Where you study isn’t important. The details may help you solve other problems. They are not essential.

This is a response to a question I got from a reader about studying without a desk.

Hey Aaron,

When you were talking about excuses for not studying, I realized my go-to excuse was the clutter on my desk. I’m a pc gamer and my desk is pretty much filled. I’ve got a keyboard, a joystick, a mouse, and a monitor. My desk is barely big enough for it all.

Whenever I plan on studying I just get annoyed at my desk and think that I’ll clean it up later. Naturally, I never do. I just realized that and an idea hit me. I don’t even want to clear the desk. It’s just a pain in the butt. My dorm is just too small for everything I want. Now I’m trying to study in other places but every time I look at my desk I feel guilty.

I’m not sure if I should grow up and move my stuff. My grades haven’t suffered so far. What do you think?

Carl F.

PS I’ve been working on getting on the 15mss. So far I’m comfortable around 20.


You don’t have to “grow up.”

I know why you feel that way. The world will try to make you feel guilty about your choice but I think the world is usually pointing down when people should be going up.

Are you familiar with domain dependence?

Domain Dependent Studying Kicks Ass (In Good Ways And Bad)

This is how clean I (don’t) keep my desk. I get it.

Domain dependence is the idea that you’re brain is compartmentalized. You don’t use everything you know at once. You only use the parts of your brain that seem relevant. In your example:

When you sit at your desk, your brain is likely to use the parts of your brain that are good for gaming. You may pull out your textbook but you’re going to have to focus extra hard to use the correct parts of your brain.

If you cleared your desk of the gaming equipment and spent a few years using it for only studying then that association might change. The “domain” of your desk would become related to studying instead of gaming.

So… just clearing your desk to study comes with the risk of not studying as well as you could.

Here is what drives me nuts about domain dependence. It’s a problem I’m constantly struggling to understand:

If you create the perfect study environment then you’re probably not going to feel like you’re being tested. While you’re taking the test, you’re brain will be associating to different things than when you were studying. That means it’s working against you. (It’s at least not working for you.)

Test are unpredictable.

Sometimes they’re a bit noisy. Sometimes they’re dead quiet. Sometimes they’re stressful. Sometimes they’re not. They’re always different and that makes it tough to create solid “domains.” (Domains you can depend on, perhaps? Bad joke. Sorry.)

This is the reason I try to kill domain dependence with noise.

What do I mean by that?

No… I don’t mean blare your headphones!

The Blaring Noisy Approach

Your brain likes patterns and associations. Tests will often break your patterns.

This is a strategy I recommend when it’s convenient. It’s not always my first choice for a recommendation but sometimes it seems to work well.

Don’t fall into too many patterns while studying.

Study in different locations. One day you can do it in the library. The next you can do it in the classroom. Then try doing it on your floor. (By it, I’m talking about studying… dirty mind…) Anyway… if you’re using flashcards or notes then consider studying while you’re in line at the store.

By studying in multiple locations you ruin any particular domain dependence. Your brain starts to think that information is valuable absolutely every second of every day. That can help it stick.

But don’t only do this with locations.

Experiment with strategies. Use flashcards one day. Try using active recall on your notes another day. Of course, try to stick with active recall strategies but the occasional change won’t hurt the average student.

This will make studying more difficult.

That’s the point. This is a good thing.

When you make your daily studying as stressful as the test, you can make the test feel significantly easier.

The Traditional Approach AKA Trap

I’d still usually recommend finding a quiet place to study consistently. That’s because it will usually help you develop a pattern. Studying consistently is dramatically more important than the ideas I’m discussing here. I’m mentioning the noisy approach because it sounds like you’ve already got the basics of the 15MSS down.

For new readers, developing a study space in your own home can create a trigger for you to study. That can be well worth the slight domain dependence.

Most of studying shouldn’t need a desk.

In fact, not having a desk can encourage some positive habits.

When you don’t have a desk, you’re much more likely to skip using your textbook to study. Instead you might use flashcards or a set of notes from the class.

Having a desk often means you’re probably sitting in your bedroom to study. That means you’re surrounded with distractions.

Is It Terminal? – What I Think The Problem Is

You will get better grades if you keep your mind on the essentials first. Your friends may get distracted with the little things but you can keep your mind on the big picture.

The difference between success and failure has nothing to do with your desk.

At first diagnosis, I’m thinking you might be suffering from generalized 15MSS guilt.

Your grades are good, right?

Then what makes you think you have a problem with your desk. Why do you feel guilty?

Cutting down your study time can make you feel guilty. Your parents and teachers have taught you that investing time into studying is good. They doesn’t encourage you to experiment with reducing study time to study better.

Imagine telling your teacher you studied 10 hours for the test. Then you fail the the test. Will you get a guilt trip from the teacher? Maybe a little.

Now imagine telling the teacher you studied 10 minutes a day for the test… Then you fail… How will that guilt trip compare? Oh… you know that teacher would be willing to chew your head off.

Time is part of studying but it’s not everything.

You chose to use the 15MSS. That makes me confident you understand that cutting study time can improve your results. (Not many students are crazy enough to follow through like we are.) You’ve got this figured out intellectually.

Now you’re getting some leftover emotional guilt over it.

Try not to take it too seriously. Watch your results.

If your results get worse then maybe you can consider the problem with your desk. For now, you’ve got this under control. Don’t let the world make you feel guilty about it.

Image Sources: VideoRevive, COD Newsroom, Max PixelWikipedia

Studying Without A Desk – Not A Problem

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