A comfy chair, to-do lists and noise-cancelling headphones: online study secrets from top student Hammad

Over the next couple of weeks, MyLaTrobe wants to give you the tools for a successful end to Semester One.

So we’re calling on some of our top-performing students to ask what they’re doing in order to conquer online study. Have a read of their top Uni tips to see which ones you could apply to your study!

First up its Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of International Relations student Hammad Shahin.

Meet Hammad

Hi everyone, I hope you’re all doing well!

Like most people, I have found the transition to studying at home difficult and have seen my motivation levels take a dip. However, there are a number of strategies I have been using to keep myself disciplined with my work.

Plan your day

Spend 15-20 minutes every night or every morning planning out what you want to get done. This helps you tackle your day with purpose, instead of wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out what to do. For example, most nights, I have a look at upcoming readings, questions or assessment tasks that might be due. Using a to-do list phone app, I mark down what I want to get done, prioritise my tasks according to their importance and then roughly allocate how much time I think I’ll need to complete the tasks. It’s great, because when I wake up and complete my morning routine, I know exactly what I need to work on.

Sometimes, despite my best intentions, I might have a change of mind about what I want to do in the morning and I might reshuffle or re-prioritise what I want to get done. It’s more than OK to not strictly follow your plan, especially if you are feeling exhausted and just want to focus on some light tasks.

Set up your workspace

My second tip is to find the right equipment to create your own amazing, tailor-made study space. We’re all probably spending increased time on our desks or wherever we study, so it’s really important to ensure we make studying as comfortable and easy on our bodies as possible. There was nothing more demotivating for me then trying to read my law textbooks by stacking them against each other, straining my neck and squinting with desperation at night with my bedroom light that was teetering on the edge of its lifespan. Recognising that these little annoyances were killing my vibe and focus, I replaced the lightbulb and bought a book stand for my textbooks, meaning there was much less strain on my neck.

I’ve also propped up my laptop to bring it to eye level and to promote good posture. I also use a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard instead of the laptop’s keyboard. Finally, I could have sworn that my back was cursing me for using the wooden kitchen chairs at my desk, so I invested in a comfortable chair, since I was sitting down for so much longer. Creating my own study space customised to my preferences has been invaluable in helping me stay focused with my studies.

The important thing is to tailor this all to your own needs – and to your own budget. You might hail from one of those blessed disciplines where extremely thick physical textbooks are not used, so a book-stand might not be of particular help. I don’t do much handwriting in terms of notes, but if you do, keep stationery firmly planted on your desk, which saves you from constantly scrounging around the house for a pen and paper.

Write, rest, write, rest

I use the Pomodoro Technique, a time management tip developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. I have difficulty concentrating in long sessions, so this method has been really helpful for me. Essentially, what you do is:

  • Decide on a task that needs to be completed, such as a draft for an essay that is coming up around the corner.
  • Then you set a timer for a specific period of time (generally 25 minutes, but I’ve modified it to be 50 minutes).
  • Next, you work on the task, making sure to not let anything distract you, to achieve deep focus. To aid with this, I use an app that prevents me from going on any social media and only allows me to go on my phone to use tools such as the calculator.
  • Lastly, end your work when the timer rings and take a short break (five minutes if you do 25-minute blocks or 10 minutes if you do 50-minute sessions like me) and then repeat steps 2 through 4, three or four times. After this, you can take a longer break where you might eat something, go for a walk or watch a movie.

It really helps me because, by completing three 50-minute Pomodoro sessions, I have worked on my tasks cumulatively for almost three hours and have the equivalent of a 30-minute break to recharge.

A tip to take this to the next level is perhaps to Zoom your friends and complete the Pomodoro sessions together. You can make a rule that no one can talk until the set period of time that you choose finishes. Then you get the chance to chat during the 10-minute break. This has helped my friends and I stay on track and be accountable to each other. It also helps replicate the feeling of studying together in-person.

Say goodbye to outside noise

My next study tip concerns how to deal with noise and what to listen to while you’re studying. I quickly get headaches when studying if there is too much noise, which often comes up with a bustling household. However, while my study is important, I also don’t want to unfairly restrict my family from doing what they need to do, so to block out most external noise, I put on a pair of headphones (If you’re really committed, you can also grab a pair of those industrial earmuffs if you want to get something on the cheap and you don’t mind not being able to not listen to music).

Another way to deal with lots of noise is to get work done before or after most of your family is awake, which is a bonus since you can spend quality time with them when you’re not studying.

In terms of what to listen to when you’re studying, listening to music with lyrics is generally not the best idea, as it can affect your concentration and retention of information, especially when you’re trying to commit things to memory. However, if listening to music with lyrics is the only thing that helps you get through study, then by all means, continue with it, because it’s much better than not getting any work done at all. I personally recommend instrumental music, whether that’s classical music, chill-hop or themes from your favourite games, movies or TV shows. I really love listening to chill-hop or lo-fi and there’s some really great playlists and radio stations that you can check out on YouTube.

When I really want to get things done, I listen to ambient sounds and ‘white noise’ (think nature sounds such as waterfalls and rain or the constant low drum of a fan or bustle of a coffee shop). If the weather is gloomy, for example, but it’s not raining in real life (so I can’t benefit from the rain hitting my window pane), then I might listen to rain sounds to get me in the zone of studying in cosy weather.

‘Treat yourself!’

Create a rewards-based system for yourself when it comes to completing work. This can help provide you with extra incentives to be productive and stay on track. For example, you can set rewards where, upon your completion of three Pomodoro sessions/study sessions/drafting up some paragraphs for your essay, you can reward yourself with an episode of your favourite TV show, enjoy some online gaming or even read a chapter from a book that is not related to your studies.

I reward myself with doing some reading, spending time with family, going out for exercise or doing a bit of gaming and it’s great because I can enjoy doing these things guilt-free because I know that I have worked hard. You could even set tiers of rewards, like adding an extra 30 minutes to your break or ordering some delicious food for making progress towards a subject that you really don’t like doing.

The important thing is that you celebrate your effort, regardless of how much work you get done. It’s perfectly OK to not be productive some days, to not be juggling a million things, to just take out some time to chill and break the routine. I’ve gotten carried away listening to music at night, having a good phone call with friends, or getting stuck into YouTube and that’s been critical for my happiness. Take that time out for yourself, it’s so important in preventing you from burning out. All you need to do is gradually work through what you need to get done.

Ask for help!

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any assistance, whether that be with your friends, family or even La Trobe. Do you know how many amazing resources La Trobe has on offer that you can access, such as the Peer Learning Advisers, Achieve@Uni and the Wellbeing service? If not, bookmark this super useful link containing information on how you can access all of La Trobe’s fantastic student support services:

Everyone should be making use of some of these support services, no matter where you are in your degree or how confident you feel in your abilities. Even if you can’t access these services physically for the time being, you can still obtain some useful assistance via Zoom, email or the phone. Finding support is always a massive win in my eyes!