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When you live with others, carving out some personal space in your home is essential—it maximizes your ability to concentrate, express yourself, and decompress from the stresses of student life. Whether you live in a residence hall, at home with family, or in an off-campus apartment with roommates, making a shared living space your own is key to succeeding academically (and mentally) this semester. Here’s how.

desk icon

1. Create a designated study space in your home

Find a nook in your bedroom, living room, or kitchen—preferably at a desk or table. If your chosen study space is in a common area, be sure to talk with your roommates or family ahead of time to determine which area will be needed for studying and at what times. That way, you won’t have to worry about getting set up with your favorite cup of tea, lucky sweatpants, and perfectly organized notes—only to have your roommate’s friends show up as soon as you’re in the zone.

“My office indicates it’s alone time. If I am in there with the door shut, my partner knows to let me work or be. He is extremely open to hearing things like that and often encourages me to hang out with myself when I have downtime.”
—Maddi I., second-year graduate student, California State University, Northridge

Pro tip: Study at a desk or table; avoid studying in bed.

Studying in bed may cause our brain to associate the bed with stimulating or stressful activities rather than sleep. Using your bed only for sleep (and other bedroom activities) helps strengthen the mental connection that associates your bed with sleep, so your brain knows not to rev up when you’re trying to wind down. In fact, strengthening our brain’s association between our bed and sleep—and weakening its association with stimulating activities—is a common treatment for insomnia called stimulus control therapy (Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2012).

Tips for maximizing small spaces

  • Organization is key. If you find yourself stressed or losing concentration, “clear some clutter,” says Judy Morris, feng shui expert at the Feng Shui Research Center in Austin, Texas.
  • Use stackable storage containers to make use of vertical space.
  • Tuck things you use less often into hidden areas, such as kitchen cabinets or the foot well under your desk.
  • If fridge space is an issue, reserve specific shelves for each person’s food—and set clear expectations ahead of time regarding shared items.
  • At the beginning of each semester, sit down together and go over your schedules to decide who gets the shower first each day of the week.
  • Implement a “wash as you go” dishwashing system to prevent buildup in the sink.
  • Alternate weekends for hosting social gatherings so no one steps on anyone’s toes (literally).

If you live in a residence hall or with a lot of other people, you may be pretty cramped. You can use the following pointers to make your study space more inviting:

  • Decorate your workspace with inspirational pictures and quotes to stay motivated.
  • Buy a comfortable chair or chair pad, and have a good lamp to study by.
  • Keep things organized using wall-mounted file holders or a bulletin board above your desk for notes, a calendar, or a to-do list.
  • Place a soothing tabletop fountain or small plant on or near your desk for a little mental tranquility.

desk chair icon2. Use ergonomics for pain-free studying

Where you study is only part of the equation; how you study is just as important. “A lot of the time, people don’t think about the way that they are working until they start to hurt,” says Dr. Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University who specializes in ergonomics, the science of designing and arranging equipment to maximize efficiency and minimize injury. While sitting at your desk, proper ergonomics can help you stay comfortable and avoid pain during lengthy cram sessions. “If you can find a neutral [body] position, you are going to be more healthy, you are going to be more alert, you are going to perform better,” says Dr. Hedge.

  • Keep your monitor at arm’s length, at eye level or slightly below.
  • Keep hands at or slightly below elbow level; support wrists so they are level.
  • Adjust your chair height so your knees are roughly level with hips.
  • Take frequent breaks to stand, stretch, and walk around.
  • Consider investing in an ergonomic chair or standing desk.

group of people icon3. Manage distractions

It’s inevitable that other people will be around when you’re studying, at least some of the time. More than 40 percent of respondents to a recent student survey say that the presence of roommates and family at home has an impact on their choice of study location, and almost 50 percent say their most pressing distraction when studying is other people.

“The biggest challenge that I face when I’m trying to study is my friends or classmates wanting to talk to me,” says Brandon P., a junior at Troy University in Dothan, Alabama.

  • Let the people you live with know that when they see you in your chosen study spot, you are effectively hanging up a “do not disturb” sign.
  • Wear headphones—this can work as a visual cue to others to give you some space while simultaneously drowning out ambient noise.

clock icon4. Establish clear boundaries

Sit down and talk to the people you live with to establish ground rules about things like quiet times and cleaning schedules. You can even write up a contract (to keep it casual, write it on a white board or get crafty with a poster board). Doing this early on, before you’re deep into the stresses of the school year, can prevent conflict later.

“I try to communicate openly and honestly with [my roommates about] my expectations or study needs,” says Micah T., a fourth-year undergraduate at Stanford University in California.

Sample roomie guidelines: Quiet study hours Monday–Thursday: 4 p.m. – 9 p.m. Saturday: 10 a.m.–12 p.m. Sunday: 1 p.m.–5 p.m. Bathroom cleaning: Jen—every other Sunday Maikha—every other Wednesday   Kitchen cleaning: Jen—every other Thursday Maikha—every other Saturday 

picture frame icon5. Make the space feel like your own

“It is really important for me to personalize my space,” says Katie T., a fifth-year undergraduate at Stanford University. “I put up posters of things I like, and I keep sticky notes around to remind myself of positive affirmations and to connect with my values and personal goals. I tend to adapt to the people around me when I live with others, so I’ve learned it is important to make sure my environment fosters a robust connection to my internal self.”

  • Hang your favorite poster, tapestry, or artwork.
  • Go shopping with your roommate for shared items such as couch pillows or kitchen gadgets.
  • Decorate the walls or your workspace with pictures of your friends, family, or pets.
  • If away from home, bring a meaningful item from your childhood, such as a crocheted blanket your grandmother made or a souvenir from a family trip.
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Article sources

Alan Hedge, PhD, professor of design and environmental analysis, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Judy Morris, master of Feng Shui, Feng Shui Research Center, Austin, Texas.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. (2010, November 1). Working in a sitting position: Good body position. Retrieved from https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/ergonomics/sitting/sitting_position.html

Sharma, M. P., & Andrade, C. (2012). Behavioral interventions for insomnia: Theory and practice. Indian Journal of Psychiatry54(4), 359. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3554970/

Student Health 101 surveys, June 2012 and May 2019.