9 Your Physical Environment

Sonji Nicholas

What you’ll learn to do: describe how your surroundings impact your ability to study and be productive


FSW Students Studying at the Library

I think it’s important to get your surroundings as well as yourself into a positive state.

–Heidi Klum, fashion model and television host

By the end of this section, you will learn how to analyze the impact of your surroundings on you while you study and to identify strategies for increasing your productivity during study time.

The Impact of Your Surroundings

Learning Outcomes

  • Analyze the impact of your surroundings on you while you study

The Importance of Where You Do Your Work

If a researcher walked up to you right now and asked you to identify your favorite place to study, what would your immediate response be? Would it be your home—perhaps your sunny kitchen? Maybe your dorm room or bedroom—a relaxed space you can call your own? Maybe it would be a busy café in the heart of town or a remote log cabin, if you have access to one. What are your preferences for your physical surroundings when you study? What are the attributes of your most conducive study environment?

A laptop sits on a work table displaying a word document.
Where you do work can be as important as when. (Credit: Mads Bodker / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

The Right Space

Simple things, like where you are set up to do your work, can not only aid in your efficiency but also affect how well you can work or even if you can get the work completed at all. One example of this might be typing on a laptop. While it might seem more comfortable to lie back on a couch and type a long paper, sitting up at a desk or table actually increases your typing speed and reduces the number of mistakes. Even the kind of mouse you use can impact how you work, and using one you are comfortable with can make a big difference.

There are many other factors that can come into play. Do you have enough space? Is the space cluttered, or do you have the room to keep reference materials and other things you might need within arm’s reach? Are there other ways you could work that might be even more efficient? For example, buying an inexpensive second monitor—even secondhand—might be the key to decreasing the amount of time you spend when you can have more than one document displayed at a time.

The key is to find what works for you and to treat your work space as another important resource needed to get the task finished.

Student Survey on Work Environment

Take the time to think about where you will do your work and when. What can you do to help ensure your working environment will be helpful rather than harmful? What do you know doesn’t work for you? What will you do to prevent those adverse conditions from creeping into your work environment?

Below is a quick survey to help you determine your own preferences in regard to your work space, the time you work, and distractions. Rank each option 1–4, 1 meaning “least like me” and 4 meaning “most like me.”

  • I like my workspace to be organized and clean.
  • There are certain places where I am more comfortable when I work.
  • I prefer to be alone when I work on certain things.
  • I find it difficult to read with other sounds or voices around me.
  • There are certain times of the day when I can be more focused.
  • My moods or emotions can interfere with my ability to concentrate.

In the following video, Mark Montgomery, an educational consultant and college admissions expert, reminds students that while their image of college may be mainly about socializing, they will ideally spend a good portion of their time studying. He shows some accommodating physical spaces at Seattle University.

You can view the transcript for “Study Spaces in College: Why Are They Important?” here (opens in new window).

What Do Students Say about Study Spaces?

College administrators, like the one in the video you just watched, may have their own ideas about what constitutes good study space. But what do students say? Below are comments from several students about their favorite go-to study spots:

Jared: I like to take my laptop into the Alley Café and use the Wi-Fi while I write papers and work on homework. It’s in a nice spot and there’s always people around. I need my caffeine and some noise around me so I don’t fall asleep. Recently, I’ve been using the library. It’s quieter, but I meet other students there and we use the group study rooms. We work on group projects. I like being around other people when I study.
Butch: I like to study on a picnic table in the garden on campus. Sometimes I just park myself on the grass. But I tend to get distracted outside, so my second favorite place to study is the library. I used to hate libraries because I didn’t like how quiet they were, but then I realized I can actually get work done there. So I go downstairs. There’s a corner that I like and a comfy chair, and I can read or take a nap. If I need to put the pedal to the metal, I sit at a table.
LeeAnne: The main library is my go-to. If I need sources for a paper, the staff help me find articles in the College databases. There is a wide selection of books, too, but if I can’t find something, the staff will order it through a different school or library. Sometimes the space gets real crowded, like during exam week, and it can be hard to find an open computer. But it’s comforting to see I’m not the only student doing a paper last-minute. The best place for relaxing or writing is the third floor. I like looking out the windows at the scenery.

It’s not surprising to find that there are some recurring student favorites when it comes to good study environments. The following locations are all-time winners:

  • a library
  • a café
  • a park
  • a classroom
  • a study partner’s house
  • a community center
  • a tutoring center

Working at the Right Time

In addition to where you study, you may also want to consider when you study. Most people are subject to their own rhythms, cycles, and preferences throughout their day. Some are alert and energetic in the mornings while others are considered “night owls” and prefer to work after everyone else has gone to sleep. It is important to be aware of your own cycles and to use them to your advantage. Rarely does anyone do their best work when they are exhausted, either physically or mentally. Just as it can be difficult to work when you are physically ill, it can also be a hindrance to try to learn or do mental work when you are tired or emotionally upset.

