Why Multitasking is a Lie (And How To Do it Right)

Man on his Mobile

Like many of my fellow Gen Y’ers, I always used to think of myself as being an excellent multitasker. During university classes I would keep my laptop out “taking notes”, while really paying half attention to the professor whilst reading / chatting / doing other homework / browsing the internet. At home, I could never JUST sit and watch a TV show (on my computer of course- who uses actual TV’s anymore?) for fear of feeling unproductive. I would sometimes go so far as to read a full book while watching TV, or even try to read one book while listening to a separate audiobook (a fun mental exercise, but extremely difficult).

What I began to notice across all of these different task combinations was that there were often times when I would suddenly realize that I had no idea what the professor had said in the last few minutes, or what had happened on the TV show. I was able to listen / watch while casually browsing, or having even a few different text-based conversations, but as soon as I encountered something that really interested me suddenly my full attention was captured and my multitasking ability went out the window.

I began to do some more serious research to try and find out why this was the case, and, more specifically, did “true multitasking” actually exist, or was it just a function of our brains jumping back and forth between different tasks very quickly.

It turns out that the answer was “a little of both.”

The Neuroscience of Multitasking

The area toward the front of both lobes of the brain that controls attention and serves to coordinate tasks with the other brain systems is called the prefrontal cortex. A study conducted at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris in 2009 lead by Dr. Etienne Koechlin asked participants to carry out two different tasks while measuring their brain activity with an fMRI machine. When participants were told that a large reward would be given for the successful completion of one of the tasks, scientists observed that the amount of neural activity increased predominantly in a single side of the prefrontal cortex. When the reward was associated with the other task, the neural activity increased in the other side.

When the study participants were asked to attempt yet a third task, scientists found that the subjects consistently forgot one of the three, and made three times as many errors as compared with when they were only attempting two tasks.

Koechlin explained how these results suggest that when the brain is focused on a single task, both sides operate concurrently, but when it tries to perform two separate activities simultaneously it splits itself and each side then operates independently. But when it comes to three tasks, juggling them all becomes quite difficult due to our only having two frontal lobes. And even with the two tasks, it seems likely that while brain is simultaneously keeping track of both goals, it still switches back and forth between them for active processing.

Another study from the University of California in 2010 analyzed the effects of multitasking on working memory (the ability to manipulate and store information in the mind over short periods of time), specifically focusing on the previously demonstrated reduced multitasking ability in older adults. The study described how, when interrupted mid-task, the brain “disengaged from a memory maintenance network and reallocated attentional resources toward the interrupting stimulus.” This step was performed similarly by younger and older adults. However, it goes on to state that “unlike younger individuals, older adults failed to both disengage from the interruption and reestablish functional connections associated with the disrupted memory network.”

The term commonly used to describe the negative ramifications of these mental gymnastics is “switching cost”, and has been shown to apply even when we are prepared for the new task or stimulus. So far it seems that switching costs can be reduced by foreknowledge, task familiarity, and younger brains, but never totally eliminated.

But if two simultaneous tasks is our limit, and even then we must switch back and forth between the two, then how is it that people are regularly able to do things such as walk, look out for cars, and talk on the phone all at the same time?

The Power of Habit

Koechlin stated that the ease with which we handle multiple tasks depends on how engaged the prefrontal cortex is. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. When we are really focused on something, whether it is an engaging book, challenging math problem, or deep conversation, we have a tendency to shut out external stimuli. This can manifest as a loss of awareness of our surroundings or as our forgetting anything else that we were doing that would take conscious thought.

But how much of what we do throughout the day really does require active attention on our part?

In his book The Power of Habbit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg goes into fascinating depth about what habits are, how they are formed, and how we can best take advantage of them. One of the key points that he repeats throughout the book is how once something has become a habit, it ceases to require active mental effort and attention. He even talks about a case of someone who had experienced severe brain damage which eliminated the ability to store new memories, but was still able to form new habits and perform them without any conscious awareness of what he was doing. Why? Because habits do not require conscious thought. They totally bypass the prefrontal cortex.

