Want to Study Better? Try Distracting Yourself - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Want to Study Better? Try Distracting Yourself

Want to Study Better? Try Distracting Yourself

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe



Because our brains are more adaptable than we think.

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe

We’ve all been told that multitasking hinders our ability to learn and retain information, yet we continue to work from noisy coffee shops, listen to music while studying and answer email while on conference calls. Maybe it’s time to stop worrying. According to a June study out of UCLA, published in Psychological Science

We still focus on the most valuable information when we multitask.

The study asked 192 undergraduate students to memorize 120 words, divided into sets of 20, with each assigned a point value ranging from 1 to 10. The students were told they would receive more points for higher-value words. Participants were divided into four groups. One group was simply given the memorization task. The second group, while studying, was played an audio recording of numbers and asked to press the computer’s space bar whenever they heard three consecutive odd numbers. The third group was played pop songs by Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Lady Gaga and Rihanna during the task, while the fourth group was played pop songs they had never heard before. 

Competition is compelling and it stimulates the brain differently.

Elaine Taylor-Klaus, co-founder, ImpactADHD.com 

Sure enough, the group that studied distraction-free recalled the most words — an average of eight from each set of 20. In comparison, the group given an additional task to perform recalled the least — an average of five in each set of 20. However, the students who listened to music while studying were able to remember almost as many words as the students who had no distractions. 

That’s no surprise to multitaskers like Vandana Apte, 22, a Fulbright English teaching assistant who says listening to music leads her to better test scores. “Music blocks out the external noise and allows me to concentrate on what I’m doing,” she explains. 


Most parents want their kids to turn off the music when they study, says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a professional certified coach and co-founder of ImpactADHD.com, but often kids can’t study without background noise. “They need the extra stimulation to be able to focus,” she says. In fact, she adds, people who have ADHD have the ability to go back and forth between two tasks more quickly than those who don’t — which is why they often feel more productive working in noisy environments.

The study’s more significant finding: In all groups, the participants were able to recall the highest-value words — and nearly five times more likely to recall a 10-point word than a 1-point word, notes Catherine D. Middlebrooks, a UCLA graduate student and lead author on the study (conducted with Alan Castel, a UCLA professor of psychology). Participants admitted they initially tried to remember every word, Middlebrooks says, but when they discovered it was too difficult a task, they made a conscious decision to focus on the most important information. 

The driving force? Competition motivated the participants to learn the 10-point words, says Taylor-Klaus. “Competition is compelling and it stimulates the brain differently,” she says.

Still, there can be drawbacks to doing two things at once. Multitasking impedes our memory, Middlebrooks notes. In the study, she continues, “participants still remembered less overall.”  

But if you’re studying in a coffee shop or your roommate is playing loud music or the people sitting next to you in the library are talking loudly, know that your efforts to study aren’t doomed, Middlebrooks says: “You should still be able to focus on the most important information.”  

The author admits to writing this article while listening to a webinar about ways to improve your prose. 

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