By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- 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 to prevent distractions from technology and increase your time in the flow zone.
Setting the Stage for Studying
People’s moods, attitudes, and levels of work productivity often change when they are in different spaces. That’s why it’s important for students to find or create study spaces that meet their needs and contribute to a positive learning environment.
Here are a few of the ways space matters:
- Physical space reinforces habits. Using your bed primarily for sleeping, for example, may make it easier to fall asleep yet less effective for studying. The reverse is true as well: studying in bed can lead to insomnia because that space becomes associated with the mental stimulation of learning, making it harder to unwind and relax at bedtime.
- Different places create different moods. One place on campus may be bright and full of energy with happy students passing through. Although it’s a place that puts students in a good mood, it may actually make it more difficult to concentrate. Yet the opposite is also true: a totally quiet, austere place devoid of color and sound can be just as unproductive if it makes you associate studying with something unpleasant.
Since study space can be a critical factor in college success, it’s worth the time and effort to evaluate your current study space and then adjust, relocate, or create alternative spaces so you can study and learn as effectively as possible.
Look at the spaces below. How do they make you feel? Use your reactions as a basis to begin determining where you study best.
Use Space to Your Advantage and to Avoid Distractions
Begin by analyzing your needs, preferences, available resources, and past study space problems to find or create the best place for you to study. Then, use it regularly so that studying there becomes a habit. Below are some guidelines to consider.
- Choose a place you can associate with studying. Make sure it’s not a place already associated with other activities (eating, watching television, sleeping, and so on). Over time, the more often you study in this space, the stronger its association with studying will become, and eventually you’ll be focused as soon as you reach that place and begin your work.
- 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 and possibly distract you, then it’s probably better to look for a back up, such as a study lounge or an area in the library.
- Your study space should meet your study needs. An open desk or table surface usually works best for writing. You need good light for reading to avoid tiring from eyestrain. Keep extra pens, pencils, highlighters, and paper on hand so you don’t have to leave your space to gather supplies.
- Your study space should meet your psychological needs. Some students may need total silence with absolutely no visual distractions; they may find a perfect study carrel hidden away on the fifth floor in the library. Other students may find it easier to stay motivated when surrounded by other students studying; they may find an open space in the library or a study lounge with many tables spread out over an area. Experiment to find the setting that works best for you.
- Keep your space organized and free of distractions. You want to prevent sudden impulses to neaten up the area, do laundry, wash dishes, and so on when you should be studying. Turn off your cell phone, and use your computer only as needed for studying.
- 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. If in your home, stop and do a few exercises to get your blood flowing. If in the library, take a walk up a couple flights of stairs and around the stacks before returning to your study area.
- 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 to meet up with your friends later.
The Distractions of Technology
Multitasking is the term commonly used for being engaged in two or more different activities at the same time, usually activities involving devices such as cell phones and computers. Many people claim to be able to do as many as four or five things simultaneously: they try writing an email while liking a post on Facebook and reading a tweet while watching a video on their computer or talking on the phone. Many people who have grown up with computers consider this kind of multitasking a normal way to get things done, including studying. Even people in business sometimes speak of multitasking as an essential component of today’s fast-paced world.
While it is true that some things can be attended to while you’re doing something else, such as checking email while you watch television news, it’s important to multitask only when none of those things demands your full attention. You can concentrate 80 percent on the email, 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 email. In reality, you’re not actually watching the television at the same time you’re composing the email; rather, you’re rapidly going back and forth. Studies have repeatedly shown that the mind can focus only on one thing at any given moment.
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. That’s true because each time you go back to studying after looking away to a message or tweet, it takes time for your mind to shift gears to get back to where you were. Every time your attention shifts, add up some more downtime, and pretty soon it’s evident that multitasking is costing you a lot more time than you think. And that’s assuming your mind does fully shift back to where you were every time without losing your train of thought or forgetting an important detail, which is pretty tough to do!
The flow zone is a mental space where work doesn’t feel as much like work. When you get into the flow zone, your mind is absorbed in the task and fully engaged. Flow doesn’t happen automatically. Deep concentration generally comes after 5 or 10 minutes of light concentration, and flow can only happen when you are concentrating deeply. Interruptions start the study cycle all over again, making it difficult to get back into the flow zone.
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. Studies are inconclusive about the positive or negative effects of music on people’s ability to concentrate, probably because so many different factors are involved. Some people can study better with low-volume instrumental music that relaxes them and does not intrude on their thinking while others can concentrate only in silence. The key thing is to be honest with yourself and find what works for you.
- Where you study can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your study efforts. Choose and organize your space to your advantage.
- How you control your study space can help you prevent distractions, especially those caused by other people or your personal technology.
- Attempting to multitask while studying diminishes the quality of your study time and results in a loss of time. Strive for flow.
1. Describe the characteristics of your ideal study space? How close is that ideal to your actual study space?
2. When do you experience the flow zone?
3. How can multitasking impact the flow zone?
Class discussion: Share stories about distractions that you and other students have experienced. Brainstorm together how to handle similar situations next time they arise.