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Lesson 3: Your Home Office

Gary North, Ph.D.
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Did you write down a list of personal goals that are associated with getting better grades and learning how to learn? If not, make the list now. Don't go on to Lesson 4 until you have made that list.

Did you watch Stand and Deliver? If not, you can go ahead with Lesson 4 anyway. This is the one assignment in the course that I allow you to skip. But you really should view the movie. If you do what I recommend, step by step, you can have academic successes comparable to what the students in that movie had.

Lesson 3


This lesson will cost you some money, but not much, if you buy wisely. If you just can't afford this, then make do with what you've got.

Because of homework, your home becomes an extension of your college "job." You therefore need a home office, just as any serious businessman does.

A person who earns a living at home, which I have done for many years, needs an office. Maybe it's a separate bedroom room. Maybe it's in the garage. But you need designated work space.

I do most of my work in a room that is 12 feet by 12 feet. In it, I have the following:

1. A desk (three, actually -- connected in a horseshoe shape).

2. A shelf with room for books and other stuff: pens, note pads, CD-ROM's, etc. It sits on top of one of the desks.

3. Three computers, one on each desk: a computer on which I do my writing (safe from viruses and worms) and two Internet computers.

4. A good lamp for reading.

5. A one-drawer file cabinet, which happens to be built into one of the desks, with space for hanging folders, which I don't use because I have 12 filled filing cabinets, four drawers each, in the next room.

6. Book shelves filled with the books I use most often.

In my office, I write two newsletters ("term papers") each week. Each one is usually as long as this lesson. I also write one long newsletter each month -- three times as long as this lesson -- plus two or three more newsletters about the size of this lesson. I also write at least one book a year. I also wrote this study skills course.

This doesn't require much space or equipment. It doesn't take much money. It takes a lot of time: 12 hours a day, six days a week: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., minimum.

You need a work place. If you are going to get your academic house in order, you must get your bedroom in order, or wherever you do your homework.

If you can't do this in your home, then you must spend a lot of time in the local library. A library can become your place of refuge and place of production. But it would be better if you can work at home.

You must have the following:

1. Desk
2. Book shelf that sits on your desk
3. Good reading light
4. A desk chair that supports your lower back
5. File cabinet or a box, plus hanging folders
6. Two card files for note cards: 3" by 5" and 6" by 8"
7. 3-ring notebook(s) for holding class notes
8. A large, 3-hole, wide-margin, spiral-bound notebook for taking class notes

What about a desk? First, it must fit in your room. Second, it should be cheap. If you don't have a desk already, call local thrift stores: Good Will, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul. See if they have a desk for sale. Ask the price. If they have one at a reasonable price, ask a parent to drive you to see it. Sit at the desk. Put your notebook on the desk and write in it. Make sure the desk doesn't wobble.

The key to your academic success is not a computer, except the one in between your ears. A computer can't do your reading for you or lecturing to the wall or test-taking. But you will need one for writing term papers.

What about a word processor? You can get Open Office for free. It's almost as good as Microsoft Office. It has a very good word processing program. Download it here:



You need two types of notebooks: a 3-ring binder and a 3-hole, spiral-bound notebook. The spiral-bound notebook should have wide margins. The ones law school students use are best. See if you can find one.

Take notes in the spiral-bound notebook. After class, make marginal notations and corrections before the day is over. Then tear out your notes and take them home. Leave the spiral-bound notebook in your locker. Insert the torn- out pages into the appropriate 3-ring binder, which you keep at home.

You could lose your spiral-bound notebook. So, never have more than one day's class notes in it. Every day, take the torn-out pages home and put them into the 3-ring binder. This way, you carry only one notebook to class. It's a lot easier.

At home, keep one large 3-ring binder with tab divisions for each class. Or you can use several smaller binders, one for each class. One binder with tabs is cheaper.


At school, the ringing of bells keeps you on a time schedule. Everyone must adjust to the school day. It's an imposed routine.

Your most important step in surviving college is to adopt a routine. The tighter it is, the better. Yes, you need some flexibility, but not much. You can add flexibility after you have become used to your own self- imposed study schedule.

It's like grammar. Sometimes it can be broken for stylistic effect. A professional writer knows instinctively when he should do this for effect. He doesn't plan this in advance. It just happens as he is writing. But remember: he is a professional. He makes his living with words. He knows what he is doing. The beginner doesn't.

Any routine must be flexible, but you must learn when to be flexible from the routine itself, not from a non- routine. When you're setting up your routine, you must be tough on yourself. You must monitor your time.

A child gets an allowance and spends it the first day. This is a mark of his immaturity. Hopefully, he will learn better as he gets older.

