Within and Without: Smarty Study

By Debbie Leaman

A feng shui practitioner, a tutor specializing in ADD/ADHD, a nutritionist and a sleep specialist weigh in on good study habits.
by Debbie Leaman
"I will study and get ready, and perhaps my chance will come."
   Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the U.S. (1809 – 1865)

leaman-studying.jpgHow do you study? Do you read assignments while watching Grey's Anatomy and munching on Doritos? How do your kids study? If they're anything like mine, they are doing homework on the kitchen table while I'm preparing dinner. On a good night, in between cutting veggies, help them with a problem or two and then resume my chopping. On a bad night, my kids torment each other to the point of turning me into a hideous taskmaster. Then the whining begins; they're hungry, tired, can't concentrate and refuse to study anywhere else. As a parent, I have a feeling I'm not alone.

For any student, finding a calm space, settling down and actually studying can be a challenge. But, whether you are the student or the parent of a school-aged child, there is help.

Location and space

Finding a quiet space is a good place to start. Common sense would dictate that routinely studying in front of the TV is not a great idea, but for many that's a reality. For others, the kitchen table is where it's at. The American kitchen has morphed into an acceptable study hall and common area, chock full of distractions. "It's the heart of the home," says Valerie Litchfield, a Classical Compass feng shui practitioner. "Any room you use builds up an energy which is especially inviting to kids. And, if you cook a lot, it feels very nourishing. Feng Shui wouldn't necessarily say that it's bad; any place that motivates would be a good thing."

Feng shui, the ancient Chinese practice of placement and arrangement of space, is used to determine the most favorable locations, and avoid the least desirable locations, to activate health, wealth and happiness in life. According to Litchfield, "the Chinese believe education is luck to be activated."

Various schools of feng shui use different location rules in their practices. Here are a few general guidelines.

First, avoid clutter.

Secondly, when sitting at a desk, don't have your back to the door; the entrance of the room should be in full view.

Third, straight lines and sharp corners, referred to as "poison arrows," shouldn't point toward the study area; negative energy emanates from these sharp angles and can create adverse consequences. Feng shui techniques can be applied to counteract potentially damaging energy.

Here are some basic Classical Compass school feng shui techniques to improve academics-whether for a youngster or a college student.

First, analyze the orientation of the study area. "The Chinese believe that the eight positions on a compass represent transformations of energy, with northeast energy supporting education," says Litchfield. "Northeast also translates into wisdom, self-cultivation and self-knowledge." If possible, find the northeast area of your house, dorm room, bedroom or any room in which someone studies. In our house, the kitchen table is located in the northeast corner of the room, where my kids naturally gravitate.

As for using the bedroom to study, Litchfield concurs with conventional wisdom that "the bedroom should be a little microcosm in the house for rejuvenation and sleep. Not a place for TVs or computers." But taking some steps in the bedroom can help inspire good study habits.

"What we put in our visual field feeds our minds," Litchfield says. "When working with kids, provide them with images of the things or ideals that you want them to strive for to become a responsible person." Puberty is the time to ditch the Disney characters, war tanks and Polly Pockets and replace them with something more motivating or academic. "If your child is old enough to be looking at the opposite sex, they are old enough to stop looking at stuffed animals."

According to Litchfield, the Chinese are mindful of this and often show pictures of wise teachers or revered individuals to inspire their children. They also use symbols of specific animals to encourage hard work and success. Most revered in the Chinese culture is the dragon, a symbol of intelligence. "Chinese parents display a picture of a koi, or carp, jumping over a dragon gate; the koi striving to become the dragon itself. This scene symbolizes the child's leap into life." Believing in the power of images for motivation, "Chinese parents commonly exhibit this picture when children are taking tests or preparing for college exams." She adds, "If you want a western equivalent, display a picture of dolphins to promote the intelligence of these animals."

Frequent breaks and soft music

Sometimes you can have the right space, yet trying to get yourself or your kids to sit for any prolonged time can be a challenge. Sometimes people forced into rigid learning situations have a tough time when required to remain quiet and still. How many times can you go to the bathroom, sharpen your pencils or check email?

For those suffering from procrastination, it can be a challenge just to sit down and begin. To help children get started, "giving them choices as to where to sit gives them control and can make all the difference in the world," says Sid Carpenter, a teacher of 35 years and now a private tutor in Salt Lake, specializing in ADD/ADHD.

What about those who have difficulty sitting? Our son kneels on the chair, turned backwards, when using the computer, while our daughter frequently gets up to twirl around the room in the middle of calculating fractions. "There are times when kids have to sit and they know that. But, they need wiggle time," says Carpenter.

And so do adults. Provide a release of energy; kids need breaks every 20 to 30 minutes; adults can work for longer stretches. Gauge what is right for you or your child. Carpenter's advice is to get blood flowing; "stretch on a ball, walk around the block, or open a window for fresh air."

Sometimes soft background music can help soothe the anxious child or antsy adult. Carpenter recommends classical or Indian flute music. She also suggests finding an area that is secluded. "If that is not possible, use a moveable screen." 

