Six Ways to Handle Context Switching when Learning Several Things at Once

When you need to learn a bunch of new things at once, constantly context switching between them can be very counterproductive. Concepts can get jumbled together in your head, and it can become impossible to remember which information applies to which topic.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do to help you retain facts and make sure that you don’t mix them up.

1. Don’t Switch Between Subjects Too Often

If you jump from subject A to B, then B to C, and then back to A during an hour, that’s a surefire way to confuse yourself. Be disciplined about changing subjects, and try not to do it more often than necessary.

Have specific blocks of time that you devote to each thing, and resist the urge to change course in the middle of a block. If you feel like switching to something else, stop early and take a break instead.

2. Take Substantial Breaks Between Topics

When you finish working on one thing, instead of immediately switching to something else, take a break. The break will give your brain time to process the material and compartmentalize it so you won’t mentally link it with a different subject. In my experience, even a half-hour break is enough to give your brain a chance to process and prepare for something else.

3. Separate Learning Blocks with Physical Activity

Going for a walk, a bike ride, or a jog is an even better way to give yourself a chance to consolidate newly-acquired information before changing contexts. Exercise helps you focus, aids brain function, and reduces stress, all of which have a positive effect on learning.

4. Sleep on It

Sleeping is perhaps the best way for your mind to solidify new concepts. It’s better to work on something for an hour a day for seven days than to spend seven hours on the same thing in one day. Why? The brain does a lot of work overnight to organize new information. Take advantage of this by not overloading yourself on any one particular day.

Sleeping is also a good way to solve hard problems. Many people who work on challenging problems have stories of waking up in the middle of the night or the next morning with a solution.

It’s also good to be aware of when you’re hitting the point of mental exhaustion, which should be a trigger to rest instead of doubling down.

5. Eat Something

Another way to take a break is to eat a meal or a snack in between context switches. Eating food is a natural reward, and the right nutrients can kickstart your brain if your energy is starting to wane. Avoid heavy meals and lots of sugar because those might just put you to sleep. But trust your experience. Everyone reacts differently to different things.

6. Change Your Venue

The memory palace is a well-known memory aid. To memorize unrelated pieces of information, you visualize yourself walking through a palace, in and out of different rooms, and “discovering” the information you want to remember in each room. Then when you want to recall it later, you run through the visualization again, and it aids in recall.

You can use a similar technique in real life to help you study multiple subjects. Have a different physical location, either in your house or around town, where you study specific things. Being in a different physical location helps you anchor knowledge to different places. If all of your knowledge around one subject is anchored to a specific location, it greatly helps keep concepts linked together in your head as well.

If you find yourself needing to come up to speed on multiple subjects at once, try these techniques. They’ll help you make progress without sabotaging your understanding in the long run.