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Setting up your workstation


Environment matters!

Imagine that you’re in the mood for some chocolate chip cookies. You bake some and after eating a couple, you feel full and don’t want any more. If you sit down to start working and put the plate with the remaining cookies right next to you, in all likelihood, you’ll keep eating the cookies even though you decided you don’t want any more. If, on the other hand, you put the cookies away, you’ll find it much easier to follow your body’s signals. This example illustrates why it’s so important to make sure our environment sets us up for success.

To increase the effectiveness of your work environment:


If your workspace looks like a tornado recently swept through it, you’ll find that cleaning and organizing it will help you stay more focused and on top of tasks. If you sit down to get started only to discover that you can’t find a pen or a clean sheet of paper, then you may get derailed in the process of searching for what you need. A well-organized workspace can calm a chaotic mind and also streamlines our efforts.

White board with magnetic markers

White boards are great for breaking down tasks, writing important reminders, jotting down random things that need to happen, and sketching out ideas. They are easy to erase, which makes revising information simple. Markers come in many colors so you can color code information. Many students find putting their priorities for the week on a white board helps keep them in mind. Just make sure to get magnetic markers that will stick on the board so you don’t lose time searching for lost markers and/or replacing them.

Big picture schedule

Having a calendar, your pinch points worksheet, or some other representation of your big picture schedule (i.e. quarter or monthly overview) visible at your workspace can help you keep in mind why it’s important to stay on track. It can also help you stay on top of goals and deadlines. We need to regularly check our schedules for them to be useful.

Make your daily/weekly plan easily accessible

Similarly, you should be able to access your daily/weekly plan and to-do list easily every time you work. The more often you check these tools, the more effective they will be for you. If you need help creating a big picture or daily/weekly plan, check out our section on planning tips and tools.

Notebook for jotting random notes

We all remember important things at random times. Sometimes we have an idea or inspiration that suddenly pops into our minds when we’re working on something unrelated. If you have a notebook next to you while you work, you can write these things down so you don’t lose them and they don’t distract you in the moment. Some people find it easier to use a note app that syncs across devices. If the thing you just remembered is deadline related, you can also put it on your big-picture calendar or white board.

Make time visual

a time timer

It may be very helpful to invest in a time timer. A time timer is a visual stopwatch. It allows you to see how much time you have left and to visualize time as it passes. It is much more effective at creating an internal sense of urgency than looking at a regular clock.

Place for To-do/Done items

If you have papers that frequently float around your desk such as bills, homework assignments, and forms to fill out, you will likely benefit from a physical inbox system with one level for items that still need to be completed and another level for items that are done. Every few weeks, look through your done items to see what needs to be filed or disposed of.

Minimize environmental distractions

Minimizing environmental distractions won’t look the same for everyone. Some people work better listening to music, others work better in silence. Some people work better when surrounded by people, others work better alone. If you’re a person who works better with minimal noise and people around, it’s going to be important to find several places nearby that work for you. If your room is a reliably quiet place, that’s great. A quiet building on campus or the library are often good options if you live near the UW. Your local library or community center may be options if you live far from campus. Another option is to stay on campus before or after your classes to get work done.

Even if you prefer some background noise, you’re still going to be less effective if you work in an area where your friends frequently stop by. A library or quiet coffee shop or lobby area of a building on campus may be a better alternative. Or arrange a study date with just one friend who is good at staying focused and won’t regularly interrupt you.

Minimize digital distractions

From text messages to social media to the black hole of the internet, our digital lives offer constant distractions. If you want to increase your productivity, you’ll need to be intentional and thoughtful about how you limit digital interruptions. You may need to turn your phone off for a period of time or at least put it away (and on silent). You may need to set your computer to Do Not Disturb to limit notifications that appear. You may need to take your smart watch off for a little while. And you may want to consider apps that block you from accessing distracting websites.