In his letter to Lucilius (56), Seneca bemoans the constant disruptions to his studies from the noise and activity of the nearby baths. But unless you have taken to studying at the local leisure centre, it is unlikely that will have to contend with the sounds of grunting weight lifters or the yelps of bathers leaping into frigid pools. Nonetheless, disruption at some level is something we will all need to contend with at some point and finding ways of dealing with this can be critical to getting the most out of our studies. Having recently completed my BA in Humanities (Classics and Renaissance Art) with the OU, I thought it might be useful to share some of the experience I have had in managing disruption and how to overcome this challenge. As a Medical Officer in the army I have had to spread my studies across 4 continents studying from the arid conditions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the humid tropics of Central America and the freezing winter of the Canadian Prairie. My studying environments have been as varied as an underground bunker, a jungle atap or simply lying on the ground under a plastic sheet, and whilst none of these were as productive as sitting at the desk in my library, there was always something that could be gleaned.
As with all studying endeavours it pays to start by doing a little planning; the three key questions I would ask when considering what I could achieve in a busy day were:
1. How long have I got to study at a stretch?
2. Where am I going to be – at a desk, chair, moving in a vehicle etc?
3. What, therefore, will be my constraints – ie cold, heat, discomfort, lack of light, noise etc?
Once I had made this assessment I could then select the form of work that would be best suited to my available time. If I was facing only short periods of free time or a very disruptive or difficult environment then I would choose work that requires only a very short attention span – such as learning vocabulary. If, however, I was likely to get an opportunity to enjoy some good quality, uninterrupted study time I would take on something that demands more continuous attention – such as essay writing. Clearly you don’t have to be moving at night in armoured vehicles to make this assessment, a normal working day will always throw up windows of opportunity such as sitting on the bus, as well as its disruptions. The key is tailoring your studies to take advantage of them. I am firmly of the opinion that pretty much any study, no matter how brief, can produce some reward, it is all about fitting your work to suit and using what time you do have productively. It is always easy for us to avoid studying by telling ourselves that the conditions are not quite good enough, but the truth is that they might never be and any amount of study is better than none. Seneca may not have wholly approved, but as my old Physical Training Instructor used to tell us “the only bad workout, is the one that didn’t happen.”