Another technique Carpenter suggests in helping all kids study (elementary through high school) would be "checking in" with them periodically.  Ask if they have questions or need help with anything, and maintain eye contact when speaking with them. She emphasizes frequent encouragement and says, "It must be honest praise. They know the difference." And finally, don't forget the power of physical connection in helping soothe an anxious student. "Sometimes just a touch helps," says Carpenter.

Make good food choices

When I was a college student, at the first sign of boredom, I'd coax my friends to leave the womb of the library and stand in line for Boston's famous Steve's ice cream. Perhaps, had I eaten some balanced meals back then, I wouldn't have craved sweets as soon as I opened my Economics 101 book. Julie Metos, a nutrition expert at the University of Utah, agrees. She suggests maintaining good basic food hygiene, especially when studying. "Try eating more often," she says. Eating every four to five hours helps stave off hunger and keeps mindless snacking at bay.

"By eating regularly scheduled meals, complete with carbs, protein and a little bit of fat, you are not inclined to snack. The combination of protein and fat extends the glucose supply to the brain. When your glucose levels are low, you crave sugar," says Metos.

Keep M&M's and Skittles out of sight; "they're just way too addictive," Metos says. "They'll keep you alert but you can't concentrate well. Nobody in the world can resist those. The first three bites are what you taste the most with candy, and then it just becomes a habit."

Of course, it is best not to associate studying with eating. Studying at the library and breaking for a meal or snack is ideal. But, sometimes we just need to do something with our hands to relieve the stress and tedium.

Metos's suggestions? "Find low-calorie snacks, something with crunch to help the stress levels." Baby carrots, popcorn without butter, or whole-grain crackers are good choices. Better yet, mix protein with carbs for healthier nutritious snacks. Apples with peanut butter, string cheese with fruit, yogurt with granola, carrots and ranch, or a small handful of nuts are good choices.

Don't go running to Starbucks for your third double latte. "If you drink coffee non-stop, your nutrition suffers." She suggests keeping your "dose" the same, not tanking up to stay awake; if you drink coffee all day, you build up a tolerance. "Make sure to drink plenty of water," she adds. "It keeps us alert. When we are tired, it may be from dehydration. And, sipping water is something else to do with our hands."

What about pulling an all nighter? Metos recommends having a good dinner and later in the evening, a caffeinated beverage and a snack. "When you are sleep deprived you make horrible food decisions," she says. "You try to get sugar just to stay awake."

Timing is everything

I marvel at my friends who can stay up past midnight returning emails, paying bills or preparing presentations. I am at my total worst at night. But, first thing in the morning I'm ready to handle anything-that is my peak time. I'm an early bird, not a night owl.

Do you handle assignments more easily in the morning, late afternoon or evening? Finding the time of day where you are most productive can greatly increase work and study efficiency, for we are all influenced by our own circadian rhythms -our body's natural 24-hour cycle. Pay attention to this cycle in yourself or your children.

Encourage yourself or your kids to work during 'peak' production times to maximize efficiency when output is much easier and less stressful. If that's not always a viable option and you need to be productive when you are cycling through your daily low point, there are things you can do. When you are feeling that after-lunch-got-to-take-a-nap sensation but you have to study, perform a lighter, more mindless task such organizing, filing, highlighting notes or cleaning up your study area or desktop.

These daily rhythms change throughout life. When kids become teenagers, their circadian rhythms naturally shift; they want to go to bed late and wake up late. Scientists don't know exactly why that is, but if you are dealing with a teen who insists on studying until 1 a.m., understand that their body's internal clock is regulating their sleep/wake cycles. They are not necessarily being defiant, they're just not tired.

What about all-nighters? If you're planning to stay up all night for a statistics final and you've never cracked open the book, beware. "Sleep deprivation, for even one night, ends up being very bad for you," says Dr. Kevin Shilling, a sleep specialist at the Intermountain Sleep Disorder Center at LDS Hospital. "The overall benefit of an all-nighter is minimal. After a certain point, concentration goes out the window and memory is poor." Citing numerous studies on sleep deprivation and drawing from personal experience, he adds, "your brainpower and complex problem solving is compromised."

"When you are sleep deprived you can handle short tasks. But, the problem is, if you are going to take a test that day, there is a good chance you'll lose focus halfway through. Or worse yet, you might crash your car on the way to the exam," he says.

According to Shilling, neurocognitive tests on sleep deprived patients show that a 10-minute nap during the day is actually the optimum for refueling and feeling refreshed. "Not five or 20 minutes-10 is the magic number." A 10-minute catnap "allows you to perform for another two hours." However, it's not clear how a 10-minute nap at 1 a.m. would work.

So what might be the better solution? Cram in as much as you can before midnight, set your alarm for 4 a.m. and finish up what needs to get done. Keep in mind that the body builds up sleep debt and as the day wears on you'll fatigue earlier and then hit the wall. After any all-nighter or impaired sleep, the best thing to do is give your body the rest it deserves.

Sleep deprivation, life's daily stresses and erratic schedules can screw up anyone's study routine. Cramming for a test while juggling books on your lap in a dentist's office waiting room is sometimes as good as it gets. As Shilling says, "the answer is to plan ahead, but unfortunately nobody does."

Debbie Leaman, formerly a financial advisor, is now a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. She is the mother of two pre-teens, both of whom are still searching for the exact right location and time to do their homework.

This article was originally published on August 31, 2007.