Lesson 3: Your Home Office
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.
YOUR HOME OFFICE
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
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
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:
2. Book shelf that sits on your desk
3. Good reading light
4. A desk chair that supports your lower
5. File cabinet or a box, plus hanging
6. Two card files for note cards:
3" by 5" and 6" by 8"
7. 3-ring notebook(s) for holding class
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:www.openoffice.org
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
SAME TIME, SAME PLACE
At school, the ringing of bells keeps you on a time
schedule. Everyone must adjust to the school day. It's an
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
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
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
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
The subject of music and its effects on learning would
make a good term paper.
BUDGETING FOR SLEEP
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
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
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,
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