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. Is there any 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,” said 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. Read on to see what works.
Why it matters
- Time management is a key skill in high school 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.
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 (such as Wunderlist or Todoist).
- 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 in eight- to nine-hour work sessions.”
—Kaden, 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, Raleigh, 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.
“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, Dartmouth, Massachusetts
“Spotify and YouTube have a diverse amount of study music that I use when studying.”
—Nneoma, Lilburn, Georgia
“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, 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, according to 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, 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, Baltimore, Maryland
“I try to make sure that everything that I need for my homework or for studying is easily accessible so that I don’t need to stop working to get materials. I also find it very helpful to keep reference sheets for each subject on my desk so that I have access to them while working.”
—Sitnour, Boston, Massachusetts
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, fruit, 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.
“I like to eat ‘study foods’ like berries and other fruit to help my brain focus.”
—James, Palm Desert, California
“I have snacks and a drink handy so I don’t have an excuse to wander into the kitchen!”
—Whitney, Detroit, Michigan
Why it matters
- Phones, computers, and tablets are major sources of distraction. Even receiving a phone notification can impair attention, according to 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, according to the Journal of Media Education (2014).
- Phone notifications trigger dopamine reactions in the brain, similarly to stimuli like sugar, gambling, and talking to our crush. “We’re not really addicted to our cell phones 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 when academic demands are high.
“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, St. Mary’s City, Maryland
“[I] do any work that needs to be done online first, then [I put] away all electronics and finish the rest.”
—Kathryn, Boston, Massachusetts
“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, San Bernardino, California
“Setting time limits on electronics is a good idea.”
—Cindy, Boston, Massachusetts
Why it matters
- Life is stressful, and stress can be an enemy of focus. In a 2007 study of almost 10,000 students, 7 out of 10 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, yoga moves, 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, Raleigh, North Carolina
“Use sticky notes and install an app on the computer to remind you to take breaks.”
—Terence, Bothell, Washington
“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, Raleigh, 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 carpel tunnel syndrome.
- An upright posture is associated with better mood and lower stress compared to a 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 throughout 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.
- 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 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, Austin, Texas
“I sometimes sit on a yoga ball while I do homework to help me focus.”
—Erik, Boston, Massachusetts
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 home to the library) 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 desk. Keep work cues (schedule, laptop, textbooks) on your desk, and sleep cues (sleep-inducing novel, fluffy bunny) by your bed.
- If you’re slumping, try switching study locations.
“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, Johnson City, Tennessee
“Working away from your bed helps when you’re already tired and prone to falling asleep while working.”
—Annie, Boston, Massachusetts
“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, Raleigh, North Carolina
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