What about you? Are you immature in your allowance of time?

Your academic work will get easier because your time management system will be tougher.

The routine of being at your desk at the same time every day will create a transformation in your life.

People get into habits by following a routine for 30 consecutive days. Bad habits are difficult to break, but 30 consecutive days in a new routine will do more to enable you to break a bad habit than anything else you can do.

Every day at the same time, you will be at your desk: the same place. Plan in advance for exceptions, such as going to the library. But wait for one month if you possibly can before you make any exceptions.

You need a home office. Your first step in your path to better grades is to get it set up.

Set it up by the end of the weekend.


To study well, to must learn how to concentrate. You must focus your attention. To focus your attention, you must remove extraneous noise, either by learning how to block it out psychologically (not recommended) or blocking it physically (recommended).

Learning by reading is a skill that requires reduced auditory inputs.

The cheapest, most efficient way to get a noise-free environment is to buy a pair of wax earplugs and use them. You can buy a box of four pair for under $2. They block out 90% of the noise around you. If you do nothing else that I recommend in this course except buy and use earplugs for two hours a day at your desk, your grades will go up. They may not go up a full grade in two semesters, but they will go up.

"But," you may be thinking, "if I wear earplugs, I won't be able to hear music." Exactly. When you study, you should avoid listening to music, especially loud music, and above all music with mumbled lyrics that demand your attention in order to be understood. In my day, mumbled lyrics were called "Louie, Louie syndrome." Avoid hearing them while doing academic work.

Unless you are 100% sure that the particular music you're listening to helps to increase your output, don't listen to it. Music is all right for accompanying low- concentration forms of physical labor. Prison chain gangs and railroad track-laying teams used to sing simple rhythmic songs to help keep the work going. Those were not high-income occupations. If you are waxing a car, shining your shoes, or washing the dishes, music may make things go faster. Don't confuse that kind of work with memorizing the dates of major wars.

If you can't get through the day without loud music, then you may be addicted. You think I'm kidding. I'm not. Some people really do get addicted to loud, pounding music. They cannot concentrate without it. When they don't hear it, they suffer from what would otherwise be called withdrawal symptoms. An alcoholic says, "I can quit any time I want to. I just don't want to." Music addicts take the same attitude.

There is a book, , on the effects of different kinds of music on people's psychology. It argues that music produces endorphins. Endorphins can become addictive, just as they do when joggers get high from them.

The subject of music and its effects on learning would make a good term paper.


If your home office is in your bedroom, never study in bed unless you're about to go to sleep for the night. There is something about lying in bed that tells your body, "sleep time." Large, low, soft chairs have the same effect.

If the big exam is the next day, or a term paper is due, don't lie on your side in bed, studying.

At the same time, if you're sleepy already, don't fight it. Sleep. Just don't lie down. Put your head on your desk, or on a book that's on your desk, and snooze. A cat nap will refresh you. The sleep demon won't keep pushing down on your eyelids.

You cannot concentrate when you're sleepy. If you need a nap to get back on track, then take a nap. But if you lie down on your bed, you will probably sleep twice as long as your body needs to refresh you. That wastes time.

Learn to cat nap with your head on a desk. This skill can help your career from now on.

Everyone's body has peak times and low times during waking hours. If your low time is in the late afternoon, take a cat nap in the late afternoon. If you fade after lunch, take study hall or physical education or your easiest course right after lunch. Don't take math. Or schedule this time for a typing class. Do something physical. Your brain won't cooperate otherwise. Your efficiency drops. There's not much you can do about this.

If you stay up late and wake up early, you should set aside time for a cat nap during the day. Don't drive your body beyond its limits. It's not healthy to do this.

If you are a late-night person, then stay up. But you may be miserable the next morning. You must decide. If the price of staying up late is misery in the morning, then try to discover an alternative sleep pattern.


A place to study efficiently is vital for academic success.

You need basic tools: desk, shelf, filing cabinet, hanging files, reading light, earplugs.

Set up a routine where you will be at your desk at the same time every day.

Reduce noise to almost zero when you are trying to learn anything new from a book.

Schedule your sleep. If you get sleepy, don't fight it. Cat nap at your desk.

Don't study in bed or in a soft, low chair.

Adopt a new sleep schedule if your body requires it.


Begin setting up your home office today. Anything you can't afford to pay for, start asking for: throwaways. The desk will be the hard item to get for free. A cardboard apple box may be sufficient for the filing cabinet.

Buy some wax earplugs today.

Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page, one class.

If you want to make more money, keep more of your money, and enjoy your money more, subscribe to my free Tip of the Week. The subscription box is here: www.garynorth.com.
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