Study Hacks Blog Posts from 2007 July

Monday Master Class: Part 2 in 60 Seconds or Less

July 20th, 2007 · 9 comments

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 6/18/07]

I’ve received some recent mail asking me to review the ideas presented
in Part 2 of How to Become a Straight-A Student. This section, as
you know, focuses on preparing for quizzes and tests. Though the main
ideas are simple, I can imagine that it’s easy to get lost amidst the
numerous implementation-focused details. With this is mind, I’ve
dedicated this week’s Monday Master Class to presenting the key
concepts in a clear, concise summary. This should help you both review
and apply the relevant advice from the book.


Think of studying as an industrial process. The input is pieces of
information delivered to you in the form of lectures and reading
assignments. This raw material must be processed into coherent ideas,
which unify the information around themes and explanatory theories.
These ideas must then be ingrained into your mind. Finally, the
ingrained ideas must be recalled and manipulated in the test-taking

The goal of studying is simple: find the most efficient possible
method to complete this process.

The approach proposed in Part 2 gains efficiency through the following
two principles:

(1) Capture and coalesce information as early possible.
(2) Learn big ideas not small facts.

The first principle means two things. First, don’t save information
gathering until the last moment. Attend every lecture. Do your
important reading. If you skip lectures or avoid readings, you might
gain a small amount of relief at the time, but you will gain a much
larger headache right before the test. Second, never record in your
notes (lecture or reading) only the raw information. If you do this,
you are deferring the coalescing of this info into coherent ideas for
either right before the test, or, worse, during the test itself. Under
these time constraints you will not do a good job. Instead,
immediately transform the information into ideas. One way to do this
is by using the Question/Evidence/Conclusion note-taking formatting
presented in Part 2. The basic idea is to reduce the material in Q/E/C
modules structured as follows: a question, a conclusion that responds
to the question, and a collection of evidence (e.g., raw information)
that connects the two. The question and conclusion force you to corral
the info into bigger units of comprehension. By distributing this
thinking to the margins of the process, you avoid the pain of trying
to do it in one big draining marathon session.

The second principle refers to the act of studying itself. It is
difficult to memorize the sheer volume of raw information delivered to
you. It is easier, however, to learn the much smaller number of big
ideas. For each question recorded in your Q/E/C notes, you should be
able to lecture, out-loud, and without peeking at what you’ve written
down, about the conclusion and a *sampling* of the evidence that
connects the conclusion with the question. You don’t have to remember
every last piece of evidence, just enough to recreate the main idea.
This reduces the time required to study. You are dealing with exactly
the big conceptual units you need to perform well on the test — and
nothing else. You are maximizing the results for time invested.

Monday Master Class: Identify an Instant Replay Booth for Every Class

July 20th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 6/11/07]

Today, I’m inaugurating a new regular feature for this newsletter: The Monday
Master Class
. Every Monday, I will present a new advanced study tactic of
the type found in my books. These will include the material I left out
of STRAIGHT-A, as well as highlights from the many interesting ideas I
receive from readers such as yourself.

The motivation for the Monday Master Class is to keep Study Hacks
connected to its core mission of exploring tips, tricks, and
strategies for making the academic piece of student life easier.
On other days, we can continue on our digressions into related,
but more esoteric topics, such as the Paradox of the Relaxed Rhodes
Scholar, and interviews with interesting students.

Today’s tactic:


For every one of your classes, identify a quiet location near the
lecture hall. This is your instant replay booth. Make it an inviolable
habit that after every class you immediately head into your replay
booth to spend 5-10 minutes “locking in” your lecture notes. This
process should include three steps.

(1) Clean-up any spots where you got rushed before finishing your thought.

(2) Devise a two or three sentence summary of the day’s lecture.
Consider this an abstract for the notes that follow.

(3) Create a list at the bottom of your notes that contains the
questions you can later use to cover this material when studying with
the quiz-and-recall method (see Part 2 of STRAIGHT-A for more detail
on q-and-r).

This process of locking in takes only a few minutes to complete.
And it doesn’t require much will-power, as you’re already in a work
mode (having just attended class).

The advantages, however, are significant. First, this
extra moment of reflection cements the material in your mind,
reducing the effort required later to study. Second, by producing your
quiz-and-recall questions while the ideas are still fresh, not only
are the questions better, but you’ve just cut out a time-consuming
step of the test preparation process: creating the study guide for all
of your lectures all at once.