This then can help explain how some of us seem to perform the seemingly impossible task of doing three or more things at once. How do I eat breakfast, watch TV and IM all at the same time? It’s simple really. I have become so accustomed to eating that the mechanics of it take essentially no conscious thought. The IM conversation then is sporadic enough that it is a relatively simple task for me to watch TV and periodically switch my focus to read or respond to something. But if I read a message that really startles me, or have to write a response with a high degree of care placed on the content and wording, then there is a fairly good chance that I will end up having to rewind the TV show to re-watch a portion that I completely tuned out.

The Truth Behind Self-Proclaimed “Multitaskers”

I’m sure we all know people who claim to be great multitaskers. They keep their TV on, are always on their phones, conduct whole meetings in the car, and claim that they are the exception- able to perform all these tasks at peak efficiency. Dr. Clifford Nass, a researcher at Stanford who has been studying this type of people for years, would claim differently.

Nass examined a group of both “high multitaskers” and “low multitaskers” and studied their ability to filter information, switch between tasks, and maintain a high working memory, saying that these are the key components underlying successful multitasking. He theorized that the high multitaskers should perform better in at least one but likely all three of these areas. He turned out to be completely wrong.

We were absolutely shocked. We lost all our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” – Nass

But if this is truly the case, and good multitaskers don’t actually exist (or are so rare as to be statistical anomalies), then why is it that so many people continue to believe that they are in fact great at it?

One likely answer can be taken from the research of Zhen Wang, a researcher and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. She was able to study a group of students over a period of time, analyzing their daily routines and study habits outside of a laboratory environment. She found that “There’s this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive, but they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive- they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

When comparing students who studies while watching TV with those who studied without, she found that those who studied with the TV reported feeling more satisfied and productive while simultaneously failing to achieve as great of a success in their cognitive goals.

My Multitasking Workaround

One key point from Koechlin’s study that is glossed over is the fact that both of his tasks involved some type of visual detection. This was doubtless due to the fact that the visual centers in the brain are easy to monitor in an fMRI and it made for cleaner data. However, it is fairly readily apparent that our visual system is really only designed for tracking single objects at a time, therefore attempting to multitask by keeping track of two different visual stimuli can be inherently difficult.

My own extensive experimentation with my multitasking abilities has lead me to the following simple rule:

The larger the number of shared sensory resources between two tasks, the more difficult it will be to perform them simultaneously, with attention capacity being finite across the board.

This is why it is so easy to listen to music while doing almost anything that does not directly require listening to something else. It utilizes the brain’s auditory processing resources and rarely has to fight for them. Additionally, we rarely have to worry about fighting for attention with the music because we are typically raised to prioritize visual stimuli over auditory ones.

Similarly, it is quite easy to give someone a massage whilst simultaneously watching a movie. The massage is both something that is practiced (and therefore largely habit that requires little attention) and also primarily based on touch, leaving the visual and auditory processing resources open for other inputs.

Optimize Your Productivity

What have we learned after all this?

  1. There is no “true” multitasking
  2. For two tasks, it might be possible to hold both in each half of the brain so as to more easily switch back and forth between the two
  3. Even for only two tasks, there are always some switching costs
  4. The more cognitively taxing a task, the harder it is to multitask with it
  5. The closest we come to actual multitasking is when one of the things we are doing is a habit that can be put on autopilot
  6. Multitasking makes us feel more productive while actually hurting productivity
  7. Multitasking is easier when the tasks have minimal sensory overlap

Nowadays the way that I look at it is not “how can I multitask most efficiently,” but rather “how can I make sure that I am utilizing my maximum brain capacity at all times.” The key distinction being that, contrary to popular belief, often the way to succeed at the latter goal is really just to be fully focused on a single task. But if the main task that I am performing does not take significant conscious thought, then I still try and figure out what I could be doing simultaneously so as to maximize my productivity.

Given how visually focused most of us are, the simple question that tends to cover 90% of the cases is just this:

“Could I be just as productive at my current task while listening to an audiobook? If not, what about if I listened to music?”

Note: There is actually a large body of research solely focused on the impact of music on performance for different types of activities. Much of it is based off of these underlying concepts, but I will be covering the specifics in a separate blog post.


Charron S, Koechlin E. Divided representation of concurrent goals in the human frontal lobes. Science. 328(360), 360-363 (2010).

