Scientific studies of the brain have shown that for most people, our working memory or the part of short-term memory that holds items that we are immediately processing in our mind is only able to remember four things at a time. This might seem impossibly short, but consider the last time you went grocery shopping without a list - it was hard to remember more than 4 or 5 items, and you came home and remembered - oh, I needed yogurt! This is because you were relying on your working memory to remember what you needed to pick up. The other option is to go row by row and think - do I need pasta sauce? What about cereal? As you know, that's an incredibly inefficient way to shop (not to mention bad for your waistline as you might end up picking up too many extra things you didn't need!).
Another interesting discovery from neuroscience (the science of learning about our brain and how it works) is that we are really bad at evaluating priorities in our heads. This is because prioritizing is an activity that takes up a lot of energy, and it is difficult to remember the tasks you need to do and prioritize them at the same time (again, due to the limited capacity of your working memory). We get distracted, or give incorrect weightage to tasks; for instance deciding to spend two hours reading an article on Tuesday for a seminar on Friday, and running out of time to work on an economics homework due on Wednesday in class. It may seem obvious now in what order to do the work, but when you're in the moment, everything can seem an equal priority. This is why sometimes we tend to get really stressed and overwhelmed with everything we have to do.
I shared last week about the importance of creating a weekly plan. This is mostly because of the problem of our working memory - trying to remember things and juggle them and decide in which order to work on them is all too much for our brain to tackle. I read this articlerecently on the method that a business consultant gave a steel magnate to improve the productivity of his staff. It’s really simple, and can be easily adapted for organizing your schoolwork.
The method is this: the night before, write down the six priorities / tasks you want to accomplish tomorrow, and order them in terms of priority. So for instance, if you have math homework due the next day and reading for history due at the end of the week, put the math homework first in the list, and the history reading later.
Then basically tomorrow when you sit down to study, take the list of 6 items that you already prioritized with you. Work on the first one, and then when you’re done, move on to the next one. This way, you know you are always working on whatever is most crucial, and you don’t need to waste time when you sit down to work deciding what to work on, you already have a list prepared. Then whatever you didn’t manage to get to today, you just add to tomorrow’s list of 6 tasks. Of course, if you find yourself routinely completing all your tasks, maybe you can add a few extra to your list, just in case you have time to get to them.
The main lesson here of course is that don’t overburden your brain or work against its limitations, instead by knowing how it works, you can apply some simple routines to get your work done with as little stress and friction as possible.