Tips from neuroscience to keep you focused on hard tasks

When we face a difficult problem or a difficult task, the most beneficial moments of scientists come. Solving a major methodological hurdle, crafting an elegant experiment, feeling a great result, working on a new model or writing a paper or grant proposal are the intellectual challenges that make a career in science so exciting. But hard work is really hard.

It can give us desperation and weight gain, and can cause anxiety and stress.

We may struggle to maintain focus on our difficult tasks, including those we enjoy and aspire to accomplish. We often postpone work on difficult tasks, such as writing a paper or doing complex data analysis, in favor of quick wins over easy tasks, such as fixing a data, organizing our calendar, or breaking into our e-mail correspondence. to set. .

In late 2020, I published a book, On Task, about the neuroscience of cognitive control: mental work that allows us to relate our goals and plans to our actions. It is precisely related to the problem of how we accomplish things.

So it is ironic that writing a book about how our brains work is a difficult task in itself. I enjoyed writing the book, and valued the goal.

But there were moments when it was really difficult to find words to express a complex idea. And working on the book was not the most immediately necessary task in my day-to-day work, so it was hard to find time for writing and thought it necessary.

You are not writing a book, but everyone experiences a struggle for difficult tasks. The epidemic has made them worse with lockdowns, home-schooling and other lifestyle changes. Everyone experiences procrastination or avoidance and the guilt that accompanies them. These experiences are not completely avoided, but there are some strategies that can help us stay focused.

Make space

To solve difficult problems, the brain needs to use information, plans, processes, and knowledge. Cognitive scientists refer to this collective work knowledge as a work set. However, the task set is not always immediately available: we cannot keep it active in our limited mental workspace, or all working memory ‘, at all times.

For example, when writing a scientific paper, we should keep in mind a lot of information related to the background, logic, design and results of the study.

If we have just come to the meeting on a different subject, and then sit down to write the paper, the necessary information is probably not in our minds. It must be mentally retrieved and organized in our working memory before we begin writing.

In practice, coming back to a difficult task in this way comes with a ‘restart’ cost: we should get time and mental effort back into our work set instead of making progress. For this reason, it is important to create time and space for difficult tasks.

• Set large blocks of time. It is very easy for working scientists to fill our days with meetings and other small tasks that leave only small gaps for serious work.

The need for longer intervals is not only due to the intense thought and work required for difficult tasks, but also because we need some time to reestablish this task set. Switching between tasks repeatedly makes the production task difficult.

• be consistent. We should try to reserve a coherent time and place for our hard work and be protective about it. Ideally, we should discover this time and place every day. Even if we do not progress for a day, that time should be spent on our hard work rather than other tasks, even if it is reviewing our work.

Consistency can aid memory: Memory retrieval is context-dependent, it helps to have the same sights and sounds available when we learn something when we try to remember it. Thus, working on a task in the same context can aid in repeated retrieval and helps us re-establish our task set upon restart.

Reduce distraction and never multitask

When we perform two or more tasks simultaneously, either at the same time or switch between them, our functionality and quality will suffer.

This occurs partly because tasks use shared cognitive resources, such as working memory. As a result, they will compete for that shared resource and interfere with each other. When doing difficult tasks, it is important to reduce this interference from multi-tasking.

Remove hints for other tasks. It helps in removing e-mail and social media and the signals associated with them. Phone notifications or a badge that tells us how many unread messages we have that are distracting that drag us to other tasks.

These result in multitasking, whether we do other tasks or not. Even hints that we engage with other tasks, such as looking at our phones on the table, can distract us.

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