Clapp W, Rubens M, Sabharwal J, Gazzaley A. Deficit in switching between functions underlies the impact of multitasking memory in older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108(17), 7212-7217 (2011).

Gopher, D., Armony, L. & Greenspan, Y.  Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229 (2000).


Suits and Pajamas: Dressing For Productivity


It is a fine Tuesday morning, and Joe Shmoe has a day where he has no scheduled obligations until after 12:00 pm. His alarm wakes him up at 8:00, and, after a period involving multiple uses of the “snooze button,” he finally rolls out of bed close to 9:00. Still in his pajamas, his plan was to check his email, eat breakfast, and get straight to work on some assignments. Fast forward to 11:30 where Joe has realized that clicking on links in emails can be quite dangerous and is only just starting to take out his work. He then gets a solid 15 minutes in before he breaks to start preparing lunch.

I am Joe Shmoe. I’m sure that most you are too.

This type of situation happens to all of us upon occasion (some more frequently than others). There are many approaches one could take to try and head off this behavior, but one of the most effective is also one of the easiest: before you do anything else in the morning, make sure to get dressed. The more professionally so the better. This works for two, very interrelated, reasons:

  1. Your own self image at any point in time is greatly affected by your dress.
  2. You are more likely to be productive when your brain recognizes a productive environment.

In this blog post, Judith Rasband discusses how when what you wear is not congruent with your environment, your own comfort levels are adversely affected. She even recommends testing this yourself by going out one time dressed completely inappropriately for the occasion (e.g. wear a suit to a barbecue, gym a stained shirt to the office, etc.). I myself have taken this sort of experimenting to the extreme on multiple occasions with some very pronounced results.

The phrase “Dress for Success” is often bandied around, but, unlike many sayings, this one is 100% true.

The specifics of what you wear can certainly affect the efficacy of this technique, and soon I will be publishing a series of posts on the simple aspects of dressing properly, but until then know that regardless of what it is that you put on as long as you are used to associating that dress witha  productive mindset it will still provide a marked boost in your productivity.

Learning To Focus: Mind Your Mind

thought synthesizer
Once you’ve finished properly preparing your body, the next step is to ensure that your mind remains focused on your work and doesn’t get distracted.

Prepare Your Mind – Eliminate Distractions

  1. Never start working without first knowing what you want to accomplish.
  2. For each work session always try to have at least one set, concrete goal. For larger tasks, try and break it down into smaller, well-defined chunks and work on one chunk at a time.

  3. Focus on one task at a time.
  4. Studies show that multitasking leads to reduced efficiency. Every time you switch between tasks, your mind goes through the stages of goal shifting (changing what you want to accomplish at that instant) and rule activation (changing the set of mental structures required to perform each individual task). Each switch takes a distinct amount of time that can quickly build up when constantly going back and forth between tasks.

    Another ramification here is that, before starting to work, you should always

  5. Clear out your workspace, both digitally and physically.
  6. Remove all non-work-related distractions or activities from the picture. This means silencing your cell phone, disconnecting from chatting programs, and closing all webpages or programs non-essential to the current work at hand.

    Similarly, if you sit down to work at a table that is covered in empty food containers, papers, or any other bunch of random clutter this actually reduces your work efficiency. The more items in your field of view that your brain has to process the harder it is to focus on the task at hand. A clean environment is also mentally associated with ‘getting things done’ just because cleaning itself is so often procrastinated that just being in a clean room makes you think that you’ve already started working.

  7. Set aside a specific amount of time for a given session.
  8. Use a timer.
    If you have a large, indefinite amount of time to accomplish a task it is often difficult to really get into the flow of working on it. It becomes easy to let yourself get distracted. This is generally what happens when people “pull all-nighters.” They viewed staying up all night as an option and therefore failed to work efficiently from the start. If instead you set a smaller, specified amount of time to work with and a clear goal for what to accomplish you will find yourself moving through tasks at a very satisfying rate.

Learning to Focus: Don’t Let Your Body Win

Belinha has more than good looks

I went to sleep at 5am last night!”

“I never have time for anything but work!”

“No I don’t procrastinate!”

