- Recognize the importance of organizing your space to your best advantage for studying.
- Avoid distractions in the space where you are studying.
- Understand the myth of multitasking and prevent distractions from your personal technology.
The Importance of Organizing Your Space
People’s moods, attitudes, and levels of work productivity change in different spaces. Learning to use space to your own advantage helps get you off to a good start in your studies. Here are a few of the ways space matters:
- You need your own space. This may seem simple, but everyone needs some physical area, regardless of size, that is really his or her own—even if it’s only a small part of a shared space. Within your own space, you generally feel more secure and in control. If you don’t have access to that at home or in your dormitory, ask around (staff and students) to find the quiet and secluded study spaces on campus.
- Physical space reinforces habits. For example, using your bed primarily for sleeping makes it easier to fall asleep there than elsewhere and makes it a poor place to try to stay awake and alert for studying.
- Different places create different moods. One study space may be bright and full of energy, with happy students passing through—a place that puts you in a good mood. But that may actually make it more difficult to concentrate. Yet the opposite—a totally quiet, austere place devoid of color and sound—can be just as unproductive. Everyone needs to discover what space works best for himself or herself—and then let that space reinforce good study habits.
What’s the Best Study Space for You?
Begin by analyzing your needs, preferences, and past problems with places for studying. Where do you usually study? What are the best things about that place for studying? What distractions are most likely to occur there?
The goal is to find, or create, the best place for studying, and then to use it regularly so that studying there becomes a good habit.
- Choose a place you can associate with studying. Make sure it’s not a place already associated with other activities (eating, watching television, sleeping, etc.). Over time, the more often you study in this space, the stronger will be its association with studying. Make it a pleasant-looking space so you don’t dread using it.
- Your study area should be available whenever you need it. If you want to use your home, apartment, or dorm room but you never know if another person may be there, then it’s probably better to look for another place. Look for locations open at the hours when you may be studying. You may also need two study spaces—maybe you study best at home but have an hour free between two classes.
- Your study space should meet your study needs. You’ll tire quickly if you try to write notes sitting in an easy chair or a bed (which might also make you sleepy). You need good light for reading to avoid tiring from eyestrain. If you use a laptop for writing notes or reading and researching, you need a power outlet so you don’t have to stop when your battery runs out.
- Your study space should meet your psychological needs. Some students may need total silence with absolutely no visual distractions; other students may be unable to concentrate without looking up from reading and letting their eyes move over a pleasant scene; some students may stay motivated when surrounded by other students. Experiment to find the setting that works best for you.
- You may need the support of others to maintain your study space. Students living at home, whether with a spouse and children or with their parents, often need the support of family members to maintain an effective study space. The kitchen table probably isn’t best if others pass by frequently. Be creative, if necessary, and set up a card table in a quiet corner of your bedroom or elsewhere to avoid interruptions. Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door.
- Keep your space organized and free of distractions. You want to prevent sudden impulses to neaten up the area (when you should be studying), do laundry, or other chores. Turn off your cell phone, and use your computer only as needed for studying. Turn off your email and message notifications.
- Plan for breaks. Everyone needs to take a break occasionally when studying. Think about the space you’re in and how to use it when you need a break. Stop and do a few exercises to get your blood flowing, or walk around the area and stretch.
- Prepare for human interruptions. Even if you hide in the library to study, there’s a chance a friend may happen by. At home with family members or in a dorm room or common space, the odds increase greatly. Have a plan ready in case someone pops in and asks you to join them in some fun activity. Know when you plan to finish your studying so that you can make a plan for later—or for tomorrow at a set time.
The Distractions of Technology
Multitasking is the term commonly used for being engaged in two or more different activities at the same time, usually referring to activities using devices such as cell phones, smartphones, computers, and so on. Many people who have grown up with computers consider this kind of multitasking a normal way to get things done, including studying. However, it’s an established fact that multitasking is a myth.
It is true that some things can be attended to while you’re doing something else, such as checking e-mail while you watch television news—but only when none of those things demands your full attention. You can concentrate 80 percent on the e-mail, for example, while 20 percent of your attention is listening for something on the news that catches your attention. Then you turn to the television for a minute, watch that segment, and go back to the e-mail. But you’re not actually watching the television at the same time you’re composing the e-mail—you’re toggling back and forth. In reality, the mind can focus only on one thing at any given moment. Even things that don’t require much thinking are severely impacted by multitasking, such as driving while talking on a cell phone or texting.
It actually takes you longer to do two or more things at the same time than if you do them separately—at least with anything that you actually have to focus on, such as studying.
The other problem with multitasking is the effect it can have on the attention span—and even on how the brain works. Research has shown that in people who constantly shift their attention from one thing to another in short bursts, the brain forms patterns that make it more difficult to keep sustained attention on any one thing (Levitin). So when you need to concentrate for a while on one thing, such as when studying for a big test, it becomes more difficult to do even if you’re not multitasking at that time. It’s as if your mind makes a habit of wandering from one thing to another and then can’t stop.
So stay away from multitasking whenever you have something important to do. Manipulate your study space to prevent the temptations. Turn your computer off, or shut down e-mail and messaging programs if you need the computer for studying. Turn your cell phone off—if you just tell yourself not to answer it but still glance at it each time to see who sent or left a message, you’re still losing your studying momentum and have to start over again. For those who are really addicted to technology (you know who you are!), go to the library and don’t take your laptop or cell phone.
What about listening to music while studying? Some don’t consider that multitasking, and many students say they can listen to music without it affecting their studying. But there’s a huge difference between listening to your favorite music and spontaneously singing along with some of the songs and enjoying soft background music that enhances your study space the same way as good lighting. Some find that they can only work in total silence, and some are so used to being immersed in music and the sounds of life that they find total silence more distracting—such people can often study well in places where people are moving around. The key thing is to be honest with yourself: if you’re actively listening to music while you’re studying, then you’re likely not studying as well as you could be. It will take you longer and lead to less successful results (Doraiswamy).
Family and Roommate Issues
Sometimes going to the library or elsewhere is not practical for studying, and you have to find a way to cope in a shared space.
Part of the solution is time management. Agree with others on certain times that will be reserved for studying; agree to keep the place quiet, not to have guests visiting, and to prevent other distractions. These arrangements can be made with a roommate, spouse, and older children. If there are younger children in your household and you have child-care responsibility, it’s usually more complicated. You may have to schedule your studying during their nap time or find quiet activities for them to enjoy while you study. The key is to plan ahead.
Finally, accept that sometimes you’ll just have to say “no.” If your friend often suggests doing something else when you need to study, be firm but polite as you explain that you just really have to get your work done first. Students who live at home may also have to learn how to say no to parents or family members. Remember, you can’t be everything to everyone all the time.