You’re ready to study, for real this time. You sit at your desk and rub the ache at the back of your neck. Your phone chirps. Your friend sent you a video of a koala eating a leaf. Actually, you’re hungry. You head for the kitchen. Did you buy cereal?
The modern world is so full of shiny things that distraction can be a major, ongoing impediment to productive work. “We think that we make decisions on our own, but the environment influences us to a great degree,” says Dr. Dan Ariely, Behavioural Economist at Duke University in North Carolina (speaking to Eric Barker of the awesome blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree). “Because of that, we need to think about how to change our environment.”
By controlling your environment, you can improve your focus. You can also control your physical and mental comfort and stamina and the likelihood that your assignment will make the deadline.
Click through the image to see what works.
Why it matters
- Time management is a key skill in college and university and takes a while to master.
- Students who perceived that they controlled their time had better performance, better life satisfaction, and fewer job-induced tensions than students with less control of their time, reported the Journal of Educational Psychology (1990).
What to do
- Dedicate your most productive time of day to tasks requiring memory, concentration, and alertness. For many of us, our peak productivity window starts about two hours after we wake up and lasts two and a half hours, says Dr. Ariely. Your own body clock may be different.
- Find a task management system that works for you, such as a wall calendar, daily planner, Kanban board, or app (try Todoist or Wunderlist).
- On your calendar, colour-code the timeframe for each project (e.g., a blue band spanning from the date the history paper was assigned to the date it’s due). In a 2014 study by the Journal of Consumer Research, this simple technique helped people meet their deadlines.
“I have a desk calendar to view all of my due dates and other planned events to help with time management. Inspirational quotes also keep me motivated.”
—Jacalyn P., third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
Why it matters
- Loud or sudden noises can easily break concentration. The effect of noise on learning is somewhat individualized. Some people find background music or white noise helpful for focus; others find it distracting.
- Music can stimulate our thinking and sustain our attention for some study tasks, according to a study in Learning and Individual Differences (2012). Avoid musical distractions, however, such as loud, fast beats; lyrics; and drama. Also good to know: Music may make it more difficult to memorize a sequence of facts (Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2011).
What to do
- Close the window, turn off or silence your phone, and work in a quiet, uncrowded area.
- Experiment with different levels of background music and sound to figure out what works best for you. Try a white noise app, such as White Noise or Coffitivity.
- In a survey by Student Health 101, students who found that music helped them study recommended instrumentals, classical, jazz, electronic, and film soundtracks. Try making a Pandora station or Spotify playlist of your favourite genres.
“Incorporate music that’s good for background noise but doesn’t have any kind of vocals in the tracks.”
—Samantha F., fourth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
“For me, sometimes music can help; other times (writing English and listening to songs in English), it can be distracting.”
—Tiantian Z., third-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
“I personally find that music without lyrics works best, especially when I’m writing something. It can be hard to focus on coming up with intelligent words when you’re listening to someone else’s words!”
—Elliece R., third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
Why it matters
- Too much stuff on your desk is a hazard to focus, says the Journal of Neuroscience (2011). (For most of us, that is; some of us screen it out just fine.)
- Colour matters too, research suggests. White walls are bad for productivity, say researchers at the University of Texas. Red may provide helpful stimulation for detailed tasks, blue may promote creativity and communication, and green may be good for creativity and problem-solving, according to a study at the University of British Columbia (2009).
What to do
- Declutter! Keep stuff you’re not using—books, plates, trash—out of your workspace and out of your line of sight.
- Experiment with light: Some people prefer natural sunlight, while other people work better with artificial light, or a combination of both.
- Position a couple of items in your line of sight that keep you calm and focused, like a visual schedule or a comforting photo.
- It may not be practical to repaint. To experiment with colour, try a solid-colour wall hanging, poster, board, or screen above your desk.
“I have to be in an organized, clean, and quiet area with no disruptions. For example, my desk at home has to be clean and organized. The room has to also be clean, and I need to shut the door so I don’t hear anyone in my house and/or wear earplugs.”
—Christina T., third-year undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario
“I have trouble getting organized because I have ADHD. If there’s too much clutter and I have to do something specific, I dump it in a box and come back to it later. Has worked for years.”
—Joseph K., fifth-year undergraduate, MacEwan University, Alberta
“I want a clean, organized space—or at least a space I know where everything is. It helps me control my surroundings, and in turn gives me confidence in my ability to control my assignment or test outcome.”
—Bogdan R., fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta
Why it matters
- Hunger, dehydration, and low blood sugar are major distractions and can be dangerous. Low glucose levels impair memory and focus, according to a 2011 study in Nutrition Research.
- Even mild dehydration can interfere with focus, according to the Journal of Nutrition (2012).
What to do
- Snack on vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts. The nutrients in these food groups are natural energy boosters, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- Avoid sugar: Sugary foods can provide bursts of energy but can leave you more tired than you were before, says a 2006 study in Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental.
- Drink coffee early: Caffeine is OK until 3 p.m. Caffeine consumed within six hours of going to bed has an adverse effect on sleep, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (2013).
“I need some sort of beverage and plenty of snacks. I feel like it really helps my brain work.”
—Marie-Claire M., second-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology
“I like to make sure I have good lighting and healthy snacks.”
—Adrienne E., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario
“I always fill up a water bottle or make a cup of tea before sitting down to study.”
—Lindsay M., fifth-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario
Why it matters
- Phones, computers, and tablets are major sources of distraction. Even receiving a phone notification can impair attention, reports the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2015).