These are three claims that I often hear all coming from the same person. Yet, if the third one is be believed, do the first two really make sense? Can anyone really be that consistently busy?

I’m sure that in some isolated cases the answer really is yes. They really do have that much work.

For the vast majority of people this is not the case, with the problem lying with an inefficient workflow stemming from improper physical and mental preparation.

Over the next few posts I’ll be talking about various techniques to use to prepare your body, your mind and your workspace to get the maximum amount of focus and productivity out of a given block of time.

Many of these points may seem like simple common sense but it is really amazing how many people don’t seem to follow a single one. If you get into the habit of creating a study checklist for yourself that you go through every time you start to study I guarantee that you will start seeing a significant boost in productivity.

Prepare Your Body

  1. Prepare food or drink ahead of time.
  2. If you start working hungry you will constantly be shifting focus from your work to your stomach. Make sure to eat a full meal before any serious work session and you will find that you both can maintain focus longer and get tired less quickly. If you are the type of person who simply must snack all the time (I am certainly guilty of this trait) then makes sure to have snacks prepared ahead of time so you can’t use that as an excuse to get up and stop working. Ideally any such snack should be some sort of bite sized finger food that doesn’t leave any mess. This will minimize the distractions caused by the constant eating.

  3. Learn what time of day you study best.
  4. Some people are night owls. Others can’t work without sunlight. I know that as soon as the sun goes down I have a hard time working and so try to plan all of my work-sessions accordingly.
    For those times where there is too much work or your schedule is to inflexible for such luxuries, the next best thing is to trick your body. Go somewhere indoors with bright lights and no windows. Get a solar lamp if need be. This will help fool your body into losing track of the time of day and therefore help to bypass any biological time preferences.

  5. Keep a regular gym schedule.
  6. I have said this before on several occasions, but going to the gym really is one of the single best ways of boosting your productivity in every area of life. Often when people sit down and try to work for hours at a time they start getting a build up of nervous energy the takes it hard to keep focused. Going to the gym before a study session will keep this from happening whilst simultaneously fully awakening your mind.

The Key To Intelligence: Pay Attention

Girl Dressing

What color shirt was your roommate / spouse / significant other wearing this morning?

What type of car does your neighbor drive?

When is your boss’ birthday?

Was the girl in the above photo wearing a wedding ring?

If you had paid attention, you would know.

Most people go through life with their attention centered solely on themselves. If they are exposed to any piece of information that does not seem like it will have any lasting impact on their lives, they pay it no heed.

This is no way to live.

I have no illusions of being any less self-centered than the average man. In fact, I may be even more so than most. And yet I do pay attention. Not from any pretense about being an overly caring person, but because I understand the value of information.

Growing up, whenever I would get into the car with my mother I would instantly tune out the outside world. Whether reading a book, listening to music, or just having a conversation, I would not pay the slightest bit of attention to the route we were taking. Years later there were many times where I found myself in the embarrassing situation of not knowing my way around my own hometown. This embarrassment could have been avoided by simply paying attention.

There have been many times throughout my schooling experience where I have been required to sit in on guest lectures. While attendance was often taken at these events, they were seldom tested upon. As a result, it was commonplace during these lectures to look around the room and see people dozing, doodling, texting, or doing pretty much anything other than paying attention to the speaker. Yes, there were times when I was one of the doodlers. But almost every time where I have forced myself to pay attention I have been rewarded in some way.

A little over a month ago, I had been looking for a professor to start doing research and been having poor luck in finding one until I remembered one of these guest lectures. Over a year prior I had been required to attend a lecture on modern facial recognition technologies and, while at the time it had little relevance to me, it has turned out to be closely related to my current field of interest. Based on what I remembered from that lecture I was able to contact the professor who gave it, impress him with my knowledge, and now I am already involved in doing research under his supervision.

I didn’t get that job because I was smarter than everyone else who heard that lecture. I was just more attentive.

Society has a tendency to judge intelligence based on how much we know. At the same time, the human brain has a seemingly endless capacity for knowledge. And yet tremendous disparities in apparent intelligence in individuals abound, even in those with similar genetics or upbringings. Yes, some of this can be blamed on “good” or “bad” memories, but such attributions are like claiming that a body builder is just naturally stronger than his accountant brother. True, one may have a slightly different natural build, but the true difference between them is how much exercise they get.

