We all have something in common, regardless of where we are in the world. Most, if not all, of collegiate courses are remote in the United States and we can all agree that virtual learning is difficult. The bad guys of our time — COVID-19 and its more deviant B.1.1.7 variant, which has already caused a stay-at-home recommendation — are doing their best to cause one fire after another. It also doesn’t help that this is new for some professors and students. 

Traditional study spaces like libraries are either limited or shut down altogether for in-person operations. That leaves students with but one place to consistently study: their houses. 

A home serves many purposes: creating spaces for relaxation, leisure and bonding. A house, however, is not necessarily designed to be a study space. Although all students are struggling under the current circumstances, there are several incremental changes we can make to get the best out of the situation. We don’t need to be defeatist. A home is not a study space — yet.

Usually, this kind of message is reserved for the start of January, when hopes for the new year are high. By February, our New Year’s resolutions are in tatters, the year no longer seems magical and things revert to the old routine. 

2021, much like 2020, is not normal. So why should we stick to the conventional timeline? The semester started late; February offers a rare opportunity to experiment and subtly tweak things to reduce friction. 

In the fall, I often struggled between two extremes: finding it difficult to focus on classwork, yet also finding it difficult to disconnect from classwork. That was a sentiment echoed by many of my classmates studying remotely. 

Why was this happening? My environmental cues were not setting me up for working, especially for dull tasks. Once I got into a set routine, work started to bleed over because of the lack of separation between my working and relaxing environments. Either case was not ideal. A tiny resolution to separate areas for leisure and work helped. It didn’t have to be different rooms for different activities; even dividing one room into parts worked — making sure that your workspace is only used to complete assignments and participate in your classes and that you only lay in bed for relaxation ensures your work doesn’t bleed into your place of tranquility. 

OK, a small tweak to separate work and leisure environments, check. The next focus is our devices. Choose any calendar platform that you like and add your class schedule to it. Include links to any virtual meetings. Why should this be essential? 

In a more normal on-campus environment, we would see most people attending classes daily. Remote learning is another story. It’s much easier to lose track of an online class and a calendar notification might be the difference between attending a class or forgetting about it. You could say that it might be tedious to maintain. Luckily, many courses provide a schedule, either on Canvas or Google Calendar, that you can easily import. Now, should people go a step further and make a detailed study schedule? There is no one-size-fits-all schedule. Some people can work well with a skeletal timetable. Others need a comprehensive planner to keep them accountable. Know yourself and plan accordingly.

While schedules are great at bringing structure and reducing stress, we must also look after our bodies. It’s easy to lose track of one’s physical well-being and sleep when faced with remote work. For one, sitting in front of a computer for hours on end does our sleep no favors. While all light wavelengths affect our natural circadian rhythm, blue light is the worst offender. Our devices are prolific emitters of blue light, which is a recipe for disrupted sleep. Add a blue-light filter on your computer — both Windows and macOS have built-in functionality to schedule this. 

Another issue with screens is their impact on our eyes. There is a tendency to blink less when looking at a screen. Combine that with a lot of screen time, and you get strained and dry eyes. Eye doctors recommend the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at a point at least 20 feet away, for about 20 seconds. The problem is, we often lose track of time when engrossed in some work. There are, however, many apps and browser extensions designed to remind you every 20 minutes to abide by this rule. 

The next suggestion is something that most people resolve to do but end up slacking on — exercise. The benefits of exercise are well-documented and range from boosting physical health to reducing stress. Now more than ever, we need to be physically and mentally healthy. January usually sees tons of newly-minted gym memberships, most of which won’t see much use. This time around, gym access is limited due to COVID-19 protocols. The good news is that there is a lot of free content for at-home, no equipment workouts. It may be tough to stay on track, but we need to try. 

We should also acknowledge that perfection is unrealistic. There will be cheat days; there will be stressful, unproductive days. As they say, perfect is the enemy of good. 

In these stressful times, you don’t have to do better than you have during previous semesters. And know this, any improvement this semester can translate to gains in future in-person semesters. We might not have started these fires, but we can fight them.

Siddharth Parmar can be reached at sidpar@umich.edu