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  • Matthew Tsui

Adjusting for Success in the Midst of Coronavirus

The past six months have indeed been an unprecedented time. As coronavirus cases increased throughout the nation, daily life was changed as schools, workplaces, and public spaces were forced to shutter. A Pew Research survey found that nearly nine in ten Americans felt that their lives were personally affected by this virus.[1] Back in March, as COVID-19 forced school closings ever so rapidly, students found their routines shattered as they struggled to adapt to the strikingly different circumstances. Therefore, in order to succeed in this unique situation, things must be done differently. Whether you are a student desperately trying to succeed in school, stuck at home with your family, or are trying to learn a new skill that requires some measure of focus, adjustments must be made for optimal success. Before the pandemic, we had the liberty to escape to a library or coffee shop. In the current day, as such actions are impossible outside of a dream, we find ourselves forced to adapt to studying at home. Here are some tips that are bound to improve the effectiveness of your study session home.

1. Decluttering

I often enjoy spending hours clearing my room out and reorganizing my furniture; its an excellent way to destress, procrastinate, and allow your creative juices to run wild. In recent years, I've come to realize how essential clearing out clutter and maintaining a designated study space is for optimal focus. Whether it be my phone, newspapers, or random books lying astray, I find my mind wandering without them removed from my line of sight. In 2011, scientists from the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that clutter does harm our productivity and overall ability to focus.[2] Essentially, the more mess in your room, the more stimuli that are competing for neural representation. This phenomenon happens due to complex interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in the human visual cortex.[2]

Decluttering Infographic | Learning for a Cause
Decluttering Tips!

Thus, while preparing to study, it is essential to clear unrelated things away from your workspace. Perhaps even watch a couple of Marie Kondo tutorials cleverly make space for your computer, books, and other studying materials. If you don't have a designated desk in your room, any counter or table space in your house works; make sure it is clutter-free, devoid of distractions, and somewhat quiet.

2. Music

Maintaining focus is key to effective studying if you find yourself met with the need to tune out noisy siblings, grab some headphones, and turn on music. Not only will listening to your favorite track provide motivation, but studies have also shown that there are several positive effects on the body and the brain attributed to music. In fact, researchers at Brandeis University found that music can relieve stress by interacting with the psychological and nervous stress response, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety.[3] Music also activates both hemispheres of the brain. By interacting with networks responsible for emotions, creativity, and focus, music has the potential of maximizing learning and memory.[5] However, as the brain processes the aspects of music, including rhythm, timbre, pitch, and tonality, quite differently, loud, distracting genres like heavy metal may not be as effective as classical.[4]

Map of Music's Effect on the Brain | Learning for a Cause
Map of Music's Effect on the Brain

I would suggest the soothing classical music with a moderate tempo, between 60-70 beats per minute. If classical isn't your thing, electronic new age or jazz will also provide the ambient background key to concentration. One thing to note is that the effect of music on cognitive ability strongly relies on your emotional state.[3] Before you begin your study session, feel free to listen to a couple of your favorite tracks: music's effects on your emotions is immeasurable. Therefore, turning on the tunes improves concentration, but it will also reduce stress and test anxiety, allowing you to conquer the material with ease.

3. Mindfulness

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness, or the practice of being fully aware of your surroundings, thoughts, and feelings, improves your focus and helps reduce stress. Furthermore, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found that mindfulness meditation activates new neuronal networks and increases gray matter in the brain, thus rewriting your brain with new options to handle tasks and improving concentration.[7] Thus, these attributes would be extremely beneficial to a student wishing for an effective and focused study session. Practicing mindfulness could be very simple: you could focus on your breath for a minute, or turn on a track with nature noises and redirect all attention to that sound. By helping you consciously take control of your thoughts, not only does mindfulness create more space for learning new material, but it also increases both short term and long term memory.

4. Organized Routine

Creating an organized schedule and developing strong time management skills is essential for achieving your studying goals. Set reasonable goals for yourself: if you plan on studying 6-8 hours a day, be sure to break up your studying sessions. Having realistic, achievable goals is key to avoiding the cycle of falling short and losing motivation. With music drowning out noisy surroundings, and all clutter removed from sight, getting yourself actually to sit down and study remains the problem. A physical timetable allows you to clearly see when you're supposed to be studying, taking a break, or doing chores. With a solid structure in your life, your brain will know precisely when to signal, "it's time to sit down and get studying."[6] Furthermore, having a physical timer keeps you focused on the task at bay, fully committed to progressing until the timer goes off. Not only is having good time management vital to academic achievement, but it can also relieve student stress as they would otherwise get overwhelmed by the piles of tasks.

5. Health

Taking care of your health and mind will make a difference in your academic performance and overall happiness. Eating a proper diet, exercising, and getting a good night's rest will make your overall school experience far more enjoyable. First off, be sure not to neglect to eat. To get the fuel, your body requires you to stay in top form, prepare healthy snacks in advance of your study sessions, and be sure to avoid heavy meals that will put you to sleep.[10] I frequently fall victim to the latter: the dreaded food coma. Assembling yummy snacks in advance avoids more opportunities to be distracted in the middle of a productive study session!

Taking regular exercise breaks has numerous positive benefits on your school performance: it reduces stress, boosts your mood by stimulating the release of endorphins and serotonin, and increases energy levels.[8] Furthermore, a study by the University of British Columbia found that cardiovascular exercise boosts the hippocampus's size, which is responsible for verbal memory and learning.[9] Even just walking for 30 minutes 3 times a week will have visible effects on your cognitive capabilities.

Calm and Relaxed People | Learning for a Cause

Although it may seem obvious, getting adequate sleep is ever so important. Getting optimal rest remains the best way to refresh the brain and ensure it is ready to conquer another day of information. While it may be too tempting to cram the night before an exam, not only will fatigue overwhelm your thought process the next day, but little of the facts you desperately need will remain. Thus, sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet continues to be of utmost importance concerning academic performance.

6. Avoiding the Fallacy of Self Care

While taking breaks is essential to keeping your brain and mental health at an optimal level, current day society urges the idea that after a long study session, you need to relax, whether it be watching movies or just pigging out to recharge your batteries. With the huge emphasis on self-care, the theory that you can and should take time to relax and slack off after a successful study session as your body naturally requires a break is often urged. Ego-depletion is the belief that you have a limited amount of ego used for making logical decisions. Essentially, when your bank of ego runs out, your mind becomes tired and incapable of making critical decisions. However, researchers at Stanford University found that ego-depletion only exists if you believe in it.[11] Thus, those hours you spend binge-watching shows aren't boosting your efficiency. As long as you believe in yourself and your ability to make egotistical decisions continually, there isn't any reason to stop grinding. Of course, you still take care of your health, get adequate sleep, and exercise. In essence, don't use excuses for self-care to cover up hours of wasted time; as long as you stay responsible over your time and keep your academic goals in mind, you will easily crush the challenges your courses pose.

We have truly been facing countless challenges during the unprecedented time of coronavirus. With secondary education centers and universities shutting their doors, teens and college students alike found themselves with an increasingly large responsibility to self-direct their studies. As we head back to school, although it may look very, very different to what we are used to, don’t stop striving for your goals. Breath in. Breath out. You are bound to crush the school new year.



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