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Education Productivity

Optimizing Environments for Studying and Other Things

“There are nearly endless opportunities to improve each day and finding them largely boils down to being curious. People who are better, in the end, are usually curious in the beginning.” 

James Clear (Author of Atomic Habits)

“Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.”

William A. Foster (United States Marine & Medal of Honor Recipient)

A huge part of being socialized is being able to regulate our emotions and there are tons of ways to do this. Exercise, diet, meditation, vices, art, work, etc. But the most effective way to regulate our emotions is to regulate our environment.

The best way to not be stressed is to stay away from stressful places.

The Best Study Environments

If you’ve read my other posts on studying, I frequently emphasize learning principles to design systems that work best for ourselves. One of the fundamental principles for creating the best study environments is known as State-dependent Learning. This is the idea that people can more easily recall information if their physical or mental state is the same as their time of encoding.

This suggests that our physical and mental states are influenced by our environment. For example, when students are in a classroom they may be feeling more alert and aware than at home which influences how they encode and recall.

When I was younger, I noticed that I was much better at math inside my math class than at home or anywhere else. In class, I was sharp as a tack but the second I was anywhere else, it took me more than twice as long to answer the same questions. I didn’t understand it then, but now I know that it was because I learned the material in that classroom, everything about the classroom became subconsciously associated with the material. When I took in all the stimuli from the classroom (i.e. decorations of the class or the arrangement of the chairs) I was able to fire the specific neural pathways faster because of all the cues affecting my internal state. I could still fire the same neural pathway at home, it just took a little more energy and time because I didn’t have all the external cues from the classroom (where I encoded the information) influencing my internal states or acting as anchors for recognition.

Implement Cues

When we’re getting started it’s nice to have a cue that lets us know when it’s time to get to work. Cues are the 1st stage of the habit cycle and are crucial in creating (or destroying) habits.

When I was in high school, I had a small study lamp that would click whenever I turned it on. Since I had so many days where I sat at that desk and did my homework, I created a subconscious connection between the click of the lamp and getting to work. It’s like once the lamp clicked, so did my mind and I was ready to study.

The click of the lamp was my cue to get started.

Now, the cue doesn’t have to be a click of a lamp. It can be anything really, as long as we associate it with studying or getting to work.

In college, I had a study playlist that would get me into full flow once it got going. After college, I created new playlists with different kinds of music. (Today, the Hamilton instrumentals have been keeping me on track). However, cues can be more than auditory. It’s also lighting and position, the decorations in the room, smells., or tastes.

Any and all of our senses can be used to create cues that trigger our habit cycles.

Simulate the Test Enviornment

This is one of the most fundamental principles for creating a study environment. There have been studies that show studying in an environment similar to test helps with remembering. This is, in part, because of the cues and state-dependent learning. While we’re learning, the signals from the room are subconsciously connected to the concepts, and seeing those signals may help trigger the neural pathway we want. This is partly why I suggest that silence is better than music while studying because we usually take tests when it’s silent.

Simulating the test environment gets more important as we get closer to the exam date. Now, I want to emphasize that it’s still possible to study in a completely different environment and perform well on an exam. It would require more effort and active recall, but it still works. Studying in a similar environment as the test simply makes things easier to recall later.

Routines

Location and time matter. Learning in the same place makes it easier to encode and retain information. Recalling that information would be even easier if we tried to remember it in the same place that we learned it.

This is partly why I performed so well in high school. I had a rigid schedule where I learned the same subjects every day at the same time in the same place. I noticed that students had a hard time retaining information during distance learning and part of that was because many of the students took it upon themselves to do their work “whenever they felt like it.”

While I’m a huge proponent of people creating their own schedules, without a routine our brain will have a more difficult time filing that information away.

Let me give an example: if we learn math in the morning at our kitchen table, then we will subconsciously associate the kitchen with that specific math concept. Now, let’s say we learn the next topic at the kitchen table again. Our brain will create a little folder in our minds where we associate learning math at the kitchen table and it will be a litter easier next time to learn math there. But let’s say we decide to do our math assignments in the evening in the living room. We’ll notice that we’re still able to do the lesson, but there will be slight resistance. Our brain will have a harder time recalling the math concepts when we’re in a different location or at a different time. This may not seem like much, but over time we’ll have to put in significantly more energy just to keep it all straight.

Music

So here’s the deal with music and studying. Studying in silence is better for two main reasons:

1) We can dedicate more of our cognitive load to the course material

2) We are simulating the test environment by studying in silence. In almost every exam I’ve taken, it was silent so it helps to have silence associated with the concepts, at least in preparation for the test.

But if I have to be honest, I love studying and working to music.

Music is a huge part of my life and it brings me so much pleasure.

Yes, there is a slight productivity hit from studying to music but I think it’s worth it if it makes the experience a little more enjoyable. I’m all about prioritizing my experience of the process over productivity.

If I’m constantly excited and enjoy the process, then I’m naturally going to be working more often.

So I want to get into which music is best for studying. Typically songs with lyrics tend to distract our minds. Even if we aren’t trying to pay attention to the lyrics, our minds will be subconsciously trying to decode the messages in the songs which takes up a significant amount of cognitive load. So studying while listening to music without lyrics or instrumentals is the best of both worlds.

