Practice helps you deal with digital distractions
In this modern world, we are expected to be a multi-task person accomplishing different goals efficiently. Take myself as an example, being an PhD student in engineering, I’m expected to supervise three master plus one visiting PhD students, act as a research assistant for two to three research projects, write at least three manuscripts per year, and be a reviewer for several journals and conferences. That is only my academic part of PhD life, quite occupied yet full and enjoyable to me. However, being multi-task does not mean you should complete all things at once (e.g. one day), rather at an extended period of time (e.g. one semester). You only have one pair of hands, and focusing on too many tasks simultaneously will lead to an overload on your brain. In the end, you probably could fail in all of them. The wise choice should be finishing each task one at a time. For me, I tend to evaluate my current mood and energy, choose a suitable task to start with, and keep track of all the tasks separately. Once you find the balance, the overall efficiency can be quite satisfying for a long run.
However, things are always easy said than done, especially in a world full of technologies. Advancement of technologies do enhance our efficiency greatly via, as Clive puts it, “infinite memory” in this digital era. Still, we are constantly exposed to excessive data flow and may get lost in keeping track of various tasks and finishing them on time. For example, searching for a suitable topic for scholarly essay can end up as one hour chatting with friends on social media. Even for myself, I may check emails or twitter periodically when confronting a difficult task like writing a manuscript. Distraction is only one side of the evil, and I should say plagiarism has never been so easy with the Internet as well. Searching a similar topic or answer can be completed within a couple of clicks, and nobody is watching when you do “copy and paste”. Clive brings about this challenge on when should we not to use the “digital thinking tools” and just rely on traditional ways of thinking and technologies (e.g. books and paper). I do not have direct answer at this moment, but I believe we should start practicing at early stage to be able to focus on one particular task in later life.
Personally, I benefit a lot from my parents. When I was in elementary school, my parents always asked me to finish all homework before turning on the TV. I was also told to concentrate on eating the food instead of talking or watching TV to avoid biting my tongue or dropping the food on the table/ground. Gradually, I get better facing with different interference, especially when I’m dealing with tedious homework and try to be more efficient. Sometimes I even give myself small treats or rewards when accomplishing a task on time, for example reading one online book chapter. Living in this digital era, we definitely cannot abandon using advanced technologies, and thus we need to evolve our ways when taking best advantage of them. It takes time to master the skill to efficiently harness the power of technologies when dealing with a specific task, and we should be prepared by having more practice.
You mentioned you will evaluate yourself and choose a suitable task to start with. It seems a little bit subjective. My experience is that I will always start with the easiest task (for example, do some bench work) and leave the tough ones (write the manuscript) to be finished later. Then next day some new work come up and I start with the easy one again. Couple weeks later, the manuscript is still not finished. Have you ever had the same problem?
You bring up some good points. The problem is how to maintain the balance between work and distractions.
I agree with the idea of doing one activity at a time. When I have a lot of things to do, I try to work on everything during the day. At the end, I do not make any progress.
On the other hand, I really liked your expression “Distraction is only one side of the evil”. The Internet is my biggest distraction, especially as you said when I am writing a paper. When I am struggling thinking about what to write. At the end, I waste so much time.
I appreciated your post on how to manage the onslaught of information, tasks, and correspondence. I completely agree that we need to master the ways we handle each task and our schedules. I’ve thought a lot about how to handle this, and I encountered something called the “memory palace” device a few years ago (basically, those in the memory championships, remember things best by orienting different bits of information to spaces they once inhabited (for more info: https://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/lessons-from-americas-first-memory-world-champion)). I adapted this spatial orientation to helping manage my workload and tasks – basically, I have a home office in which I work best (I still work elsewhere on occasion), a bedroom for sleeping, a main room where I socialize, read, or unwind, and a kitchen where I eat/cook. By spatializing my routine, I am best able to effectively separate work and non-work lives. These partitions collapsed at moments (final week of spring semester (I dragged my desk into the main room to basically work all the time)), but they work for the most part. Anyway, I appreciate hearing how others manage such challenges, because I think we can all learn a lot from each other.
Nice post! I do agree with you. Sometimes it is easier said than done and I think that applies to multi tasking as a whole and as an idea. It is unfortunate that all the responsibilities we have do not allow us the time to figure out a system that is efficient for our time.