The Science Behind Effective Study Spaces: Proven Strategies12 min read

Published by Zach on

Where you work matters; in a world filled with distractions, we must find a way to break through, regain our focus, and unlock our full potential. Imagine a glorious sanctuary where your focus is 110%, and distractions glance off you like bullets on Superman.

There is evidence on evidence, that a low-quality environment, maybe an environment filled with distractions or images or noise, is associated with lower cognitive performance, including test performance, memory, focus duration, and problem-solving ability.1-3

Here’s how to build the ultimate Deep Work Sanctuary.

1. Why Environment Matters

Our physical environment shapes our mental state and cognitive abilities. A cluttered, noisy environment results in precisely that level of concentration, while a well-organized and quiet space results in a well-organized and focused mind.

In one study, participants were asked to listen to an audiobook, and their retention and ability to focus on it between two different settings were tested. One group was in a controlled lab environment, and the other was allowed to wander outside the lab. Distraction rates were 33% higher in the high-distraction setting, outside the lab, and their test performance was 20% worse.4

These are significant results! Being in a focused environment could increase your performance on an exam by a whole letter grade and increase the time you stay focused by nearly a third. And this isn’t an isolated study; experiment after experiment shows that when participants are distracted or in a distracted environment, their performance suffers.1-3 Some examples of the distractions:

  • Loud Noises
  • Random Images
  • Being asked random questions (like mental math problems) while trying to perform another task
  • Having a rapidly changing display or task item

We will consider these factors when designing our sanctuary and minimize personal, visual, and audio distractions.

2. Deep Work, and Why we want it always

Deep work, popularized by Cal Newport, is having long periods of good “deep” work, like writing a book chapter. Shallow work, however, is a task that can be completed while multitasking, like texting a friend. Performing deep work might look something like this:

  • Figure out what work you want to do
  • Schedule the time for the deep work
  • Remove distractions (by building this sanctuary)
  • Focus on the task for the set period of time

A distracted environment might stop you from entering this fantastic state of deep work. Often, Deep work will result in a magical flow state where you are at this magical intersection of difficulty and expertise, where it is difficult enough to keep you focused on the work but not so tricky that you get stuck.

The goal is to have uninterrupted deep work consistently throughout our work time so we can accomplish more and enter the flow state more frequently.

3. Designing Deep Work Sanctuary

Here is where we get into the meat, the actual design of our sanctuary.

a. Have a Dedicated Workspace

Using classical conditioning will superpower our deep work sanctuary. Classical conditioning is associating one stimulus with another stimulus. The famous Pavlov rang a bell whenever he fed a dog food. After a while, the dog began to salivate to the sound of the bell alone, without the food.

We want to do the same thing by priming ourselves for deep work. I like to get ridiculously specific with this: I leave my phone outside the deep workspace and make sure ONLY good, deep work is done in this space. I would dedicate a room to this if I had more space. Then, as soon as I sit in the chair, the deep work begins. I always spend my time in the deep workspace when doing deep work; whenever I do shallow work or no work, I am not in the space.

What space can you dedicate to deep work? This may be a whole room, a desk, simply a chair at the table, or a specific seat in a coffee shop. Pick a place, and stick to it as your deep work space (if it’s the coffee shop, we might only be able to alter the surroundings a little).

b. Optimize Lighting

When worker’s environments are improperly lit, their work productivity suffers. Daylight is the highest quality of light (being near a window that has the sun shining through). If artificial lighting must be used, a color temperature of 4000 K has been shown to produce the highest levels and duration of focus and productivity at a LUX level of 500-1000, with detailed/precision work at 1500 – 2000 LUX (sticking around 1000 is a good bet). How do you think we could implement this in real life? Try to have our workstation near a window; if not possible, make sure there are sufficiently bright overhead lights and set them to a color temperature of 4000 K (warm white).6,7

*An advanced level tip is optimizing your lighting for sleep because better sleep will result in better cognitive function and better deep work. Briefly, after waking up, we want 10-30 minutes of sunlight-level lighting hitting our retinas (this isn’t staring into the sun, don’t do that, it’s simply outside); overhead lighting doesn’t cut it; the brightest overhead lights will take 6 hours to hit the total amount of light to help signal or awake hormone response.5 Starting about 3 hours before bed at best, 1 hour before bed at a minimum, all overhead lights should be turned off, and we should transition to low-level red/orange lighting. I shower and move around my apartment, lit by low-level adjustable color and intensity lights (usually set to orange).