The only caveat to this tactic is that if you have two or more classes
in quick succession, you need to visit your instant replay booth only
after the last of these classes. At this point, lock in the material
from all the preceding lectures in one sitting.

Interview with Ben Casnocha

July 20th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 6/4/07]

My friend Ben Casnocha recently published his first book, My Start-up
Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon
Ben has an interesting story to tell. He first got involved in
the tech boom when he was 12, and by high school he was heading a
multi-million dollar company. What makes his book interesting,
however, is that it bypasses the rah-rah, self-congratulation common
among the young entrepreneur set, instead capturing, with remarkable
lucidity, the complexities of trying to balance being a teenager and
running a business. It also replaces the generic advice endemic to the
genre (“follow your dreams and it will all work out”) with practical
mediations on issues such as the role of luck in big successes and the
proper care and feeding of mentors. The overarching theme of My
Start-up Life is that many of the skills related to entrepreneurship
can be applied to any endeavor.

What makes Ben relevant to Study Hacks is that he is heading off to
college in the fall. I thought it would be interesting to interview
Ben regarding how his experiences will shape his path through higher
education. Our conversation is reproduced below. For more information
on Ben, his book, or his popular blog, check out

STUDY HACKS: Your book promotes the idea of being “CEO of your own
life.” What does that mean?

BEN: It means adopting the entrepreneurial world view in all that you do — not
just starting a business. It means thinking different, challenging the
status quo, striving for impact, and generally maintaining a commitment to
carve your own life path and not outsource that vital task to anyone else
like a parent or professor.

SH: You’re heading off to college in the fall. How do these ideas
apply to this new environment?

BEN: To be CEO of your college life means you will think about what you really
want to get out of it. You won’t just accept the default. You won’t just
sign up for random classes. You will talk to people, cold call professors,
sample widely, ask for exceptions, explore nooks and crannies; in short, you
will be entrepreneurial in how you create a four year experience.

SH: How does the social aspect of college integrate into this
framework? Or, in other, cruder words: is it possible to be CEO of
your own life and still get chicks?

BEN: Absolutely.

SH: But are you worried about not conforming to the typical behavior
of your fellow undergraduates? That is, downplaying work, and trying
to act uncaring. How do you think they will react to someone who is
following the beat of his own drummer?

BEN: I will conform a little. To be part of a group, we all need to give up a
little of our individuality. However, in general, I think college is the
time when most of us begin to extend ourselves in new directions, so I’m
expecting that “beating on your own drum” will be embraced more than in high

SH: Let’s get specific: name three things you plan to do in your first
year of college to help you get more out of the experience than the
average undergraduate.

BEN: 1. Reach out to 5-6 professors who won’t be teaching me but who sound
interesting anyways. Take them to lunch. 2. Engage in the ecosystem
AROUND the college. For me, this is Los Angeles and all that it
offers. 3. Talk to the Registrar and Dean about flexibility in my
schedule so I can ursue various extracurricular activities. In high school, I had great
success at persuading them to loosen the normal academic requirements and

SH: Give an example of an extracurricular activity that would require
a special course load.

BEN: Anything that’s both extensive and intensive. Extensive means it involves a
wide range of activities (starting a business certainly is extensive) and
you probably have to be in various locations. Intensive means it has to
consume a lot of energy to be done right.

SH: Another specific question: how does your experience as an
entrepreneur affect how you will tackle schoolwork?

BEN: I will strive to pass my classes but not over optimize. The reason most A+
students don’t make good entrepreneurs is because they don’t settle for good
enough. I pay close attention to diminishing returns. I want to get as much
as possible out of each class I take, and once I’ve reached that optimal
point, devote the rest of my time and energy to other activities. This may
mean that for some classes I spend little time if they don’t seem

[Ed: We’ll have to introduce Ben to STRAIGHT-A — with the right
strategies, there is little difference, in terms of effort, between
learning the material and scoring top grades.

SH: Let’s do a sample scenario. I’m an undergraduate. I’m not quite
sure what I want to do with my life, but I’m ambitious, and would like
to do something big and important before I graduate; I just don’t know
how. One thing I’m really interested in is clever technologies for
helping to reduce global warming. Give me a battle-plan for
jump-starting my life.

