Was there ever a time you couldn't complete a project because you spent too much time on your phone, Netflix or YouTube? Staying productive can be difficult for many students, especially in a modern world filled with distractions. 

What exactly is productivity? Generally, it is defined as working efficiently. This means focusing on one task at a time and limiting your distractions. It's a ratio of sorts: how much time you put into a project versus the amount of progress you actually made with the project.


As college students, it is essential for each of us to stay on track and keep ahead. If we fall behind, our grades are likely to drop, making it harder for us to achieve long-term goals. It is common for students to believe that they can multitask, thinking they can complete homework while watching YouTube or Netflix, or engaging in a Snapchat conversation. The truth is, our brains just don't work that way.

Dr. Jessamy Comer, a psychology lecturer at RIT, explained that when it comes to automatic functions (walking and talking), your body multitasks just fine. Although, when it comes to mental processing, you can't focus on multiple things at once.

“You can only work effectively on one thing at a time, otherwise you don’t work effectively with either,” Comer explained.

"You can only work effectively on one thing at a time, otherwise you don't work effectively with either."

In fact, if you were to put on your resume that you were great at multitasking, companies might be less likely to hire you. Saying that you are great at multitasking isn’t a good thing, because it means you aren’t focusing your all into each assignment you partake in. 

Time Management

The list of obligations we have can seem staggering. We balance classes, school work, friends, clubs, jobs, visiting home and much more. We have a lot on our plates, and time management is an important skill to balance it all, yet many of us struggle with it.

It's difficult to stay focused for long, as we get preoccupied with so many different things. First year Physics major, Amelia Genus, shared her experience. 

Genus said, “My time management has been awful so far. I haven’t really been studying. I’ve just been catching up with my friends.”

Khursten Alphonso, a first year Mechanical Engineering student, has similar issues. He explained how easily he and others can get sidetracked. 

“My Mechanical Engineering 104 workshop group does nothing but struggle to stay on task,” he said.

The list goes on as Eric Blunt, a first year Chemical Engineering major, also explained his struggles with time management.

“I’ve completed all my work, but it takes longer than it should because I get distracted so easily,” he said. "The people on my floor love to be social; they want to go out and do things. I get distracted really easy and go hang out with them."

It seems at RIT, struggling with productivity and focus is a very common problem among students that inhibits us from managing our time effectively.

What is it That Distracts Us?

Why is it so hard to focus on just one task at a time? Our phones are not so surprisingly one of the major factors.

“It takes just one notification on my phone. Then I’m checking my Insta, my [Snapchat], then both of my emails (my personal and my RIT). Then I realize that two hours have passed,” Genus said.

Genus explained that the biggest distraction on her phone is by far Instagram.

“I waste so much time on Instagram. I get that obsessive need to see everything. I’m sure others also feel the need to see what’s new. We all really want to stay up to date," she said.

Alphonso agreed, saying that his phone is his “biggest distraction,” and he is “constantly on social media.” He explained that if he ever hears a notification, he just has to reply.

“I don’t want to keep people waiting. I can’t not open notifications. It really damages my productivity,” Alphonso said. “YouTube is easy to ignore, but if it’s a person? I waste hours ... ”

Blunt's views aline with Genus and Alphonso, as he explained the temptations of media and the level of difficulty when trying to make productive choices. 

“These apps keep me from getting my work done. They provide so many distractions. I would obviously rather be on my apps than doing homework so it’s hard to stay focused," Blunt said.

Mobile phones are a common necessity for many people, so it's not a surprise to see our reliance on them.

Temptations vs Addiction

Many people love to learn, but why is it that we struggle to focus on learning when are phones are near by? Is our struggle simply just a temptation of fun apps and social medias as Genus, Alphonso and Blunt explained? Or is there another factor that comes into play? 

Comer explained that in PET scans, you can actually see the reward centers of your brain light up when we are using our phones.

“It’s the same reaction that someone would have if they had just gotten a hit of cocaine. It’s addictive the same a drug is. Your biological response is to just get more and more. All the sudden, you’re like ‘how did I get into this mess?’” Comer stated.

"It's the same reaction that someone would have if they had just gotten a hit of cocaine. It's addictive the same a drug is."

Technology is addictive and is being recognized more and more for this. Actually, technology addiction is likely going to be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the spring — so it's more than just a simple temptation. 