Your brain is like a muscle, and it’s not too late to start exercising it. Pick one hour every day where you do your best to take in and remember every detail that you see or hear. No, you probably won’t be able to remember everything. But if you keep it up, you will start to find that you can indeed increase both the amount that you can take in and the ease with which you store it. It may take a good deal of time and effort, but the positive benefits that this practice will have on your life will soon make you realize how worth it it really is.

Pay attention.

How to Trick Yourself to Beat Procrastination: Why Many Lazy People are Ripped

Lazy GorillaThis morning I was walking to a class and found myself stuck behind a giant 300+ pound gym junkie ambling along at a pace that my grandmother could put to shame.

I don’t know about all of you, but while going to the gym is something that I try and do regularly, it is usually not something that I do easily. It is always a mental struggle against my own laziness to get me out the door and on my way. And yet I know many people who I would deem far lazier than I am that spend 2+ hours at the gym every day.

Strange as this may seem, I believe that there are three separate, logical reasons for this phenomena.

  1. Endorphins feel good – once you get to a certain level of physical fitness, working out ceases to be as much of an effort and actually becomes pleasurable.
  2. The power of routine – when doing something difficult becomes a part of your daily routine, getting yourself to do it ceases to be a challenge.
  3. Tiered procrastination – doing a difficult task is far easier when you know that it is putting off doing an even more difficult one. This is the reason that I will be discussing today.

How it Works

Have you ever found yourself cleaning your room or doing dishes instead of doing homework? Why is it that cleaning then is so easy but when you have no obligations at all during a day it seems so difficult?

Webster defines procrastination as “to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” In essence this stems directly from one of the base laws of physics: an object will always attempt to take the path of least resistance. When applied to humans, this is sometimes referred to as the Principle of Least Effort (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_least_effort).

Taken to its extreme, this would mean that people would sit around and do nothing whenever possible. And while this is, sadly, sometimes the case, usually it just means that when presented with two or more things to do we will generally try and take the easier task. One could then be thought of as procrastinating as long as they are doing anything but the most difficult of the tasks laid out before them. This explains both the gym phenomena and that of the dishes.

If you have some difficult work to do such as math homework or doing your taxes, suddenly going to the gym or doing the dishes becomes the easier of the two options. And yet you can do it without feeling entirely guilty because after all, at least you are doing something productive.

How To Use It

What makes a task easy or difficult to do is all about how you approach it in your mind. The next time you have a lot of work to do, take a step back and think. Instead of getting intimidated and thinking “this is a ton of work, what’s on tv?” think “that essay is going to be a paint to write, let me delay that by doing this other required reading.” Or, if you really don’t want to do any of your work at the time, instead of just watching tv try going to the gym. You will find that making yourself go then suddenly has become a whole lot easier than usual.

How To Ace Exams in College (Or Anywhere Else)

I have never received a B in a class.

I do not believe that this is because I am innately more intelligent than the majority of my peers. Rather, it is both because I have an excellent system for studying (and actually make myself use it) and because I am highly skilled at judging my own level of preparedness. The latter, while tremendously useful, can be a difficult skill to teach (although I plan on trying to do so in a later article). The former, however, is actually a rather simple, albeit multifaceted, process.

NOTE: I am an engineer, and will therefore be going about this guide with science/math related courses in mind. These techniques can, however,be equally useful for almost any field.

Step 1: Gather Your Tier 1 Study Materials

Your Tier 1 study materials include every possible scrap of data that you can find that may help you on the exam. These include notes, textbooks, lecture slides, past homeworks (and solutions), past exams, and any other material you deem appropriate.

I cannot stress enough the importance of past exams. The more the better. They are your #1 resource for getting a feel for both the content of the exam and, more importantly, the style in which you will be required to convey it (test style has such a large impact on my specific studying methods that I will be devoting an entire post to this topic some time in the near future).