BEN: First, figure out if you’re really interested in clever technologies to
reduce global warming. Many people think they are interested in something,
but turn out not to be. This is because we tend to absorb the interests of
others as our own.

The best way to figure out what you’re interested in is to expose yourself
to as much random stuff as possible. Sure, go to a few green tech
conferences and do some research online, but also do other things. Explore
some secondary interests. Talk to a priest and then a workaholic tech
entrepreneur. Get varying perspectives. You’d be surprised how many people
respond graciously to a stranger who reaches out and asks for their

Then get going. If you do indeed decide to try to fight global warming,
start taking action, start doing things, and build your plan as you go.

SH: What’s the most frustrating misperception people tend to generate about you?

BEN: Hmm. Perhaps that I’ve figured out all the answers. I still have
much to learn. A little youthful success is far from total

SH: Do you feel like people expect you to do something amazing at
college? Do you expect this of yourself?

BEN: I think there is always pressure to one-up yourself at each new stage. I
feel that pressure, yes. But it’s not crippling. As for expectations, I
consider the expectations of others, but it’s subordinate to my own
expectations and desires. This is a key distinction. Fundamentally, the more
intrinsically motivated you are the better.

The power of being the best

July 20th, 2007 · 10 comments

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 5/29/07]

I’m back from vacation. During a layover in Houston, I came across,
in an airport Borders, the latest title by marketing guru Seth Godin.
It’s called “The Dip.” I was struck by how closely some of Godin’s
points connect to our ongoing discussion of the Paradox of the Relaxed
Rhodes Scholar. Today, I want to discuss one of these ideas in

IDEA #1 : Being “the best” is significantly better than any other position.

We give people at the top of a category disproportionately more
rewards than those who are slightly below them. In academia, there
exist obvious examples of this idea. Being valedictorian, for
instance, provides much more value than graduating with high honors —
even though the difference is slight (maybe just a handful of A’s).

I think, however, that this idea performs even more useful work if we
apply it to non-academic activities. Remember, for a moment, our
sample Rhodes Scholar, Daniel, from the previous post. Instead of
doing well in a broad category (or numerous broad categories), Daniel
constructed his own narrow niche in which he could be the best.
Specifically, his niche was non-profit work related to sustainable
development. Searching through the resources available at his college,
he was able to cobble together a collection of summer internships,
awards, grants, and events (i.e., the conference he organized), that
allowed him to really stand out. What’s important to note, however, is
that unlike a valedictorian, there were not many other students at
Amherst struggling to be even more impressive in the category of
sustainable development. Daniel was alone in his niche, and this
simplified his climb to the top. Daniel, in essence, used his time as
the seed capital in the leveraged buyout of a more powerful resume.

Some other examples where we could apply this idea:

(1) If you’re an economics major interested in banking, don’t just
get good grades and join the investment club; start your own student
fund, focused, perhaps, on youth ventures, and construct an advisory
board of professors. No one else is doing this, so you immediately
become “the best” student fund manager.

(2) If you want to be a novelist, don’t just take creative writing
courses; start a new literary journal on your campus. If there already
exists one, focus yours on a specific niche, maybe genre fiction. Sure
it’s not Hemmingway, but it’s much easier to break into, and once
there, you’re free to write great, interesting prose. This will make
you “the best” fiction magnate at your school; the person editors
interested in young voices will want to talk to.

(3) If you want to be a top surgeon, deconstruct your pre-med courses.
Find out exactly what to expect from the teachers, talk to former
students, find outside sources, begin your studying absurdly early,
and experiment aggressively in streamlining your study techniques. To
be the top in this category your grades need to blow away everyone
else taking this class. Doing very well is just not the same as being
“the best” student in this grade-centric program.

Where in your life do you have an opportunity to carve out a niche in
which you could be the best?

Getting Things Done for College Students: The Full System

July 20th, 2007 · 69 comments

Welcome new readers! If this is your first time here, Study Hacks is a blog that focuses on hacks to help you do better at college while spending less time. If you like this article, you might also like more recent productivity posts on: accomplishing more by doing less, using a productivity-free day, implementing a Sunday ritual, and calculating your churn rate.

