or Netflix. Instead, use this break to embrace boredom. It will allow your subconscious to work and put the puzzle pieces together while you’re getting fresh air, eating something, or having a restroom break. You will wonder how many fresh ideas or insights you’ll develop once you start leveraging your breaks like this.

In a nutshell

  • Working deeply requires more energy but delivers higher value. Superficial tasks, on the other hand, are easy to replicate and do not deliver high value. They are usually the distraction itself.
  • Working deeply will cost you more willpower, which is scarce. Each time you switch back and forth, you waste this scarce resource. Once it’s used, you will not be able to work on cognitively demanding tasks anymore until you’re rested.
  • Human beings cannot perform multitasking. In reality, what we perceive as multitasking, is the sequential switching between tasks, of which each time costs your brain 23 minutes to get back on track.
  • Quit social media. Ideally, turn off your phone and place it out of reach. At least during the time in which you’ve committed to studying effectively.
  • Define and perform your most critical activity as early as possible, as you will have more available willpower, thus making it easier to start and accomplish it.
  • Embrace boredom! By doing so, you can enjoy a short and restful study break in which you outsource the structuring of freshly obtained knowledge and ideas to your subconscious brain. It will do the work for you, and before you’re even back at your desk, you’ll come up with a brilliant flash of thought, providing you the insight or idea you were seeking.

These little habits and strategies are not rules or laws that you have to follow. This is a summary of scientific research findings and my personal experience, which helped me complete 49 ECTS last semester with an average GPA of 4.5+. All this as a student with more than enough free time and an active lifestyle. If you have tried different things and still invest an enormous amount of time into studying without achieving the desired results, these strategies might help.