If your professor doesn’t offer any previous years’ exams, try and pester him to give you one. Sometimes there are also student run test-banks or websites that you can get them off of (e.g. Koofers or Cramster). If you simply cannot find any past exams, it becomes all the more important to get as many details you can about the test from the professor. Try and get him to answer at least

  1. What the format will be
  2. Will questions be proofs / theory or practical application
  3. Will questions cover any topics not on the homeworks

You should hope that the answer to 3 above is no, because at this point the past homeworks will have become your primary study tool.

Step 2: Block Out Your Time

One of the biggest mistakes that you can make when preparing for an exam is to just assume that you will have time to do your studying. Trying to lackadaisically squeeze it in between everything else you have going onis a recipe for disaster.

At least five days before your exam you should sit down, go over your schedule, and apportion out a 1-3 hour time slot, a 3-5 hour slot, and a 1-2 hour slot (these values can vary depending on the detail/scope/topic of the particular test). Make sure that for these time blocks you will be able to go somewhere quiet, with plenty of desk space and minimal distractions. I always study using my computer, but if you don’t you should strongly consider leaving your computer behind or at least disconnecting it from the internet. Another advantage to setting up your sessions in this manner is that the first block isn’t too difficult to get yourself to start. Then, as I spoke about in my last post, once you have begun the studying process you will find that it isn’t too difficult to continue it.

Ideally, these time blocks should be 3 days before the exam, 2 days before, and the day before the exam. If needed, the second two blocks can be shifted forward by a day, but to play it safe the first one really shouldn’t be. Regardless, if you want to minimize the total time spent studying it is best to do most of it within the three days before the exam.

Step 3: Three Days Before the Exam

If I were to ask you about a detailed presentation that you sat through yesterday, odds are you wouldn’t remember all of the particulars. But if I were to show you different random snippets of information, you woud probably be able to identify which ones were from the presentation and possibly even expound upon them a bit. The goal of this study session can be thought of in a similar manner.

This early on, the primary aim is to refamiliarize yourself with all of the topics that will be covered on the exam. Basically what you need to do is read through all of the material that you gathered in step 1 at least once. This includes the practice exams, but at this point you only need to look over the questions, not the solutions. The goalis to both jogg your memory on all the different topics that you may have forgotten and to give you a very clear picture in your mind of what you will need to study over the next few days. As you go through it all, it would help if you jotted down on a seperate piece of paper which topics you think you know fairly well and which ones will need a lot of review.

I know that this may sound like a lot, especially with dense information, but if your goal is just to skim through it and not to memorize it it really shouldn’t be too bad. I usually find that I can get through it all at least once in a couple of hours, and sometimes even get started on one of the practice exams.

Step 4: Two Days Before the Exam

This is when you are going to be doing the majority of your studying. To start off, you should immediately go and start trying to do one of the practice tests. If you find that you are able to do it, great! Keep going. This means that you probably don’t have to worry too much about your test. If you find that you are unable to do a large portion of the problems, that’s also fine. In fact it’s to be expected- that’s what this study session is for.

This is the point where how you need to study will really depend on what materials you have available to you. The best situation would be if you have large numbers of past exams with their solved solutions. In this case just start working through the tests as best as you can and referring to the solutions whenever you get stuck. It is sometimes also a good idea to leave one test until the end of the day to gauge your progress once you’re finished the rest of your studying. Once you finish the other tests, start working through the homeworks. You don’t need to solve every homework problem again if you are pressed for time, but make sure that you would know how to solve them all again. You should also keep an eye out for any questions that are on topics not covered in the practice exams and pay them extra attention.

If you don’t have very many previous exams, then this process is still pretty much the same, but you will want to solve out more of the homework problems. Make sure that you have actually written out at least one problem of each type that may come up on the exam. When you are taking the test you can’t expect to be given the exact same problems, but if you have at least one problem of each type extremely clear in your mind it will alleviate a large portion of the pressure.

If you have no previous exams, then it sucks to be you. But all is not lost. The homeworks will now become your primary studying tool, and you will want to work through as many as possible. Your textbook will also start to play a major role. Try going through and solving out any of the examples in the book that cover the right material (without looking at the solution if you can). Additionally, if you have the solutions manual, try looking through all of the problems in the book that were not on your homeworks and solving out any of the simpler ones that test the basic concepts. I have had multiple exams where I did this and then encountered one of these exact problems on the test.