[Post originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 4/5/07]

Here, we present our variation of GTD, optimized for the specific challenges of college. We call the full system: Getting Things Done for College Students (GTDCS). You don’t need to familar in GTD to follow what’s described below, but this knowledge will help you understand the underlying philosophies.


The basic materials you need for GTDCS are the following:

  1. Three collection bins: your e-mail inbox, a physical inbox on your desk, and a small notepad you carry with you everywhere.
  2. A calendar
  3. Next action list
  4. Project list
  5. A filing system

Any subset of (2) through (4) can be managed on a computer using tools such as Outlook or iCal. For (5), a simple plastic filing box and a ready supply of hanging file folders should suffice.


In GTDCS, as with GTD, when new “stuff” enters your world you need to immediately place it in one of your three collection bins. Stuff, in this context, defines any sort of information that might require you to do something. This includes everything from errands (“return library books”), to upcoming deadlines (“study for next week’s quiz”), to random ideas (“look into starting a campus band”). Make no distinction between work and personal life. Stuff is stuff…it has to get out of your head.

For e-mail this collection happens automatically (your e-mail inbox is a collection bin). You’re physical inbox should be used to collect things such as letters, papers to read, or administrative forms to file for safekeeping. Your notebook can capture anything that pops up when you are away from your desk (e.g., hearing about an assignment in class or having a friend stop you in the dining hall to change the time for your next study group meeting).


In GTDCS, the processing of items in your collection bins occurs almost identically to the process described in GTD; the only difference being that we skip some options (such as delegate, or the more complicated Tickler File, that are less relevant to students). Specifically, when processing a given collection bin, for each item, follow this decision tree:

  1. Decide if the action requires action on your part. If it doesn’t, either discard it or, if it’s something you need to hold on to, file it. Otherwise…
  2. Identify the specific next action required by this item. If it requires more than one action then identify the first of these actions and make a note of the bigger project on your projects list. If this action can be completed in two minutes or less, do it right now. Otherwise…
  3. If the action needs to be completed on or by a given date, record it on this date in your calendar. Otherwise…
  4. Record the action on your next actions list.


In GTDCS, as in GTD, reviews of your stuff occurs at three main levels: the daily review (“runway level” in GTD speak), the weekly review (“10,000 foot level”), and the big picture review (“the 30,000 foot level”). It’s in the specifics of these reviews that we first notice some major differences between GTDCS and its parent.

The Daily Review:

At least once a day you need to process the items that built up in your collection bins, review the date-sensitive tasks on your calendar, make a run-through your next actions list, and, in general, get updated on your action landscape. This daily refresh is crucial to keeping the system effective.

A key difference between students life and the working world, however, is that in the former you don’t have a set work day. We therefore take advantage of the daily review to assign certain hours during the day to be “work hours.” During these times, you follow the classic GTD process to help decide what action you should be completing. Specifically, you continually apply the following review process:

  1. Check your calender to see if any date-specific actions remain. If so, tackle these first. Otherwise…
  2. Turn to your next actions list and choose something appropriate.

Treat your work hours like your work day; don’t do anything in this time but work. The trade-off is that during all other hours of the day you can do whatever the hell you want. Relax completely.

How many hours should you designate to be work hours? The general rule is to add up the time needed to complete your date-specific actions and then add an extra hour so you can make some progress on your next actions list. If you don’t have anything on your calendar, then you’re going to have a light day. Great! This is what makes student life better than working life. On the other hand, sometimes a large number of deadline hit all at once. In these instances, you might find that *all* of your waking hours are designated as working. Oh well. This is what makes student life so damn hard sometimes. The key, however, is that you have clearly designated when you’re “on” and when you’re “off.” This lets you be more focused when you’re working and more effectively relaxed, un-stressed, and all-around debacherous when you’re not. Trust me here: based on my research of successful undergraduates, cordoning off work hours from relax hours (preventing the guilt-inducing, un-productive mash of pseudo-work employed by most students) is a necessary condition to avoid the worst of academic-induced stress.

