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Creating your best work environment: a practical guide

Hey Gaels,

Congrats on making it through another midterm season! No matter how difficult the last few weeks may have been, be sure to congratulate yourself for getting through them. The last two weeks of grad school were the most hectic to date, but I did my best to maintain a healthy work-life balance and also took breaks whenever possible. With school looking a little lighter post-midterms, I am hoping to schedule more frequent breaks to get away from prolonged periods of sitting.

On that note: do you ever wonder how many hours you spend at your work area every day (or night, if you’re anything like me)?

This question came to mind because almost all my waking hours last week were spent at my desk preparing for the upcoming wave of midterms. Unfortunately, my experience is not uncommon, nor is it exclusive to midterm season — COVID has forced us to accept virtual learning as the new normal, and this shift has made it very difficult to separate work from the rest of our lives. I would even argue that the shift toward online learning predates the pandemic. Indeed, more and more courses are starting to incorporate a blended learning model of delivery that replaces traditional in-person classroom components with new virtual components.


Considering how much time we now spend studying behind a computer screen, it is more important than ever for us to cultivate our optimal work environment. So, how can we go about improving our study space? Read on for my suggestions:


  1. Plan to avoid distractions

If you are anything like me, even the slightest distractions—from unwanted background noise to YouTube videos—can turn promising study sessions into productivity slumps. It often helps to identify sources of distraction ahead of time so you can make plans to avoid them. For example, if you anticipate being in a busy environment, such as the first floor of Stauffer Library, consider investing in ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones. My biggest procrastination trigger is my phone, so I have found that simply turning my phone off or keeping it out of sight during a study session can save me from hours of useless scrolling. Once there are no longer multiple stimuli in your environment fighting for your attention, it becomes much easier to lock in on your coursework and nothing else.  


  1. Keep your studying ergonomic

Ergonomic study spaces maximize productivity by minimizing any physical discomfort associated with studying. If possible, consider investing in a high-quality office chair (or looking on Facebook, Kijiji, etc. for a cheap/free one!) that helps you keep your spine neutral and your shoulders back, and be sure to adjust the brightness of your computer screen to reduce eyestrain. I also have noticed that my neck is least strained when my laptop is at eye level — if you cannot adjust your seat height, then consider changing the height of your laptop by adding/removing textbooks underneath it. Finally, be sure to avoid the temptation of studying in bed! I learned first-hand last year that any improvements in comfort are offset by a loss in productivity.


  1. Organize your study materials

Because it is easy to feel overwhelmed when your desk is cluttered, I recommend creating a mental list of everything that you will need (and nothing more) for a given study session. This approach informs me on how I should set up my physical work environment. For example, I typically reserve the top of my desk for resources that I will constantly be using (pencils, notebook, and laptop) while leaving less relevant materials (textbooks and binders) in my bag beside me.

Lonely rower in the sea and caption "Perseverance"

        4. Surround yourself with sources of motivation.

Whether it be a from a particular music playlist, a set of posters, or an inspirational quote, we all have our own ways of uplifting ourselves. The same methods can be applied to reduce the inertia associated with studying. For example, I always keep an hourglass on my desk for the simple yet potent reminder: “Time is passing, and passing irreversibly.” That realization alone is often enough to snap me out of procrastination.

Now that your environment is good to go, it’s time to get studying!

See you next time – Shahnawaz