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Is Allowing Your Child to Study While on Facebook Morally Irresponsible?

Studying while on Facebook

The Stanford Consensus

My technology habits are eccentric. I use an old fashioned, non-Internet connected Samsung flip phone with a postage-stamp size screen. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, and my RSS reader is an emaciated husk, subsisting on a small number of feeds, mainly the blogs of friends. Long ago, I configured Gmail to automatically mark every message as read when it arrives in my inbox, frustrating my attempts to perform distracting quick scans for new messages during the day.

The rational foundation of my eccentricity is the increasingly alarming research coming out of Stanford’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab.  Pioneering researchers from this lab are converging on a scary consensus. It’s long been understood that you’re less productive when you’re constantly switching your attention; that is, the claimed benefits of multitasking are false. Researchers  at the CHIMe lab, however, have found that the impact of electronic multitasking goes beyond the momentary sense of distraction, it can also create permanent changes in the brain.

As reported in a recent New York Times article, subjects who were identified as multitaskers did “a significantly worse job” on experimental tasks that required them to filter out irrelevant information — even though they weren’t multitasking during the experiment.

“Other tests at Stanford,” reports the same article, “showed multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.”

Or, as Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, summarized: “the scary part for [multitaskers] is they can’t shut off their multitasking tendencies when they’re not multitasking.”

This is why I invest so much effort in isolating myself from electronic distraction. In my two fields, theoretical computer science and writing, the ability to focus on hard things for long uninterrupted periods is my most valuable currency.  If I lose this ability, I might also lose my livelihood.

As the computer scientist Donald Knuth once said, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”

The Danger to Students

That’s the rational explanation for my behavior. If you want the emotional explanation, however, turn your (perhaps distracted) attention from Stanford’s CHIMe lab to my blog e-mail inbox.

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An Argument for Quitting Facebook

Deactivating Facebook

A Bold Decision

At the end of his first semester at Penn, a student whom I’ll call Daniel was disappointed to learn that his GPA was a lackluster 2.95. Following the Study Hacks orthodoxy that study habits should be based on evidence — not random decisions or peer pressure — Daniel asked himself a crucial question: What are the better students doing that I’m not?

When he surveyed his classmates, he noted something interesting: “the high-scoring kids weren’t on Facebook.”

Emboldened by this observation, Daniel decided to do the unthinkable: he deactivated his Facebook account.

His GPA jumped to an exceptional 3.95.

In this post, I want to share the details of Daniel’s story — revealing what actually happens when you quit one of the most ubiquitous technologies of your generation. I’ll then make the argument that although most students don’t need to leave Facebook, every student should at least give the idea serious consideration.

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The Grade Whisperer: Ron’s Feeble Focus

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Feeble FocusAdvice

A student who I’ll call Ron recently sent me an e-mail with an ominous title: Loss of Focus.

“I really enjoy most of my courses,” he started. “And I’m definitely not in the wrong major…But there are some courses that I find extremely difficult and uninteresting.”

There’s nothing surprising about this observation. As I’ve said before, you have to expect that not every course is going to incite scholastic reverie — some subjects you just have to grin and bear en route to becoming “educated.”

Ron, as it turned out, was having trouble with the “grin and bear” part of this equation.

“I sit down, stare at the books, and nothing happens,” he told me.  “After reading and solving problems for 15 minutes I get bored and distracted, start surfing the web, checking email or such.”

He concluded with a key question that I receive often:

You mention that hard focus is necessary. I agree, but my question is: How can I focus on difficult, unenjoyable, painful tasks?

It sounds like a job for the grade whisperer…

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The Ice Bath Method: Easing Into Painful Projects

A Difficult Talk

Bailey Next week, I’m giving the Theory Colloquium lecture here at MIT’s computer science laboratory. This means I’m facing one of the most common and most dreaded tasks of academic life: writing a talk.

Constructing good talks slides is grueling. The task is not so large that it can become a harmless background task in your life, and it’s not so small that it can be dispatched in a single inspired dash. In other words, like all medium-sized hard projects, it’s a catalyst for procrastination.

Here’s how I’m handling it…

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Fighting the Pre-Exam Slump

Procrastination RisesProcrastination

A reader recently sent me an e-mail in which she admitted:

I think I am starting to suffer from deep procrastination — and it’s only six weeks until my exams! I need some motivatiom for this final push, but I just can’t seem to find it.

She’s not alone. I’ve noticed an uptick in similar e-mails, and this doesn’t surprise me. For students teetering on the precipice of deep procrastination, exam period, with its significant increase in work, is a perfect catalyst for pushing them over the edge. If you see exams looming but simply can’t muster the energy to start seriously preparing, then you may already be in the grips of this scourge.

In this post, I describe a collection of simple tips that can help you escape this pre-exam slump. It’s not a long term solution to your potenital deep procrastination (for this, you need to evaluate your relationship with your major and reconnect to your studies). But it will help in the short term.

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The Danger of Deep Procrastination

The Mysterious Burnout EpidemicWillpower

Our friend Leena once told me a sad story. It was about an old high school classmate. This guy was a certified math whiz: he took college-level courses while still in high school, then, after arriving at Stanford, jumped into upper-level subjects and advanced research. Somewhere around his junior year, however, his drive began to falter. As Leena recalls, his energy for math mysteriously faded away. He told her, at one point during this period, that he looked forward to surviving until graduation so he could go find a job in banking and make some money.

He wasn’t overworked: he could easily handle his classes. And he wasn’t lonely: he had plenty of friends. Something inside him just petered out.

Leena’s friend burnt out, and he’s not alone. An increasing number of students suffer from this mysterious affliction, which is marked by a sudden, unexpected drop in enthusiasm and academic performance in a once promising student.

In this article, I want to talk about a common cause of burnouts — a cause I call deep procrastination — and provide some understanding for why it happens and how to prevent it.

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