Habits are best formed when we have clear and distinct cues that trigger us to begin the behavior we desire. For example, if we are trying to exercise more, we are more likely to do so, if we set an exact time of day to exercise. This cue, the time of day, will trigger us to perform the behavior in the future.
When creating cues for new habits, it is also important to think of the location. Going to a gym is the easiest location for exercise, but we can also use a specific spot in our house if we do not have a gym membership. Now that we have a specific location, our brains are primed to relate that location and that time of day with exercise creating a “craving” or desire to perform the behavior and thus making a habit of exercising easier to build.
Now, when we plan to study we tend to not think of it in terms of being a habit, but it most certainly is. To study effectively you need to create new habits or strengthen existing ones. The pandemic has thrown our old study habits for a loop. If you previously studied in the library, in a campus dining hall, in a coffee shop, at a friend’s house, then you may be unable to study in these locations right now. This effects the habit feedback loop and now you’re brain is confused on when and where it is supposed to study. Your old habits have been disrupted.
So what to do about it? Create new habit cues that will trigger you to study. Set specific times of the day that you will study. Being specific here is key. Either schedule exact times, I will study at 2:00 PM every day for one hour, or I will study at 9:00 AM, 12:00 PM and 3:00 PM for a half an hour each time.
Then move on to finding the right location. This is the tricky part for studying during the pandemic. Likely, you are now relegated to studying in your bedroom, your living room or the kitchen counter. Since your options may be smaller, the trick here will be to make the options you do have more attractive to studying. Let’s say you are studying in your bedroom, this seems to be the most common for college students right now. Studying on your bed is a bad idea. Why? Well your bed is already associated with other habits: sleeping, watching TV, looking at your phone, or whatever else you do.
It is difficult to make the clear division of this is where I work and this is where I live when you are working from home, or even from a single bedroom. But it's not impossible. Think about living in a dorm. That is severely restricted space, but you cram a bed, a desk, a bookshelf, and even a refrigerator in there. The same can be done in whatever small space you're working with at home. Define different parts of the living space to allow your brain to organize and separate the tasks performed in each space the best you can. This will lead you to creating better study habits and to working more efficiently in the space you’ve created.
If you are working in your bedroom or living room, find a space, if you have it, that is not already associated with other behaviors. Even a small area on the floor is preferable since it is likely not already used for other tasks. If you have space for a small desk or table that would be ideal. You can find cheap, and even free, desks and tables online. At the beginning of the pandemic I bought a small used desk on Facebook Marketplace for $25 and though it’s not perfect and it’s falling apart, it has lasted me 10 months so far!
Set up this space that you choose as a study area. Place your laptop here, your books, your notebooks, your planner, your journal, pens, whatever you use to study. Design this space for studying only. That means, do not put other stuff here. Try not to throw your laundry on top of it or make it your dining space (though you may eat here when working). Make this space as specific to studying/working as you can. Doing this will wire your brain to associate this specific space with learning and working. That way when you have set your specific study time and sat down at this specific location, your brain will be more ready to work and you won’t waste any time.
If you are working in a more limited space, like a dining room or kitchen counter use the space only for work during your study/work hours and only for eating during eating hours. This may require more maneuvering, but you can set up your workspace, laptop, pens, textbooks, and find a carrying case that you can load and unload from easily. This way it can transform from dining space to desk within minutes and can be packed up and cleared away when it's time to define the space for eating. Your brain will be able to adjust to when it is time to think of the space in one way (working) to another way (eating) by the appearance cues you've given it.
Though having to work from home is not ideal, there are small improvements to each space that can be done to make it more effective for learning. Remember, to define spaces clearly so that studying is done in one location of the room/house and living is done in other parts. Your brain craves knowing when and where it will perform certain tasks. Create your space to make this easier for your brain to process and more effective and dare I say, relaxing studying will follow.