c. Control the Noise Levels

181 workers from different parts of the automobile assembly industry were exposed to various noise levels. The experiment showed a significant negative correlation between productivity and noise level.8 The decibels ranged from 70 to 90 dBA, with productivity as a % ranging from 56% to 81%. The place where the noise was the highest, the productivity was the lowest. Where noise was the lowest, the productivity percentage was the highest. 70 dB is about the sound inside a car while driving, and 90 is the sound level in the subway or during a shouting conversation. Also, noise hurts work satisfaction, psychological stress, and cognitive function (which all impact focus).

Other studies show the same effect: the productivity level dramatically drops as you go above 70 dB. There is little evidence around the lower noise levels, but if you can, try to keep the noise levels low. This can be done by being in a quiet place or using noise-reducing headphones, or telling your parents to stop conducting the well-known play of “When Pot meets Pan”.9

d. Focus on the Ergonomics

Standing desk or sitting desk? Exercise ball or treadmill? Mouse or VR headset?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence in one direction. The only evidence I’ve seen is staying static for an extended period is a wrong move. So, getting up at least once every hour is optimal. I like to have a desk that can alternate between standing and sitting; otherwise, here are some general recommendations from the ergonomic experts of the world:

  • Overall, everything should feel as comfortable and natural as possible
  • Chair: Hips as far back in the chair as possible → adjust seat height so feet are flat on the floor and knees are equal to or slightly lower than your hips → adjust the backrest to a 100 – 110 degree reclined angle → ensure back is supported, use cushions if necessary → reposition frequently → adjust armrests so your shoulders are relaxed by your side and not splayed out, reposition the armrests to that position.
  • Keyboard: should be at the position of relaxed elbows, a tilting keyboard is optimal so you can adjust it as you tilt → resting palms on supports is not recommended while typing because if your hands and elbows and shoulders are in the optimal position your wrists are resting on nothing → the keyboard and mouse should be very close to you and each other.
  • Monitor: Evidence shows two monitors increase productivity → sitting in a natural and upright position, the top third of the monitor should be at your eye level to reduce neck strain → you should be arm’s length away from your screen → use headsets or headphones to avoid having to hold a telephone.
  • Breaks: take short 1-2 minute breaks every 30 minutes, and a 5-10 minute break every hour
  • Eyes:every 20 minutes look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds to reduce eye strain and improve any symptoms of eye strain

When I started receiving a disposable income from this YouTube thing, one of the first places I invested was a nice bed because I spend ~8 hours a day there; the next was optimizing my workstation because I spend another ~8 hours there.

e. Declutter the Space

Similar to removing audio distractions, we need to remove visual distractions. This means any unnecessary items, papers, posters, pens, or anything should be outside your line of sight. We want to aim for minimalism at this stage because we will add to it later.

4. Personalize it, make it exciting

Let’s make our space enticing and fun like we want to be there. The goal is to remove any dread and make this space as exciting as possible. This is why we removed everything we could in the previous step to add the fun things now. It’s a similar idea to training a puppy in a crate. The dog needs to learn that the crate is a safe and fun place and can be left alone, so you put treats, toys, and everything you can in there to make it desirable so they associate the crate with a good time. Like the puppy, we must associate our deep workspace with fun, not dread.

Here are some things to make your space more exciting:

  • Plants
  • Standing Desk
  • Pictures of loved ones
  • The most comfortable chair in the world
  • An excellent tea or snack whenever your deep work sessions begin
  • Background music (minimalistic including classical, ambient, or background/white noise)

The more you like the deep work space, the longer you will be there.

5. Set Boundaries

Your deep work sanctuary is precisely that: a sanctuary. It must be kept sacred at all costs. Whenever you do non-deep work in the sanctuary and sit down and don’t do good work, you hurt yourself with classical conditioning. The opposite is also true; every time you sit down and doily, good job, you are building the conditioning muscle in your brain, making it much easier to achieve the flow state and do great deep work the next time you sit down.

Strictness is essential with this space; I never bring my phone into it; I set my mode to DND, and if someone else is in the house, I make it clear that I should not be disturbed for the next couple of hours. This is not being mean; this is not being cold; remember, we are trying to set this space for deep work to accomplish our goals and spend more time doing the things we love. Wasting time is completely fine, but never do it in the sanctuary.