Once you’ve decided how many hours to be work hours, you must then decide which times to so designate. Here’s a simple procedure: make a list of the waking hours during the day. Cross out the hours that you will be eating meals, in class, at work, at practice, at meetings, or at appointments. This leaves you with a clear sense of your available time. Next, starting marking free hours as work hours, starting from the earliest available and moving toward the later, until the total number of hours you’ve marked equals the total you calculated in the above step (e.g., date-specific actions plus an extra hour). Notice, this procedure has you squeezing in hours in free pockets all throughout the day as oppose to waiting, like most students, to do everything in one continuous stretch at night. Once gain, trust me here: the less work you do at night, the better. To put is simply: you have more energy during the day (so you finish stuff faster); you don’t have as many free hours at night as you think; your focus leaves you quickly at night, making work more painful; and night is when the real fun begins, you don’t want to waste it in the library.

The Weekly Review:

As with traditional GTD, once a week you need to check in on your system. If any stuff has been floating around in your head or stuffed in your backback, languishing unread, or piled up in your e-mail inbox, now is the time to process everything and get your mind free once again. It’s also a time to review your next action lists and clean them up where necessary (consolidate actions, add some, delete some). Similarly, you need to review your projects list. If there are projects on here that you need to continue work on, generate appropriate next actions to add to your next actions list. In general, this is your moment of calm reflection in which to plug the leaks in your system and reaquaint yourself with the important tasks in your near-future action landscape.

Here, once again, however, we must move beyond GTD to handle some issues specific to the student lifestyle. First we must engage the question of when to do the weekly review. Unequivocally, the answer is: Sunday morning. Drag your sorry, hungover self out of bed, get breakfast, then tackle your review while fueled by that wonderful first cup of coffee. The reason you do it in the morning is that you have a full, empty day ahead for you to catch-up on work. (The reason you do it Sunday instead of Saturday is because if you’re working all day Saturday then you’ve got other, bigger problems; e.g., discovering the secret to being less of a loser).

This brings us to a more complicated problem: how to handle weekly assignments. Under the traditional GTD system, a class assignment would be handled as a project. This follows from the fact that most assignments take a few actions to complete (e.g., work on first half of problem set problems, meet with problem set group, type up answers nicely…) The project scope, however, is insufficient for the needs of a student, as, typically, the first action for the project gets put on the next action list and the project itself isn’t visited again for another week. This doesn’t fly when the work is dues within a few days. First, the action floating around in your large next actions list is not guaranteed to be addressed in time — leading you to keep track of it in your head (e.g., “start this assignment soon!”), which defeats the purpose of full capture. Second, one action per week is not enough, we need *all* of the actions relevant to an assignment to be handled in the small number days you have before the next class. This brings us to the following student-centric addition:

The “Weekly Assignments” Project:

Add “Weekly Assignments” as a standing project on your projects list. This is a stake in the ground to remind you each Sunday, when you do your weekly review, that you need to deal with the class assignments due during the upcoming week. Here is the procedure to follow:

  1. List out all of the work due for classes that week. This includes both traditional homework (e.g., reading assignments, problem sets), as well as studying for tests and writing papers.
  2. Break up each of these assignments into specific actions, each requiring no more than 1 to 2 hours.
  3. Assign arbitrary deadlines to each action for the upcoming week. Be smart about how you do this. If a day is already busy, don’t pile on too many assignment actions. Now that this work has become date-specific you must, following the GTD methodology, write the tasks on your calendar under the appropriate date.

By treating weekly assignment work as date-specific you rescue you it from your overwhelming next actions list and put it in a place where you are sure to execute. Furthermore, by planning the full week in advance you are able to spread out your work intelligably — avoiding work pile-ups when multiple deadlines coincide.

A final note: for long-term assignments, such as term papers, that require more than a week to complete, you should introduce them originally as a traditional project, allowing you to make progress on them in advance. When you enter the last week before their due date you can then treat the remaining work as a weekly assignment and schedule as above.

The Semester Review:

In GTD, you do a big picture review once or twice a year. In GTDCS, we designate the beginning of a new semester as the ideal time to accomplish such introspection. This is a perfect time to reflect both on the big questions — e.g., “Am I doing the things that are important to me?” — as well as the longterm — e.g., “I need to start searching for an internship this semester?”


The typical college student is juggling dozens of impending deadlines and obligations at any one time. Each of them crucial. On forgotten test, for example, can deep six an entire semester’s grades. This can be incredibly stressful. It leads to a constant state of guilt (“should I be working now?”) as well as fatigue-induced pseudo-work, where your free time mashes in with your work time, and the whole thing becomes a jumbled mess of exhaustation.

