7 Things You Don’t Realise Are Affecting Your Studies

Humans can be more easily influenced than we realise.

You already know that the way you study affects what you learn; for instance, you might have discovered for yourself that covering your notes with highlighter pen is much less effective for retaining information than having someone quiz you on it. You might even have noticed that some environments are better for studying than others; that you’re fine to run through Maths problems in the kitchen, but if you’re writing an English essay, you really want the peace and quiet of the library to do it in. Chances are, though, you’ve not figured out what it is about those environments that’s affecting your studies.
In this article, we take a look at some of the things that can impact your studying for better or for worse, and provide some actionable advice on how you can make your studying environment better suit your needs.

1. Background noise

Some types of background noise are helpful…but not all.

It’s obvious that background noise affects your studies if you’ve ever tried working next to a building site or someone with leaky headphones on, but what impact, exactly, does it have?

It turns out that different kinds and volumes and noise can affect different kinds of work in different ways. For the most part, we can concentrate best in silence. You might feel like having some background music on that keeps you from getting bored while you’re studying something repetitive, but for that kind of task, silence is more productive. (Of course, if not being bored helps you keep going for longer, the loss of productivity may be balanced out). For creative tasks, though, some background noise – like the burble of a classroom – can actually be helpful. You’ll see further on in this article that other things can affect creative tasks in unexpected ways.
What if there’s no chance of working in silence? There are better and worse kinds of sound, too. Loud noises are the worst; even creative work suffers with noise above 85 decibels. But after that comes intermittent sound – like a conversation where you catch occasional louder words, or a washing machine that’s on for a bit – then off again – then spins – then off again – so that your concentration is disturbed with each change in volume. Continuous background noise is better, whether that’s white noise (usually the best option) or music that doesn’t have a lot of contrasts in it.

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2. Room temperature

Being cold can distract you from the task at hand.

Like background noise, room temperature becomes a problem when it ends up distracting you. That means it can be tricky to set the right temperature in a classroom or study space because some people will be comfortable in higher or lower temperatures than others, and it’s the awareness of that discomfort that causes a distraction.
Thankfully, relatively small variations around room temperature don’t have that much of an impact. A study that explored classroom performance at different temperatures found that there wasn’t much difference in performance between a classroom at 21 degrees celsius and at 23 degrees. But when they increased the temperature difference, there was a noticeable drop in student performance at 16 degrees, and an even greater drop at 27 degrees, compared to a control temperature of 22 degrees.
It’s worth noting that the variation is important, rather than the raw numbers; for the study, conducted in Oregon, 21 degrees was a cold classroom temperature, while it’s likely that British students would perceive that as warm. A similar study conducted in Florida had 20 degrees as a cold temperature – resulting in 44% more mistakes – and 25 degrees as an optimal room temperature. What’s important is making sure that the temperature is such that you don’t notice it, so you’re not distracted by trying to stay warm or cool down.

3. Whether your seat is well adjusted

Aching joints are not conducive to mental retention.

Following the rule set up in this article so far, you might think that the ideal posture for concentrating on your studies is a nice, comfy slouch, so that you’re focusing on your work and not thinking about the fact that it’s a lot of effort to keep sitting up straight. But you’d be wrong.
We’re all aware that bad posture has health consequences. There are a lot of important parts of the body that are affected by your posture – not just your spine, but all of the organs in your core. For instance, bad posture can lead to problems with digestion, as well as the more obvious problems such as sore shoulders or headaches. The problem is that there isn’t complete agreement on what constitutes good posture; sitting with your back at an angle of 110 to 130 degrees has been suggested, but you’ll notice that this is approximately the angle you sit at on a sun lounger, and it’s very hard to make notes or type while sitting like that.
What studies do agree on is that sitting still in one position for a long time is bad for you. Standing up, stretching and sitting down again is a good way to improve your posture; if you sit still for a long time, it gets worse and worse. So trying to sit up at reasonable intervals might actually be the best way to provide you with the intermittent bursts of movement to fix your posture as you study.

4. Working too many hours

Putting in more hours won’t necessarily help.

It’s obvious that your studies will suffer if you’re studying too little. But did you know that they can also suffer if you’re studying too much?
Working too many hours doesn’t just have an impact on your studies if you’re trying to balance studying with paid work, and you’ve ended up overdoing it. It’s also the case that too many hours of studying has a negative impact full stop. Classroom surveys of this are hard to find, but there are several studies based in the workplace, and they have a fairly consistent message, which is that working for a standard 40-hour week is comfortable for productivity, going up to 50 hours is OK, and for any additional hours worked in excess of that, you might as well not bother because you’ll only get the same amount of work done.
It’s OK to do a lot of hours for a short period. For instance, if you’re studying for very long hours for a couple of weeks before your final exams, you’ll probably see a benefit. But the productivity costs start to bite after less than a month of longer hours. The reasons why this happens are perfectly obvious. A 50+ hour working week doesn’t leave you with a whole lot of time to do other things, whether that’s eating well, spending time with friends or simply getting enough sleep. As a result, you end up tired, stressed and unwell – and your ability to work well suffers accordingly. 