Finally, once you are finished with your practice exams and homeworks and have done any problems from the book that you deem worthy, it is time to fill in the holes. Go through both your notes and the chapter summaries in the texbook and double check that you have done some problems on every topic covered. Depending on the class, you should also make sure that you understand all of the basic concepts and simpler proofs. Usually you can get your professor to tell you whether or not there will be any proofs on his exam, but even so it can never hurt to be able to do the basic ones just in case.

The Ultimate Crib Sheet

This is goal of your entire study session, and really the key to this whole method. Take out a blank piece of printer paper and keep it next to you while you are going through all of your study materials. Whenever you come to a new formula, write it down on the paper. If there are important diagrams, sketch out a basic version. Whenever you solve out a problem that is the first of its type, try and write down a shorthand version of it here.

By the end of your study session, this piece of paper (front and back) should contain all of the information that you could possibly be tested on. I don’t care how small you have to write to get it all to fit. If you can just barely read it, it’s big enough. I have yet to have an exam where I wasn’t able to fit it all on one page.

If your professor allows a cheat sheet, great! You should be set for this exam. If not, that’s fine too. It just means that you still have a bit of work ahead of you.

From now until the test, all of your studying efforts should be focused on this sheet of paper. Before you finish off this main study session, go over it a couple times. At first you may have to reference the primary material on some of the points that are a bit too concise on the sheet, but once you do you will have created a memory trigger. Your brain will get used to associating that small snippet with the whole topic, and later on that will greatly improve your recall.

Why This Works

The way memory works is through associations. Just like in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) the more inbound links to a webpage the easier it will be to find on google, so to with your brain the more ‘links’ you have to a specific memory or piece of information, the easier it will be to recall it later on. This works even better when you can associate the desired information with sensory data. Your brain is extremely efficient at recalling sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feelings. You may have difficulty remembering when George Washington was born, but I bet you will never forget the smell of a skunk, even if you’ve only smelt it once.

The reason why this ultimate crib sheet is so effective is because it creates a visual index of all of the material in your mind. Each small shorthand entry will link back to all you have studied on that topic, and by going over this sheet enough times you will be able to form a visual structure in your mind of the sheet itself. When I take an exam, as soon as I read a question I instantly think of exactly where on my sheet this topic was covered and then have no problem recalling the details.(Note: this works even better if you use colored writing implements and a decent organizational structure on your sheet)

Step 5: The Day Before (and of) the Exam

This is the easy part.

Now that you have your crib sheet, fold it up, stick it in your pocket, and carry it with you everywhere. Whenever you have a minute or two to spare, pull it out and skim over it. At first it may take you a little while to go through the whole thing, but after not too long you will find yourself able to skim through it in under a minute. Once you reach this point all you have to do is keep going through it to make sure it sticks in your mind even under pressure, and you’re all set.

Finally, if you have time, I usually like to go through one of my practice exams closed book and timed. This works a lot better if you had multiples and were able to save one for now, but even if you didn’t it will be good to practice applying what you know and to gauge just how well you have done in your studying. If you’ve done everything that I’ve described here, you should be finishing this exam in well under the given time.


I know that this has been a bit long winded, but I hope that you have found it worth it. In summary (Hopefully as a review, but I know some of you just skipped straight here. For shame.), here are the five steps:

  1. Gather all possible material that could come up on the test.
  2. Block out a 1-3 hour time slot, a 3-5 hour slot, and a 1-2 hour slot in the three days before the exam.
  3. Three days before the exam: skim through all of the material at least once.
  4. Two Days before the exam: work your way through all past exams and homework.
    1. Create an Ultimate Crib Sheeet
  5. The day Before the exam: review your crib sheet throughout the day until you barely even have to glance at it to recall the information.

Further Advanced Study Techniques

If you have paid attention and are able to make yourself apply this method the next time you have a test, I have full confidence that it will greatly improve your performance. Yet this is really still just the beginning.

What I have discussed here is merely the overall structure for your studying. Soon I will be writing a series of more advanced articles on how to improve your memory, how to pick out the important matierial from the chaff, and how to cater your studying process based on the specific syle of test.