The GTDCS approach emphasises relaxation. You wake-up. You see what’s on your plate for the day, make a plan, then follow it. During the work hours you work, otherwise you relax. When new obligations get introduced into your life they’re immediately collected and soon processed. Many students identify the first few days of the semester as their favorite. Why? Because there are no obligations yet. No deadlines or due dates have been injected into their life. You can relax, and enjoy the sense of possibility. GTDCS aims to make every day feel like the first.

Three ways GTD and college don’t mix

July 20th, 2007 · 2 comments

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 3/27/07]

In the previous post, sent out earlier today, I described the main
ideas behind David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. In
this post, we identify where this approach might not work well for the
college lifestyle. This list is by no means inclusive. I encourage
you, therefore, to send me your own thoughts on where GTD , or
traditional time management systems in general, fall short of the
realities of being an undergraduate. As always, you can reach me by
simply replying to this message. Moving forward, we will tackle the
issues listed below (and any you send in).


(1) GTD’s projects are not handled quickly enough.

In GTD, when a project enters your world, you put the next action on
your next actions list and add the project to your projects list. Each
week, during your weekly review, you will look over your projects list
and then add more next actions as needed to keep things moving
forward. This is a good match for the typical business project —
e.g., this week I’ll look up the numbers for the Anderson report, next
week I’ll put them together into a Power Point — but a horrible match
for the typical college project.

Why? Because in college, more often than not, “project” means
“assignment.” And assignments are incredibly time sensitive: they have
to be done within a week. The GTD project system is too lazy to ensure
that the steps for an assignment all get done in time. We need some
way to ensures that these steps get done within the same week that
they are encountered. Furthermore, we need to ensure that they get
done with reasonable spacing (as I discuss in STRAIGHT-A, leaving all
the work on a given assignment until the day before is a terrible
student strategy).

(2) There is no college workday.

In GTD, while you’re at work you’re constantly review your calendar
and next actions list to decide what to do next. This fails at college
as there is no well-defined period during which you are always
working. Depending on the particular day’s schedule, you could find
your free time anywhere between early morning and late at night. As we
discussed in an earlier post, it is unreasonable to try to maintain a
scheduling mindset throughout the entire day. Clearly, we need a
better mechanism to specify when these sort of decisions are made and
when you can relax.

(3) Time is precious.

In the typical knowledge worker job, it is sufficient that you are
making efficient progress on work at at all times. For a student,
however, what’s important is that you somehow manage to finish the
large amount of concurrent assignments by their respective strict
deadlines. No one cares how you get this done. As I observed in
researching STRAIGHT-A, for many students, it can be difficult to find
enough time to stay on top of a given week’s assignments. Accordingly,
the GTD model of taking your day one action at a time, without
consideration of the bigger picture task landscape, might lead to
deadline disaster. We need additional planning mechanisms to make sure
that deadline-driven work always gets done.

A whirlwind tour of Getting Things Done

July 20th, 2007 · 4 comments

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 3/27/07]

The Two Big Ideas Behind GTD

Over twenty years ago, David Allen began a storied career of seeking and describing optimal productivity techniques. The result of this work was captured in the book Getting Things Done, first published in 2001. The GTD methodology immediately resonated with the fatigued denizens of the technology-saturated, 500 e-mails-a-day, new economy. It became a national bestseller, selling over 500,000 copies, and was republished in 23 foreign languages. Even today it remains in the top 500 on Amazon’s sales rankings, and has spawned thriving web communities devoted to its teachings (c.f., 43 Folders).

What’s so special about this system? It’s main tenants can be reduced to two big ideas:

You have to control your “stuff.”

Simply put, any obligation, task, idea, or deadline that your keeping track of only in your head is draining your mental resources. This causes stress and makes it difficult to reach the state of relaxed concentration needed to work effectively. A central idea behindGTD is that all of your “stuff” has to get out of your mind. This means that incoming information is quickly shunted to a small number of well-defined collection bins from where it is processed into a trusted system that you regularly review. This idea is devastatingly powerful. Once you’ve taken the time to pour everything out of your head and onto paper you’ll be shocked by the sheer volume of information you mind was trying to juggle and maintain. The sense of relief that follows from this process goes a long way toward understanding the cult-like devotion shown to Mr. Allen by many.