Social media apps themselves can prove to be the most addicting in particular, as students rarely use just one app. It’s likely we have apps upon apps all stemming from the social media genre like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and more. And just one notification can trigger the addiction to check more and more apps. 

Social media apps are not the only distraction causing platform either, as things such as online homework grow in popularity. It's harder to say no to distractions on technology, when you are already on that technology in the first place for assignments or work.

The Positives and the Negatives

Having access to technology at all times has both positive and negative outcomes. As a society, we mostly ignore the negative outcomes and thrive on the positive.

As far as positive effects go, information access is immediate. You get any piece of information you want to know. 

Dr. Comer said, “Even in my classes, someone will ask me a thought-provoking question. Sometimes I just don’t know the answer and I ask someone to look it up.”

The obvious negative effect is distractibility, but there are also a number of physical and mental ramifications as well.

You will develop neck strains when your phone is wedged between your ear and shoulder during a phone call, or from looking down at your screen. Other common effects usually include eye strain and sleep issues.

There are also a number of emotional effects, as social media can actually have the tendency to make a user sad. People generally only post about the happy events in their lives. They say things like “Look at my beautiful family,” and “#nofilter.” These kinds of posts decrease the self-esteem of the viewer, when they start to compare themselves to others. 

In time, someone can fall into what’s called learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is when an individual learns powerlessness and feels this way whenever they are faced with a problem. This originates from their persistent failure to succeed — in this case, the persistent inability to make their lives as happy as those they see on Instagram or Facebook, and it's thrusting them into a depression.

These social comparisons we can find ourselves making, can also indirectly affect our productivity. You can become less motivated to complete things and less motivated to progress in your life from low self-esteem. But, it’s hard to avoid any one of these effects and it takes a large amount of willpower that isn’t always achievable. Therefore, it should be stressed that the idea of perfection is often a misconception.

People often leave out the "bad parts" on social media as to give the illusion that their lives are perfect and up to par. So, although you may see a post saying "Look at my beautiful family," you never really know what is going on in someone else's life. But if we can’t steer clear from distractions permanently, what can we do to limit them ?

How to Increase our Productivity

When studying or getting homework done, how do we remain focused and avoid the negative physical and mental aspects technology can have? Our phones are littered with information, and the addiction is tangible. How do we balance work with reward?

Genus suggested, “I’ve found that completely shutting off my phone and putting it across the room helps me. It’s so hard to do that though. I can’t not have my phone next to me.”

Blunt agreed with Genus in distancing your proximity to your phone.

“What helps me is I put my phone across the room and tell myself it’s ‘charging’ over there. There’s an outlet right next to me, but it’s better if it’s across the room,” Blunt said.

Creating a studious environment could be helpful as well. It’s better to study in Wallace Library than in your bed. You’ll be less likely to want to stop studying and just go to sleep or scroll through your phone.

“I feel like if I studied with others that would really help me. If they were trying to stay focused and I’m over here watching a video, I would feel bad. It would help me be more accountable for my actions,” Genus said.

It's often not just homework that can be difficult to complete, but also the type of work and the platform that work is on, as mentioned with the increase in online homework.

“Something that would really help everyone’s productivity would be if there was less online homework. It’s so easy to get distracted especially when you’re already online. YouTube is just one click away,” Alphonso said.

Ironically enough, an app can also help you stay away from other distracting apps. The app is called “Moments” and it is made specifically for improving a person's time management. It helps you visually picture what it is you’re spending your time on.

Blunt said, “I feel like ‘Moments’ would help when I see how much time I spend doing homework versus how much time I spend on social media. If I could see the damage, I would spend much more time on homework.”

"If I could see the damage, I would spend much more time on homework."

In order to use this app correctly, however, you have to be committed to your improvement. This was especially a concern for Alphonso. 

“I feel like it would probably work for like a week or two. I would track my food and stuff like that. By the second week, I’d get tired of filling things out. I wouldn’t be able to commit to it,” said Alphonso.

In general, people have this misconception that they can do it all, but we have to take our own limitations into account and half the time we just don’t know them. This is such a struggle that it affects our biology, our attitudes and our feelings.

“I feel that if people were more aware of this, then they would be more cautious,” said Comer.

The apps on our home screen really limit our productivity and can harm us both physically and mentally as well. Social media and other technology is an industry that is only growing, and we need to learn how to balance our social lives with our work lives. In discovering that balance, we can truly be the best version of ourselves.