If you really can’t wait for more advice, try checking out this great post at studyhacks. He makes some great points and has an amazing collection of articles on the topic.

2 Simple Ways to Beat Procrastination

There are 24 hours in a day.

40% of nerds get less than 4 hours of actual work done per day.

On average, adults in the U.S. get between 6 and 7 hours of sleep a night

Where does the rest of the 13-14 hours go every day?

Where the Time Goes

Last week, I had a tremendous amount of work due by Tuesday. Rather than wait for Monday to get started, I came up with a clear, regimented plan to get it all finished on Sunday. I was going to wake up by 9:00 (it was Sunday after all), spend 45 minutes getting dressed, eating breakfast, and checking my daily websites. I was to start working by 9:45. The rest of the day was similarly blocked off so as to maximize my time while still taking some appropriate breaks.

Events did not go as planned.

Instead of getting up at exactly 9:00, I lazed around for a while. Instead of starting work by 9:45, I had only just started eating breakfast. Instead of eating quickly and getting right to work, I decided to watch a TV show while eating, and once I started it I obviously didn’t stop until it was over. Then I realized that I was four episodes behind in the series.

I first picked up my work at 6:00 PM.

Sequences of events with varying degrees of similarity and severity to this one happen every day across the globe. In fact, if you were to go and ask every single person you meet today the question: “Are you currently procrastinating for anything?” I would be willing to bet against you receiving a single “No.” response. The reason for this is what I like to refer to as cascading breakdowns in self control.

The “Foot-in-the-Door” Technique

This is a commonly used technique in persuasive psychology and marketing that consists of getting someone to agree to a minor request so as to make them more likely to agree to a larger one later on. In this article by Dien Rieck at Copyblogger, he explains that the basis for this principle is that we are psychologically driven to remain consistent with our own actions. Once we say “yes” to something, we get into the mindset of saying “yes” and then want to continue doing so. This same technique can be applied to persuading yourself to win the fight against procrastination.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, I was immediately presented with a choice: do I stick with my plan and get out of bed, or do I roll over and doze for a while longer? I chose the latter, and this choice set the theme of the day. At every juncture, every new choice, it became easier and easier to remain consistent with my original bad decision. Were I to have immediately jumped out of bed upon waking up that morning, I am confident that the entire day would have panned out completely differently.

Crunching Time – The Short-Term Solution

These ideas and observations can be easily applied to develop a simple, yet effective procrastination avoidance strategy. As soon as your alarm goes off in the morning, instantly jump out of bed and do 30 crunches. The less time you spend in between waking up and jumping out, and I’m talking seconds here, the easier it will be. This serves the double purpose of both waking you up and of starting your day off with a clear demonstration of willpower. Once you are in a mindset of self-control and getting things done, continuing it, even with harder tasks, becomes much easier. It is amazing how this simple 1-minute activity can affect the entire day’s productivity.

Maximizing the Routine – The Long-Term Solution

Most of the difficult tasks that we must face in life are not of the fleeting variety. Classes have homework due every week. Most jobs have similar types of work every single day. Dieting and going to the gym do nothing if you can’t keep it up. Yet there are those who manage all of these, often at the same time, without seeming to require any extreme exertion of willpower. How do they do it? The answer lies in the power of the routine.

We have already established that once you begin a difficult task, the next task becomes easier to start. This applies doubly so to doing the same task a second time, even with some spacing in between. Human beings are creatures of habit. If you accustom yourself to going to the gym every Tuesday at 2:00 pm, you will find yourself going even on days when you are particularly tired or busy. There will barely even be any real thought to do otherwise. Why? Because that is just what you are accustomed to doing. If you get into the habit of doing homework immediately every day after class, making yourself do it will no longer be such a struggle.

In this excellent article, Harrison Barnes describes how a proper routine is necessary to excel in any field. But even for those with no interest at reaching the very top, developing a proper routine for yourself in as many facets of life as possible will do wonders for your productivity. Used properly, you may even be able to take those four hours of actual work time and double or even triple them.

Does anybody have any examples of how routines have improved their productivity? Or any tricks like the crunches technique to get yourself going?