Study in the quiet places

Warning: this post isn't about college admissions per se. It is, however, about study advice that is useful for both high school and college students. I hope that's close enough.

I've recommended a few books by Cal Newport before. I still follow his blog, Study Hacks, even though what he writes about now has moved away from students and studying. He's focused on productivity, "deep work," and analytic answers to human work problems. His October 27th blog post is about a Silicon Valley software company who studied the noisiness in their typical open-plan office and then rearranged the layout. After getting data on the loudest and quietest parts of the office, they moved the groups that needed more collaboration (like sales) to the noisy areas, and they moved the groups needing more concentration (like design) to the quieter parts. Once they shifted the employees to their new areas, they found a huge and immediate increase in people working. The extra productivity gained from the new layout, they claim, was equal to hiring 10-15 employees. (Here is Newport's blog post, and here is the company's blog post about the experiment.)

You're not a software company, but you still want to improve your productivity, which means getting more useful things done in less time. As a student, one of the best things you can do for both the quality of your study time and how much study time you need is follow the company's lead and find quiet places for concentration. This may sound obvious, but I know from years of teaching that lots of students try to do their studying in loud and distracting places. (Extreme example: I once saw a student doing AP Calculus homework at her senior prom.)

So here's a rule to begin following right now if you haven't already started: when you need to concentrate, study in quiet places. You'll understand more material in less time.

Finding the best places in your school, home, or neighborhood might take a little patience.

I spent two years as a graduate student at SMU, and I often went to the library for reading or grading student essays. I knew better than to try sitting in the cushy, comfy chairs right off the lobby. A chair that encourages sleep in a noisy area is the worst of both worlds. I figured the periodicals storage down in the basement would be good, because who searches through physical periodicals any more? But there were big long tables down there. And, especially on Sunday nights, there would often be large "study groups" hanging out. As far as I could tell, very little studying happened. But I'm pretty sure there was some drinking going on.

So I tried the opposite approach and went up to the top floor. It was pretty quiet, and I almost always got a whole table to myself to spread out my books or folders of essays to grade. Still, I thought I could do better. I tried using the art school library instead of the big main library. It had more natural light, fewer people, and it was closer to my classes and professors' offices. But studying in the art library I was also surrounded by beautiful books with beautiful art in them, so it proved too distracting.

Then I found the perfect place. At some point SMU expanded their library by basically building a new one connected to the old, smaller one. You could go through doors to the old library, but there was nothing in the old library section except shelves of books and study carrels. Hardly anybody went in there. And here's the good part: the new library had taller ceilings than the old library, so the floors didn't match up. Two buildings, roughly the same height, but one had two more floors than the other. That meant that there was at least one floor of the old library that you could only get to by using a narrow staircase, basically a hidden floor. And man, was it quiet and empty. I almost never saw anyone else there. A few times I saw other people who had found it as a study spot. Once I walked in on a couple making out. One night there was a guy asleep--in a sleeping bag he'd brought--surrounded by books and a computer. That hidden floor became my study spot. 

Whether you're a high school or college student, you should do the same. When you need to read, study, or review, do it in a quiet place where you can concentrate. Scope out places  where you can do this. A high school library at lunch time is often a bad place, because it's often a pretty social place.

If you need to have a little background noise--lots of people can't concentrate in a place that's too quiet--then make yourself a study playlist, and listen to it while you study. Do whatever works for you, but I recommend music without words and a fairly steady beat. If you’re going to go with something classical, use highly-structured works like those from Mozart or Bach. I like electronic music for a work playlist. Hip-hop instrumental albums work great. Once you’ve made a playlist, stick with it. The more your brain associates those songs with being in a productive mode, the more your brain will automatically go into a productive mode when it hears those songs (it’s the musical version of Pavlov’s Dog). After a while, you won’t even hear the music when you play it, and that’s the point.

If you do homework and study in your bedroom, that's great. But do not do homework on your bed! You have the same Pavlovian response, but it's a mixed message. Your brain doesn't know whether you should be sleeping or thinking, and this can interfere with both your studying and your sleep.

Do you have any study tips for improving productivity? Feel free to leave a comment.

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