Your working environment definitely includes your own state of mind and physical well-being. Both have a significant influence on your learning and production ability. Because of this influence, it is not only important to be aware of your own condition and work preferences, but to actually try to create conditions that help you in these areas. One approach is to set aside a specific time to do certain kinds of work. You might find that you concentrate better after you have eaten a meal. If that is the case, make it a habit of doing homework every night after dinner. Or you might enjoy reading more after you are ready for bed, so you do your reading assignments just before you go to sleep at night. Some people find that they are more creative during a certain time of the day or that they are more comfortable writing with subtle lighting. It is worth taking the time to find the conditions that work best for you so that you can take advantage of them.

Try It


Distractions and Multitasking

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify strategies for increasing your productivity during study time


Few things are more frustrating than trying to do work while distractions are going on around you. If other people are continually interrupting you or there are things that keep pulling your attention from the task at hand, everything takes longer and you are more prone to mistakes.[1]

Many people say they work better with distractions—they prefer to leave the television or the radio on—but the truth is that an environment with too many interruptions is rarely helpful when focus is required. Before deciding that the television or talkative roommates do not bother you when you work, take an honest accounting of the work you produce with interruptions compared to work you do without.

If you find that your work is better without distractions, it is a good idea to create an environment that reduces interruptions. This may mean you have to go to a private room, use headphones, or go somewhere like a library to work. Regardless, the importance of a distraction-free environment cannot be emphasized enough.


“Multitasking”—doing several things at the same time—has become a common word for describing what many of us do every day in the modern world. Our busy lifestyles and our ever-present devices suggest that many of us have become multitasking experts. But is multitasking real? Is it possible to do several things at the same time? Can we actually check Facebook, watch television, read a textbook, and write a paper at roughly the same time . . . productively?

Switch Tasks = Lose Productivity

Evidence suggests that multitasking is not, in fact, possible. Psychology research shows that we can attend to only one cognitive task at a time.[2] What we call multitasking is actually just switching back and forth between tasks quickly. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but we lose time with each switch. The loss may only be one-tenth of a second, but the time adds up. Think about your own experience.

Busy Brains

Researchers have found that multitasking increases production of the stress hormone, cortisol, and the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline.[3] These hormone-level increases can cause the brain to literally overheat, which leads to foggy mental processing. So multitasking while studying for a final exam is not a good idea.

Multitasking also taxes the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that integrates information. Your capacity for problem-solving decreases with the number of tasks you try to perform at the same time.

the multitasking myth

Check out this video for more information on multitasking.

Personal Technology: Helping or Hindering Your Study Efforts

The perceived need to multitask is driven largely by the technology takeover of recent years. Smartphones, email, social networking, Instagram, and Twitter all make multitasking seem both necessary and possible. They all require switching in and out of a line of thinking. With these technologies, we face constant information overload and distraction.

Becoming More Productive

How can we become more productive with our time and energy, given our tendency to multitask? Consider these tips:

  1. Try “batch processing”: have set times during the day for checking and responding to emails.
  2. Use concentrated time: block off time for working on just one task. You may need to turn off your phone.
  3. Do what’s most important first: make goals for the day and accomplish them. The sense of achievement can help you resist anxiety-driven multitasking.

Other Strategies to Increase Your Productivity

  • Create a to-do list everyday. This to-do list should include all the tasks that must be completed that day based on due dates. Your daily to-do list can also include components or segments or other long-term tasks that you need to accomplish during the semester. An example could be conducting research for a paper you need to write.
  • Don’t wait to complete tasks that can be accomplished in a short period of time. When presented with a task that will only take a minute or two, you should complete it immediately to ensure your to-do list isn’t cluttered with minor tasks.
  • Set a specific amount of time to work. This means you can work for 25 minutes and take a five-minute break or schedule a longer period of 90 minutes with a longer break. You can set the amount of time you work on a task based on the items on your to-do list each day. This process will keep you focused on the task knowing a break is scheduled soon.
  • While it will seem counterintuitive, take breaks to keep yourself fresh and energized throughout the day.

Try It


What are your thoughts on multitasking? How does it affect your productivity? The following video, from the University of British Columbia, features students talking about multitasking. Does it exist? Is it effective? Listen in or view the full discussion on multitasking by University of British Columbia.

You can view the transcript for “UBC Students Talk: Multitasking—Does It Work?” here (opens in new window).


distraction-free environment: the ideal work space whose features do not not interrupt our focused thinking or workflow, thus enabling maximum productivity

multitasking: a popular term describing the ability to successfully execute multiple tasks simultaneously, a capability that is not realistic according to research

work space: the environment in which you can effectively study, write, and collaborate, ideally at an optimal time of the day or night and with the most appropriate technology available to you


  1. McCoy, Bernard R. "Digital Distractions in the Classroom Phase II: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes." Journal of Media Education, https://en.calameo.com/read/00009178915b8f5b352ba.
  2. "The True Cost Of Multi-Tasking." Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking. Accessed 30 Mar. 2016.
  3. Levitin, Daniel J. "Why the Modern World Is Bad for Your Brain." The Guardian, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload. Accessed 30 Mar. 2016.


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Your Physical Environment Copyright © 2023 by Sonji Nicholas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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