Dalia Maeroff | Senior Staff Photographer
This fall semester is my third semester online. I live at home, in a tiny apartment with thin walls with a very loud younger brother and two very loud parents in the middle of Pittsburgh. A quiet study space optimal for getting good grades and more importantly — for learning — is not what my house was meant to be used for.
The COVID-19 pandemic plunged everyone into the exact opposite environment than the one we had signed up for, and expected, at the beginning of our college careers. People who used to spend hours in coffee shops and the library are now confined to tiny dorms, apartments and old childhood bedrooms in our parents’ houses. If there’s one thing I’ve learned being a psychology major, it’s how to hack my brain. After hating every second of the online spring semester, and doing terribly in my classes, I decided to make school something really worth my time.
This summer things turned around for me, and Zoom University at home became the best thing that could have happened for my GPA. My study habits have changed for the better, my mental health improved and my time management skills have increased tenfold. All because I realized I have the skills to trick my brain into thinking that this whole pandemic might actually not be that bad.
The first and most important thing to do to make school easier on yourself is to make sure your basic human needs are met. That means keeping a healthy sleep schedule, eating a well balanced healthy diet, getting outside and exercising. Our brains cannot run on instant ramen, too much or too little sleep at the wrong times of day or in a dark and cooped-up room. I have a massive sweet tooth, I am not a morning person and I need around nine hours of sleep to not be miserable. It wasn’t easy for me to get into the habit of doing some of these things consistently, but once I did, it was so worthwhile. I saw a difference in how well I was handling my schoolwork in a matter of weeks, even in my loud and very chaotic household.
You may think that making your childhood bedroom into the optimal space for studying for your statistics midterm is impossible. This is far from the truth. I’ve taken one very important step at the beginning of each semester that may seem like it won’t actually help — I deep cleaned and decluttered my entire room. I sold clothes I didn’t need, got rid of extra items and organized my shelves. I made the area around my desk have everything I would need to study in close proximity to me. I am generally the kind of person who comes home from a long day and kicks off my shoes not caring where they go, and almost always has a mountain of laundry on a chair waiting to be folded and put away. But having a clean and organized space is one of the most important things you can do to increase productivity and cognitive function.
Once your room is clean and organized, the next best thing to do if you can’t go for a walk outside is to open your windows. Opening your windows allows for sunlight and fresh air, two things that will not only make you feel more energized, but also will improve cognitive function and decrease stress. Access to sunlight can also help to normalize your circadian rhythms, making it easier for you to maintain a healthy sleep schedule and can even help alleviate symptoms of depression.
Now it’s time for us to get to work. Even though it is so tempting to never get out of bed or just sit and do work on the couch, don’t. Science shows that having a designated work space separate from where you sleep, eat or relax can make all of those tasks feel more like sleeping, eating and relaxing, and work feel more like working. Having a specific place to work helps our brain keep a pattern of behavior that is consistent for each activity — in this case, studying. This means that if we study for a test and take that test in the same location, we are more likely to remember large amounts of information with higher detail.
My house is loud. My dad plays loud music, my mom watches loud TV and my brother yells at his friends while playing video games in the next room. Everyone in my house has a very loud voice and not-so-great hearing, so naturally, everyone yells all the time. This is not at all optimal for studying or for sanity.
For the purposes of studying, noise-cancelling headphones are an option. I am not so fortunate to own a pair, and I am also not a fan of silence, so my preferred method of auditory focus is music. Some genres are better than others — classical music, jazz, music without lyrics and music in a language that you don’t understand are all great options. They create enough noise to drown out whatever other distractions lay in your house, while also benefiting other areas of your study.
For sanity, the best thing to do is to give yourself some space. Leaving the house and spending time with friends to burn off some steam is not nearly as easy as it used to be, especially if you’re nowhere near campus. Be sure to hang out with your friends virtually, or put aside time for yourself to do things you love. Getting out of the house and going for a drive or a walk in nature can all be relaxing things to do when you’ve just had enough of your family.
The last and most important thing to do in Zoom University, that I know a lot of people in college generally struggle with, is taking a break. It is hard with never-ending assignments, online quizzes for every class, readings that you’re behind on piling up and the education system expecting college students to have an unhealthy work-life balance, but it is doable and so worth it. Short breaks during your work day to eat, sit outside or mindlessly scroll through social media can actually be beneficial to give your brain a much-needed break.
But what I’ve found most effective has been a habit I started over the summer — I finish all of my work for the week and some for the next week, or at the very least for Monday, by Thursday night. I only have one class on Friday, so this proves easier for me to do than most, but this way I can have an entire two and a half days dedicated to absolutely nothing school-related. Studies have shown that not taking your weekend off can lead to an increased risk of depression and higher stress levels. The weekend is my safe time to spend with friends and family, and I can take time to myself in any way I please. In a time when we are so computer-centered, it is really nice for me to be able to step away from all of it for a few days a week, so I can come back on Monday recharged and ready to work. To get this right takes a lot of time management practice, but is the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for my brain.
With no fall break or long weekends and 18 credits worth of classes under my belt, an extended mental health break to spend time doing things that I enjoy and to spend time with family and friends is much needed. As someone with a mental illness, isolating from friends and family is one of the worst things to do during a high-stress time like this, and once I started scheduling in time for my friends and family, it made a world of a difference.
Many don’t realize that the very first step to doing well academically is take care of the thing that’s doing the learning — your brain. Doing this will be a miracle for your grades. So take a break this weekend, go for a walk in the park or schedule some time to do something that relaxes you. Recharge for the next week, and make sure to remind yourself that your brain needs it — and that if you’re taking classes from home this semester, it’s not the end of the world.
Dalia Maeroff writes primarily about issues of psychology, education, culture and environmentalism. Write to her at [email protected].