One of the main challenges of online learning is getting (and staying) focused in physical spaces where we both work and live.

With so many more online courses and work opportunities available, it’s important to create a space that will cue your brain to learn and take steps to help you be productive and successful in these environments.

We often rely on cues — a location, particular music, motivating quotes on a laptop screen, and so on — to motivate the brain to get in a working mode. College students may feel they need to be in a particular spot to focus on their work, for example a library desk or a certain spot in a lounge. Such a location cues the brain that it’s work time. Students also might find that certain locations don’t work for them — many students, for example, try not to study in bed because it makes them feel sleepy, sending a “time to rest” message to the brain.

Here are some actions you can take to find your optimal “work cue” areas and stay motivated and on schedule:

  • Figure out what space is most likely to help you concentrate. If you have a room to yourself, that may be the best bet. Whether you are alone in your space or not, though, the key is that you have an area dedicated to you and your work.
  • Set up your space for success. Make sure you have somewhere to write (a table or desk, or in a chair with a lap desk), the resources you need (books, computer, paper and writing utensils, and so on), and a place to sit where you can get comfortable for extended periods of time. If you are in a bedroom, consider saving the bed for relaxation.
  • Communicate with others about your schedule. One way to improve the effectiveness of your workspace is to ask people around you to minimize noise at the times when you plan to use it. This is especially important if you have synchronous class meetings, an exam, or a challenging assignment to complete. Knowing you’ve asked for quiet at certain times can also help cue your brain to move into work mode while you have the chance.
  • Address distractions. If you have no choice but to contend with noise, see what you can do to mask it. Consider using headphones with calm music that has no lyrics (classical or ambient tunes).
  • Include inspiration and encouragement. What can you surround yourself with that will inspire you to persist? Consider enhancing your work area with photos, quotes written down and posted on a wall, special keepsakes, anything that you can look at when you need a boost.
  • Try to keep work in one place. If you can, save your work area for schoolwork only, and use other areas for relaxation or non-school tasks. Having a dedicated workspace, even if it shares a room with non-work areas, can help cue your brain to work when you are there and to let work go when you are not.
  • Start your day early. Even if you don’t have a regular commute, this time is important to wake up and mentally prepare for the day. When working from home, just getting out of bed and in front of the computer can be a difficult task. Here are some morning activities that can mentally prepare you to start the workday:
    • Practice mindful meditation or journaling
    • Go out for a jog or stretch
    • Do some housework like washing dishes
    • Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea
    • Take a shower and get dressed for work
  • Commit to specific working hours. Pick definitive times for starting and finishing each day. For instance, starting at 9 a.m. sharp will help you avoid unproductive periods of procrastination and distractions leading up to the work day. Similarly, ending at 5 p.m. sharp can help you draw a firm distinction between your work and personal life. Here are some evening activities to help you stop working:
    • Get some exercise
    • Schedule hobby or social time right after working
    • Set an alarm to indicate the end of the work day
  • Structure your day. While learning and working from home, you need to compensate for the lack of face-to-face meetings and changes of environment that normally break up your day and help you avoid burnout. Identify what you want to accomplish throughout the day and schedule when you will complete each task. Be sure to think about the big picture, specify how much time you will spend studying, attending classes, working on assignments, being social, eating, and taking breaks. To stay on track, you can use a planner, calendar, to-do list or reminders. You may also schedule an appointment with an academic coach at the Learning Centers to design your schedule.
  • Designate clear break times. While it is easy to get overly distracted with social media and family members when working from home, it is still important to get away from your workspace and relax for a couple of moments. Breaks help clear your mind and give you a fresh perspective on the tasks you are trying to accomplish. Some activities that you may want to do during your break include:
    • Eating lunch or snacks away from your desk
    • Going out for a walk or exercise
    • Do errands: check the mail or do laundry
  • Socialize with others. Working from home can be isolating so it is important to stay connected to the world around you. While browsing social media may be too distracting during the work day, scheduling time to communicate with your peers, professors, family, and friends may help break up the monotonous days and motivate you to complete your work.