Ever sit down to study and find yourself agonising, stressing and procrastinating? Check out this article for how to take control of your brain chemistry, master the idea of Duration-Path-Outcome and tick off the tasks in front of you.
Sooner or later at school or university, whether you love the place or hate it, you will be left choiceless but to revise for a test or grind out an awkward piece of work when its the last thing you want to do. Here’s how to study and tackle assignments when you don’t want to:
...but remember it won't last. When the brain tries to concentrate on a particular task, we often feel agitation, stress and confusion. We start asking ourselves questions like, how are we going to do this? How long is it going to take? What's the point of learning this or memorising that? This initial frustration we feel when feeling unfocused at the beginning of a task is an inevitable part of the process. Agitation is just a gate to be passed through in order to arrive at a period of focus and calm. Once you accept this, it becomes easier to overcome and you drastically improve your chances of establishing concentration and improving the efficiency of your workflow.
Those three questions (how? how long? what’s the point?) we ask ourselves when we begin working accurately represent the way our brain breaks down tasks, into Duration, Path, and Outcome (DPO). But at the beginning of the task, these questions feel overwhelming, which makes it difficult to take the next step. To progress, we must confront these questions and bring clarity to the DPO of the task.
A good way of tackling Duration is by setting a timer on your phone for the length of time you want to work on the task - and not letting yourself stop until it's up. That way, you give yourself an endpoint as well as a reminder that the task is only finite. This also commits you to working for a solid block of time.
The second part to consider is Path, which is more challenging to approach; there is no roadmap for how to complete any given assignment, or regarding how to study, so your best bet is to write one yourself. Break down the content you need to work through into steps. Be specific and don't miss things out. Include features of work like research, formatting and citations as well, to give yourself the clearest overall path from blank slate to completed assignment (or study block). Doing this communicates to your brain that you should ignore all the reasons why you can't do a task and instead consider how best to complete the job at hand. This process eases the frustration of beginning a piece of work by a) outlining how to complete it, and b) serving as reassurance that regardless of agitation or an initial lack of focus, you can complete it.
The last feature of DPO is Outcome: the idea of what you are ultimately trying to achieve. It is helpful to define exactly what this is: are you trying to score a first on an assignment? Or trying to master a subtopic? Whatever the case, be specific and make it clear to yourself what the ultimate outcome looks like. Keeping a goal-oriented focus whilst working will motivate you and give your work a stronger sense of purpose, meaning you're less likely to give up early or produce a half-hearted outcome.
Did you know that there is a chemical in the brain which makes you want to quit? Here's a quick science lesson: noradrenaline is a hormone that mobilises us in stressful situations, such as in fight-or-flight response. As the name suggests, it increases alertness, but also enhances memory and focuses attention. This should make it great for studying, right? Sort of, yes, but when there is too much noradrenaline, it takes control of our motor circuitry and makes us want to quit. So, we need to keep it at a good level.
Studies have found that dopamine restores noradrenaline to a desirable level, giving us more in the tank to exert effort and reducing the urge to give up. But how do we increase dopamine in the brain? The most effective way to do this while studying is to attach a sense of reward to the task you're doing. If you can self-reward an aspect of the process, by telling yourself you're doing a good job and you're on the right path when you complete each step, you give yourself more energy and focus for the task, because you feel good about your progress and produce a neurochemical buffer which stops you from hitting the quit response. So, if you can take control of the idea of Duration-Path-Outcome and attach to it a sense of internal reward, you can hack your brain to push through agitation during assignments and study periods. The end result is greater concentration and a more efficient, productive and effective means of getting work done.