5. Being too tired – or not tired enough

Lack of sleep – or sleeping too much – can throw you off track.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that being tired is usually not beneficial for studying. It’s particularly tricky to get enough sleep as a teenager, because there’s evidence that suggests that teenage sleep cycles are different to those of adults, and in particular that teenagers naturally have sleep cycles that involve going to sleep later and waking up later than adults do. Teenagers need eight to ten hours of sleep a night, but often won’t feel sleepy until around 11pm. For ten hours of sleep, that means waking up at 9am; which isn’t an option if your school day starts at 8.30.
Being sleep-deprived is therefore the most significant thing you should worry about in terms of tiredness affecting your productivity (and indeed, your health and your physical safety, especially if you’ve recently learned to drive). But there are times when being tired can actually help. It’s the weird exception for creative thinking that we also encountered when looking into background noise.
When you’re tired, your brain struggles to focus, and to remember connections between ideas and concepts. For normal study, that’s obviously a problem; revising is all about focusing on remembering connections! But for creative work, this can be ideal; a lack of focus means that you might be getting distracted by a useful new idea, and you can use these to make the new connections that are the bedrock of creative thinking. For an example, you might be trying to write a love poem. You’re starting with “My love is like…” and if wide awake, you might immediately remember a connection, and think, “my love is like a red, red rose”; great if you’re trying to memorise the works of Robert Burns, not so good if you’re trying to write something new yourself. But your tired mind might go, “my love is like… is that a sparrow outside?… my love is like a tiny bird…” and then you’d have something new instead.

6. Whether you’re multitasking

Not as efficient as you might think.

There’s a cultural narrative that says that multitasking is at the heart of efficiency. It’s partly because of other pressures; so if you’re working hard on your studies, and you answer that email from your teacher two minutes after you get it, it looks like you’re working a lot harder than if you focus exclusively on your studies and only get back to your teacher a few hours later. Whatever the reasons behind the glorification of multitasking, though, it isn’t very good for us.
The reason for this is that our brains can’t actually multitask at all. We can’t concentrate on two things at once; instead, we concentrate on one thing, then switch to the other thing, and then switch back. We can do this very quickly, but only with certain tasks. So you can switch between cooking a meal and talking on the phone so that it feels like you’re doing both at once; but if you try to talk on the phone and copy out a page from a textbook at the same time, you’ll soon come unstuck, because the verbal skills involved in those tasks are too similar to one another to be able to switch between them quickly.
Multitasking – or, as it should more accurately be called, rapid task-switching – is not a very efficient way to work. Each switch costs us time to regain focus that wouldn’t be required if we were focusing on a single task. At the same time, the feeling of variety in multitasking keeps us from getting bored. So if focusing on your work and getting it done efficiently is your priority, don’t try to do more than one thing at a time. But if you’re bored out of your tree doing it, then a little bit of switching tasks can help to keep you engaged.

6. What you’ve eaten

A sugar spike seems a good idea at the time, but is best avoided.

Eating badly causes your studies to suffer in a variety of ways. Firstly, there’s the fact that food with ‘empty calories’ – for instance, sweets – will cause a blood sugar spike that boosts alertness for a short period, but then causes it to fall back rapidly, so that you end up with that drowsy distracted feeling that’s anathema to a good study session. Afterwards, you’ll also feel less sated from an unhealthy snack, so it won’t be long before you’re distracted from your work by feelings of hunger. Neither feeling is going to help you in staying motivated to study well.
Instead, you should go for food that releases energy slowly (porridge is a great example, which is why it’s so often recommended as a breakfast for students) and that makes you feel sated. If you’re really stuck into working, then you might feel tempted to skip a meal and plough on, in case a break leaves you out of the zone, or a big lunch leaves you feeling unmotivated and sleepy. One way to avoid this problem is to have smaller meals more often; so you might have a relatively light lunch, but then follow it up by a banana, some nuts or a tasty homemade snack bar. That’s not to say that you should avoid sweets altogether – it’s nice to reward yourself when you’ve been working hard – but it’s best to have them after you’ve eaten something that fills you up, so that you’re enjoying them as a treat rather than eating them because you feel hungry.
What unexpected things have affected your studies? Let us know in the comments!
Images: background noise; cold dog; office space; overworked man; multitasking; tired feet; sweets; girl with textbooks; person on couch with blanket


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