If you spend enough time in a theater you’re bound to hear the word microcosm thrown about. The idea is to pretend what is happening on stage isn’t really on stage, instead its happening in its own separate world that the audience just happens to be watching. As an actor we would have to suspend our disbelief. The more we could better we could fool ourselves, the more convincing we would look to the audience. For example, its much easier to be an evil king if you’re wearing a crown. It gets even easier when you’re wearing the robes and holding an evil scepter. The effect just gets magnified as you change how the stage is set, the music, and accents of the other actors. All these factors work together symbiotically to make the audience forget they are in a theater.
We can apply a lot of these ideas to improve productivity as well. In the same way that it becomes easier to be an evil king with the right environment, so too can we be more productive if we set up our stage correctly. Today we’ll look at 4 Tips to Create Your Own Studying Microcosm.
1. Clean your desk
Occasionally you will here people talk about productive friction. The idea is everything that you have to do before you can be productive can slow you down much more than you think. For example something as small as bowl of food on your desk that you have to slide around in the course of your work could cause major setbacks. Every time you move the bowl you break your productive flow. This is what we in human factors engineering call an “Interrupting Task”. Even though the task doesn’t take long, your brain requires a fixed period to get back to the mode it was in. The messier your work space, the more frequent your interrupting tasks will be. By cleaning your desk you remove all of the little friction points that could stop you from being productive. Your desk can be digital as well. Take a minute when you can to clean the mess that is your computer desktop. Take all the miscellaneous pictures and shove them in a pictures folder, uninstall that game you haven’t touched since third grade, and consider making a folder the house all the shortcuts you don’t use too often. By removing all the clutter it will take much less time for you to get started on your work and will make it much easier to remain focused.
2. Study Music
Perhaps this topic is a little misleading. The important part is having an atmosphere that is right for you. Different people react differently to different genres. In my time I’ve seen people study to all kinds of music such as k-pop, rap, country, heavy metal, and (my favorite) Lo-Fi hip hop. The important part of finding the right music is to find something that doesn’t distract you. If your music is distracting you then it probably needs to be changed. Are you singing along while you work? You may be getting distracted. Low energy ambient music is always a great choice since it frequently lacks words for you to process. If you want to find playlists built for studying Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music all have playlists built for just that.
Now it is important to point out that the genre that could maximize your productivity may change based on your mood, the weather, weeks since your last workout, etc. One option that you should always remember is that no music is also an option. Under optimal conditions music can help a lot, but if you need the extra bandwidth then don’t hesitate to hit pause. Your songs will still be there when you’re done.
3. Close your door
Closing the door to your room can be a huge help. A massive source for distraction in college especially is roommates or friends walking in and tempting you away from your productive flow with quite literally anything else. We’ve already discussed how disruptive small interruptions can be, just image how rough it can be when Julia asks you to come watch a movie, or Kevin wants to play the newest video game (as of writing this article its Red Dead Redemption 2).
In the same way that we close our physical door, you also need to control your cellphone. Turn your ringer/buzzer to silent, and flip your phone screen down. Your messages will still be there when you’re done and you can finish so much faster without a text or notification knocking you off your game every 3-5 minutes. Finish your math then go crazy during your break. Which leads into my next point:
4. Take a break
“Wait wouldn’t this be the opposite of productivity?! Josh you must be crazy!” You would be justified for thinking this, but studies have shown that our brains can’t stay perfectly focused for an incredibly long time. In economics we discuss the concept of marginal cost/benefit. Not all hours of studying are equal. Your first hour or two will be much more productive than your eight or ninth hour straight. Every additional hour becomes less productive than the previous hours. Schedule a break every so often to give your brain time to rest so you can reset the marginal benefit of your next hour. While only you can pick the best times for breaks, you should be able to get a good chunk of work done between breaks. If your assignments aren’t too long you could slide in a natural 15 minute break between each assignment.
Remember that focus is a muscle you have to train. At first you may only be able to lift 20 minutes of studying at a time, but as you train your brain you will be able to build up to longer and longer periods of continuous productivity. Don’t get discouraged if you can’t stick your nose in a math book and only come up for air every two hours. Everyone has their own studying pace. Its a marathon not a sprint, don’t burn yourself out.
Putting it all together
Much like the props and costumes mentioned earlier these four tips won’t force you to be productive, but they make it so much easier. Clean that desk, put on your favorite playlist, lock your phone, and make sure you take breaks when needed. Show your work who’s really the boss.