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, a behavioral 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 takes a while to master.
- College 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, color-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.
“What makes the biggest difference to productivity is if I can manage my time appropriately so that I only have to put in a few highly productive hours more regularly, rather than cram eight- to nine-hour work sessions.”
—Kaden F., second-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
“Having a desk calendar has been an enormous help to me. There’s a column designated for projects, one for to-dos, and one for general notes. In addition to having all of my important dates handy while I’m working, having a list of things that need to be done contributes to getting work done in a timely manner.”
—Kendall H., first-year undergraduate, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina
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 favorite genres.
“Noise control is key. Find a nice background noise, something that won’t distract you, but fills in the gaps and keeps your brain active. Thunderstorms are a good one.”
—Robert L., second-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
“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, Canada
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.)
- Color 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 color, try a solid-color wall hanging, poster, board, or screen above your desk.
“I try to keep my desk pretty clutter-free so I don’t have the urge to pick something else up. It also makes focusing on the screen a lot easier because I’m not seeing a bunch of decorations and stuff lying around that I could stare at and get no work done.”
—Justin S., first-year undergraduate, University of Maryland
“The most helpful strategy is to have everything on my desk organized and available (pens, highlighters, flash cards, sticky notes, you name it) because I don’t want anything to interrupt my academic flow by making me go get it.”
—Harmony J., second-year undergraduate, Del Mar College, Texas
Why it matters
- Hunger, dehydration, and low blood sugar are major distractions. 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 like to eat ‘study foods’ like berries and other fruit to help my brain focus.”
—James A., second-year graduate student, College of the Desert, California
“I have snacks and a drink handy so I don’t have an excuse to wander into the kitchen!”
—Whitney N., graduate student, Wayne State University, Michigan
“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, Canada
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 behavior.
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 hit a deadline? Give yourself a tech reward for getting it done, such as 20 minutes of scrolling through your Instagram feed.
“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
“I have an app on my phone that locks certain apps so all I can use it for is music and the timer. This helps me concentrate.”
—Jessica N., fourth-year undergraduate, California State University, San Bernardino
“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, Canada
“I tend to leave my phone in another room and on vibrate when I sit down to do work or study. It helps immensely to bring my concentration to a focus.”
—Sonya M., fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
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. Try stretching, doing some yoga moves or jumping jacks, or taking 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
“Use sticky notes and install an app on the computer to remind you to take breaks.”
—Terence H., second-year undergraduate, University of Washington Bothell
“Get one of those adult coloring books! If I finish a question or set of questions, I then reward myself with coloring 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.
- On the phone, put the phone on speaker and set it down, or 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).
“[My best strategy] is working at an adjustable desk that allows me to stand.”
—Candace R., first-year undergraduate, Austin Community College, Texas
“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 (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.
- 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 the 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.
“Don’t work where you eat or sleep or do any other activity. Instead of working, you think about eating or sleeping, because that’s what you normally do in that space. Have a separate space for work.”
—Gabrielle L., third-year undergraduate, East Tennessee State University
“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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