Additionally, songs with more rhythmic qualities tend to be more distracting than songs with less. So I recommend listening to songs with relatively little drum instrumentation. Unfortunately, this means one of my favorite genres, hip hop, isn’t ideal for studying. I tend to work and study to classical or movie scores.

Listening to music also helps mask feelings of effort, our brains release dopamine when we listen to music which helps with our reward systems. Music has also been proven to have an analgesic effect, so it literally hurts less to study with music on.

Lighting

The best lighting for studying is a well-lit room where everything is easy to see. Low or dim light makes it difficult to see and it also signals to our brain that it’s time to go to bed. In low lighting, we’re extremely susceptible to slipping into stage 1 of sleep. Our brain emits alpha waves and lowers our levels of mental arousal. This prevents us from focusing or paying attention as well as we could.

If lighting the entire room isn’t feasible, I recommend having a study lamp that at least illuminates the workspace. Not only for the lighting but having something that’s associated with just studying helps with creating habit-forming cues.

Desks

Sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter which team you’re on. Naturally, we don’t want to sit for long periods of time, but we also don’t want to study for long periods of time either.

I’ve seen a lot of conflicting stuff when it comes to sitting vs. standing desks, but I recommend splitting up studying into modified Pamadoros and getting up and walking around, changing up the environment a little bit during the breaks. I don’t think the issue lies in which desk we have, but in doing things for long periods of time when we’re designed to switch things up every once in a while.

The desk needs to have adequate space to work. It also should be inviting and functional. When I finish my work, I try to clean up my workspace so it’s nice and clean which encourages me to get to work the next time. When my space is cluttered (which is when I’m in the middle of projects), I’m less likely to work again. I call cleaning my workspace after I finish resetting to zero. I try to do it whenever I can because it helps me hit the ground running the next time.

Libraries vs. Coffee Shops

Which is better for studying? This depends on a few different things:

1) Our goals and where we are in relation to it.

Let’s say we’re learning something new, the deadlines are pretty far away, and we have a study group that wants to meet at a coffee shop. Sure! This would probably work. But let’s say we’re not really strong on the material and the test is coming up in a few days, then we should probably spend some time in the library alone running through active recall drills. For me personally, I used libraries to learn new information and coffee shops to review old information. Where we are and where we want to go play a huge role in how we choose or design our environments.

2) Our internal states.

Renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman, says our brains are constantly determining if our internal states are aligned with our external surroundings. We can think of the library as quiet and still while the coffee shops are busy and loud. If our internal state is still and quiet, then studying at a library may be our best bet. If we’re feeling a little more stimulated and anxious, maybe studying at a coffee shop would be better for us because we will have that matching of the internal and external.

Discover how we feel and go to the place that matches that.

For some, knowing how we are feeling can be a difficult thing. Mindfulness practices are great for developing the skills and abilities to identify what we’re feeling. Making the best choices for ourselves always starts with knowing what we want and need.

Study Groups vs. Studying Alone

I’ve written a post on Group Studying vs. Solo Studying that goes over the 80/20 on that subject, but bottom line is that each has its advantages and it depends on what we want to accomplish. I recommend studying alone if you are learning the material for the first time or if you’re still shaking on most of the main ideas. Groups can be powerful for reviewing content that we are already familiar with or learning how to approach 1 or 2 main ideas.

Know what’s needed and plan accordingly.

More On Environments

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome, Stoic Philosopher, & Author of Meditations)

Environmental influence is nontrivial and determines our constraints, but it also goes deeper than what’s physically around us. Our environment has physical, social, and mental components.

Our physical environmental influence consists of all the tangible aspects around us. This includes, but is not limited to, the location, lighting, desk, and music. Changing our physical environment is probably the easiest to change compared to mental and social environments. Spending some time cleaning or reorganizing will usually do the trick.

Our social environments are created by the people involved in our pursuits. The people may be in our physical space or not, they could be involved with the project from afar, or they could even be consumers. The thing to keep in mind is that the social influences of our environment come from our relationships with those people. Tending to the relationships, or adjusting our perception of the relationships is our key to optimizing our social environment.

Our mental environmental influences consist of all the nontangibles and other things floating around in our heads. If we can remember that our environment isn’t just what is around us, but also what is goes on in our minds, then it’s a little easier to determine what is part of our mental environment. Optimizing our mental space is a little more difficult than our physical space. In order to do this, we have to adopt new philosophies and perspectives. I highly recommend Stoic philosophy for this. However, the most influential factor of our mental environment is our perception of the physical space. Our perceptions are within our control and with some practice, we can shift our perceptions so they create an environment better suited for our pursuits.

Our environments influence us and determine our constraints, to an extent, but our perceptions could transform an otherwise destructive environment into something supportive.

“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.”

Marcus Aurelius (Emperor of Rome, Stoic Philosopher, & Author of Meditations)

The key to controlling our environment is finding the strength to accept that our interpretation of our environment is just one of many and to actively seek a framework that transforms the challenges of today into what makes us phenomenal.

There are infinite ways to perceive something and if we’re in a position where our environment seems to be crushing us, then our only way out is to look for other ways to see the situation.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)

Our environments are a combination of what’s going outside of us, but also inside as well. As long as we know ourselves and what we want to accomplish, we have the power to transform our environments into beautiful places, or at least less miserable places.