6. Make it a habit

James Clear from Atomic Habits says it takes 66 days, or two months, to build a habit. This is a little lenient; I would like to aim for three months. Can you commit yourself to three months of only deep work in the deep work sanctuary? What times during the day will you work in this space? For how long? What will you be working on? You can plan this out the Sunday before a week starts and stick to it. Keep this up for three months and you will likely have done some of the best work you have ever done in your life. You will also have established this habit and conditioned your brain to do good work.

7. Don’t Burn Out

Finally, make sure to take breaks. Use the Pomodoro method, take a day off every week if you can, and do fun things.


  • Understand that deep work and environment is paramount for productivity
  • Build your dream workspace focusing on optimal lighting, reducing noise, improving ergonomics, and decluttering the space.
  • Make your space your own and desirable
  • Set boundaries and make it a habit
  • Take Breaks

That’s it, good luck, and feel free to send me pictures of your deep work sanctuary at (or comment below) I would love to see them!

Work Cited

  1. Irit Wolach, Hillel Pratt. The mode of short-term memory encoding as indicated by event-related potentials in a memory scanning task with distractions. Clinical Neurophysiology 112, 186-197 (2001)
  2. Hughes MA, Swan L, Taylor CL, Ilin R, Partridge R, Brennan PM. The Impact of Novel Nontechnical Stressors (Visual and Auditory) on Simulated Laparoscopic Task Performance Among Surgeons and Students. J Laparoendosc Adv Surg Tech A. 2022 Feb;32(2):189-196. doi: 10.1089/lap.2021.0695. Epub 2021 Dec 2. PMID: 34860611.
  3. Zhang Y, Kaber DB, Rogers M, Liang Y, Gangakhedkar S. The effects of visual and cognitive distractions on operational and tactical driving behaviors. Hum Factors. 2014 May;56(3):592-604. doi: 10.1177/0018720813495279. PMID: 24930178
  4. Madero EN, Anderson J, Bott NT, Hall A, Newton D, Fuseya N, Harrison JE, Myers JR, Glenn JM. Environmental Distractions during Unsupervised Remote Digital Cognitive Assessment. J Prev Alzheimers Dis. 2021;8(3):263-266. doi: 10.14283/jpad.2021.9. PMID: 34101782; PMCID: PMC7964516.
  5. Brown TM, Brainard GC, Cajochen C, Czeisler CA, Hanifin JP, Lockley SW, Lucas RJ, Münch M, O’Hagan JB, Peirson SN, Price LLA, Roenneberg T, Schlangen LJM, Skene DJ, Spitschan M, Vetter C, Zee PC, Wright KP Jr. Recommendations for daytime, evening, and nighttime indoor light exposure to best support physiology, sleep, and wakefulness in healthy adults. PLoS Biol. 2022 Mar 17;20(3):e3001571. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001571. PMID: 35298459; PMCID: PMC8929548.
  6. Fang Y, Liu C, Zhao C, Zhang H, Wang W, Zou N. A Study of the Effects of Different Indoor Lighting Environments on Computer Work Fatigue. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Jun 3;19(11):6866. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19116866. PMID: 35682449; PMCID: PMC9180354.
  7. Katabaro JM, Yan Y. Effects of Lighting Quality on Working Efficiency of Workers in Office Building in Tanzania. J Environ Public Health. 2019 Nov 14;2019:3476490. doi: 10.1155/2019/3476490. PMID: 31814837; PMCID: PMC6877933.
  8. Akbari J, Dehghan H, Azmoon H, Forouharmajd F. Relationship between lighting and noise levels and productivity of the occupants in automotive assembly industry. J Environ Public Health. 2013;2013:527078. doi: 10.1155/2013/527078. Epub 2013 Oct 22. PMID: 24250340; PMCID: PMC3819755.
  9. Jafari MJ, Khosrowabadi R, Khodakarim S, Mohammadian F. The Effect of Noise Exposure on Cognitive Performance and Brain Activity Patterns. Open Access Maced J Med Sci. 2019 Aug 30;7(17):2924-2931. doi: 10.3889/oamjms.2019.742. PMID: 31844459; PMCID: PMC6901841.
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