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Right now, thousands of students across Canada are settling into new homes and routines as they start their long-awaited first year of university.
If you're one of those students, you probably have a lot going on — both emotionally and logistically. Every unit, department, and group on campus is eager to take advantage of the back-to-school buzz. There are activities around every corner, orientations, checklists, socials, and an ungodly amount of posters and flyers advertising even more stuff.
It's enough to overwhelm even the biggest extrovert.
I don't want to add to the overload. You've got plenty of information and unsolicited advice flying at you. So I've distilled my years of experience into one single tip you can easily remember and follow to help you handle your first month as a university student.
Single-tasking is your best friend.
That’s it. That’s the tip. If you were reading just to discover the one, magic secret contained in this article, you can stop reading now. This is it, my one, most favourite tip for handling your first month as a university student: single-tasking is your best friend.
It works for everything. Whatever you're about to do — school work or socializing, self-care, or self-discovery — choose how you want to spend your time, and then spend it that way. Give your full focus to whatever you're doing, even if you have to get outside your comfort zone to do so.
I'm cutting straight to the chase, because just knowing this tip isn’t enough. It’s the type of tough lesson you have to actually put into practice before you properly learn it.
And it is tough, because I don’t know about you, but I always got the impression growing up that being a well-rounded superstar was clearly the best way to get ahead in any career. I guess that was the message I got from TV and movies, and what I heard and saw around me.
But there’s a lot of research out there now showing that multi-tasking doesn’t work; in fact, even the knowledge of an unread email in your inbox can lower your effective IQ by 10 points.
For me, this was bad news. Multi-tasking has been (and still, to a large extent, is) engrained in me from a young age — at least since I was 13 years old and hopping between multiple MSN Messenger chat windows, carrying on several conversations while also mediating a fight between my younger brother and sister. I always felt so efficient, juggling tasks and switching between them at high speeds.
Yet, as intoxicating as that high-speed juggling can be, there’s a quiet power in the different kind of efficiency single-tasking provides.
The system is stacked against you. If you’re taking the “standard” course load, you’ll be studying five subjects at once. At the same time, you’re expected to begin the massive task of discovering yourself in the new light of independence that comes with leaving home, or starting a new chapter. On top of that, you might have work or volunteer responsibilities to juggle.
In these circumstances, it can be difficult to avoid multi-tasking altogether. That’s why it helps to know small steps you can take to build a single-tasking mindset, even if you can't yet eliminate multi-tasking entirely.
Building Single-Tasking into Your First Month
You might be thinking… How am I supposed to do only one thing at a time, when I have so much to see and do and get done!?
The answer is easy: you won’t. You won’t get it perfect right away. If you can learn that lesson now, it’ll help you for years to come. But even though you won’t become a perfect single-tasker overnight, it’s worth building your habits and routines with single-tasking in mind.
Here are some examples of how you might do that:
- Attend your classes, and pay attention. Sure, you can skip class and teach yourself the material — but most of the time, your best bet is going to class and listening. Thanks to the Internet, anyone can access the materials online to teach themselves anything. You're paying to hear about it from the actual experts. If you find you can’t learn from a certain professor, don’t take the course from them (although occasionally you may not have a choice). But if you’re attending class and doing other things instead of paying attention, you’re throwing away time as well as money.
- Don’t skip the social life. Maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but if you’re booking yourself solid with solo library dates… you need to pencil in some pal time. Studying nonstop always leads to burnouts. Schedule time to recharge with some social contact, because you won’t be doing yourself any favours by trying to go without it. Then, let yourself single-task some socialization time, without getting distracted by your school work. Letting yourself truly connect with friends will leave you refreshed and ready to tackle your assignments tomorrow.
- Make time for little moments. Whether it’s morning yoga, a weekly volunteer gig, weekday afternoons writing at a café, or your own unique habit — one of the most beautiful parts of newfound independence is the curation of little moments for ourselves, the ones that rejuvenate us and gently form the routines we hope to build our lives on. Claiming those moments, and not allowing the distractions of school and social lives and responsibilities to sidetrack them, is what single-tasking is all about.
It takes time.
It'd be easy to let the overwhelming trick you into a lifetime of multi-tasking: always busy, never productive. Many people have fallen into that trap. But if you can start out your university years with the goal of always focusing on one thing at a time, you'll graduate with habits that will take you far.
Though it's my one, most favourite tip — it's no magic bullet. The next few years are going to take work, no matter what.
Just remember: take it one thing at a time.
You'll be fine.