- More than 80 percent of students acknowledge that their gadgets interfere with their learning, and one in four says this hurts their grades, reports the Journal of Media Education (2014).
- Phone notifications trigger dopamine reactions in the brain, similarly to stimuli like sugar, gambling, etc. “We’re not really addicted to our cell phones [the object] per se, but to the activities on our phones,” says Dr. James Roberts of Baylor University in Texas, who specializes in the psychology of consumer behaviour.
What to do
- Set your phone to silent or turn it off, and keep it out of your line of sight.
- Log out of social media and entertainment sites.
- Keep TVs and game systems turned off. If Netflix is your weakness, avoid starting a new season of a show when academic demands are high or imminent.
- Just crushed a deadline? Give yourself a tech reward for getting it done, such as 20 minutes of scrolling through your Instagram feed.
“I actively remove anything that could possibly distract me (phone, TV, etc.). If it’s there, I’m too tempted to use it, so I remove the temptation.”
—Courtney K., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario
“I use browser extensions to block myself off from distracting websites for a certain amount of time. I can’t go on Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, or Netflix for the next hour, and when that hour’s up, I can take a break from work.”
—Rebecca R., third-year undergraduate, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
“The ‘do not disturb’ function on the iPhone is incredibly useful while studying!”
—Laura B., fourth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
Why it matters
- Life is stressful, and stress can be an enemy of focus. In a 2007 study of almost 10,000 students at 14 colleges, seven out of ten students reported that they were stressed, and students who reported a high number of stressors had lower GPAs than those who didn’t.
- However, students who felt able to handle their stress performed much better academically than those who didn’t, suggesting that learning stress-management techniques is key to student success, said researchers at the University of Minnesota.
What to do
- Schedule regular breaks to keep from getting overwhelmed or burned out.
- Scheduled breaks are a good time to get up and move. Do some stretching, do some yoga moves or jumping jacks, or take a quick walk. Even a 15-minute walk can give you an energy boost.
- Make sure your five-minute break doesn’t drag into an hour: Keep your environmental controls in place to help you stay on task. Time-management apps can help.
“Once every half-hour, walk around, take a break, or do something other than what you’re doing.”
—Santos U., second-year student, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina
“Set goals and take periodic breaks.”
—Marley G., third-year undergraduate, University of Guelph-Humber, Ontario
“Get one of those adult colouring books! If I finish a question or set of questions, I then reward myself with colouring part of it in, then I move on to another part of my homework and repeat.”
—Morgan B., first-year undergraduate, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina
Why it matters
- Slumping over your laptop gets uncomfortable and can lead to eye strain and musculoskeletal disorders, including repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Upright posture is associated with better mood and lower stress compared to slouched posture, reports Health Psychology (2015).
What to do
The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), which promotes safer workplaces, recommends these evidence-based strategies:
- Switch your body position several times through the day.
- Position your keyboard directly in front of you at elbow height so you can type with straight wrists. An adjustable-height keyboard tray can help with this.
- If you’re on the phone, use a phone headset; don’t tuck your ear to your shoulder.
- Try not to tense your neck and shoulder muscles. Do short stretching exercises for your neck and shoulders frequently.
- Alternate tasks and get up every so often.
- If you’re able to, invest in a good ergonomic chair. Alternatively, if your chair doesn’t support the curve of your spine, try using a small pillow or towel roll to relieve pressure on your lower back.
- Bonus tip: Experiment with alternatives to traditional desk chairs, such as exercise balls (for sitting on) or standing desks, or alternate between a ball and chair. Standing desks and treadmill desks may improve both cholesterol and mood, according to a study in Preventive Medicine (2015).
“Having a proper chair and good lighting are important for a good workspace.”
—Graham H., fourth-year undergraduate, Campion College, Saskatchewan
“[My best strategy] is working at an adjustable desk that allows me to stand.”
—Candace R., first-year undergraduate, Austin Community College, Texas
“Getting a more comfortable desk chair allowed me to have better posture.”
—Elaine D., second-year undergraduate, St. Clair College, Ontario
“It’s all about the environment: adequate light (task lighting in addition to ambient light); good setup for posture for my neck, hips, and low back; white noise and no conversing or music with words; and cooler temp 20–21°C (68–69˚F) with good ventilation.”
—Andey N., third-year graduate student, Portland State University, Oregon
Why it matters
- Working from bed primes your brain to be awake there, which can interfere with sleep later, according to the National Sleep Foundation in the US.
- Interrupted or inadequate sleep seriously affects performance—impairing learning, memory, and grades, according to a 2014 study in Nature and Science of Sleep.
- Lack of sleep makes us oblivious to just how poorly we’re doing. That’s according to a 2003 study published in Sleep. Even as the study participants became less able to sustain their attention and succeed at working memory tasks, they insisted they had adjusted to the shorter sleep hours.
- Mixing up where you study (e.g., transferring from the library to a café) can help you remember your material, according to a 2008 study in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
What to do
- Have a designated workspace away from your bed; this helps your mind recognize the difference between work time and rest time.
- If you have to work in your bedroom, physically separate your bed and your workspace. Keep work cues (schedule, laptop, textbooks) on your desk, and sleep cues (slumberous novel, fluffy bunny) by your bed.
- If you’re slumping, try switching study locations. Maybe move to the student lounge or library.
“I keep my bed a work free area and only study at my desk. This allows me to relax more easily when going to bed.”
—Emily T., third-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta
“Use an actual desk. The [fewer] distractions one has, the more productive. Having to constantly readjust that pillow for back support on your bed is distracting.”
—Name withheld, first-year undergraduate, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina
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