You manage actions

You don’t do projects, you do specific actions. As long as your work is recorded in terms of large-scale lumps of obligations — such as “write book proposal” — it is difficult to get started. Our days are too busy to tackle something so amorphous and intimidating.GTD forces you to reduce everything down to a specific “next action” — instead of “write book proposal,” you might “use Amazon to find ten competitive titles for book proposal.” In GTD , these specific actions are what you manage. At any one point during the day, the decision you make is “what action should I do next.” This approach provides greater clarity to your day-to-day productivity as it reduces everything from mundane chores to making progress on huge life goals down to the same manageable scale.

The hidden advantage of this idea is that it stops you from having to make big picture decisions — “what work is important to my life?” — during the day. In GTD , these big questions are considered less frequently, during, for example, a weekly review, at which point they are transformed into specific next actions which can be processed more mindlessly during the heat of battle.

A Quick Summary of the GTD Methodology

The basic materials you need for GTD are the following:

  1. A small number of collection bins. For example, your e-mail inbox, a physical inbox on your desk, and some sort of notepad or planner that you carry with you.
  2. A calendar.
  3. Next action list.
  4. Project list.
  5. A filing system.


In GTD, when new “stuff” enters your world you need to immediately place it in one of your well-defined collection bins. Stuff, in this context, defines any sort of information that might require you to do something. Note, this includes everything from specific tasks (“return library books”), to bigger projects (“figure out plan for tackling Anderson account”), to brainstorms (“maybe I should start a blog”). Make no distinction between work and personal life. Stuff is stuff…it has to get out of your head.

For e-mail this collection happens automatically (consider your e-mail inbox a collection bin). You will need a physical inbox to collect things such as letters, memos, and notes. You will also need a portable inbox to quickly jot down stuff that you encounter away from your primary workspace (e.g., in a meeting you are assigned to look into a new product). A planner, notepad, or even a sheet of scrap paper (as I advocate in Straight-A) should suffice.


A key behavior in GTD is processing the items that build up in your various collection bins. You need to do this regularly; for example, at least once a day. Here is the processing decision tree laid out by Mr. Allen for tackling this task:

For each item…

  1. Decide if it requires action on your part. If it doesn’t, either delegate, discard or file it for later reference. Otherwise…
  2. Identify the specific next action required by this item. If it requires more than one action then identify the first of these actions and make a note of the bigger project on your projects list. If this action can be completed in two minutes or less, do it right now. Otherwise…
  3. If the action needs to be completed on or by a given date, record it on this date in your calendar. Otherwise…
  4. Record the action on your next actions list.


In GTD, reviews of your stuff occurs at multiple levels. At the lowest level, you are making decisions during the day regarding what action you should do next. This process is simple. First, check your calendar to see if there is time-sensitive material you should be working on. If not, look through your next actions list and choose something reasonable to tackle (given your energy, available time, and location). There are numerous ways you might structure your next actions list to make this decision easier. Mr. Allen suggests dividing it into contexts — such as “phone calls,” “at my desk,” “at home,” “working online” — and deciding what to do next by reviewing the list associated with your current context.

At a slightly higher level, you need to review your next actions list: combining, modifying, and consolidating actions as appropriate. In addition, you need to look over your projects list and, where needed, add actions to your next action list that will help you make progress on the projects you deem to be active at the moment. You should also make sure that any stuff lingering in your head , or in ad hoc piles around your desk, is moved into a collection bin and then processed. In GTD this intermediate review happens once a week. It’s a way to plug leaks and help you reflect on what work you want to get done in the near future.

At the highest level, you want to occasionally check in and reflect on your goals in life, your one-year plan, and where you are headed. Such consideration might lead to the addition of new projects to your project list and/or the deletion of projects that no longer seem relevant.

For GTD to work, all three levels of reviewing must occur regularly.


Following the GTD approach can be summarized as follows:

  1. Get all of the stuff in your life out of your mind and into collection bins.
  2. Process these bins at least once a day.
  3. During the day, use your calendar and next actions list to help decide what to do next.
  4. Once a week, clean up your system and check in on your projects list.
  5. Every few months reflect on the big picture questions in your life and make sure these are reflected in your projects and next actions list.

Three reasons students are terrible at time management

July 20th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

[Originally Sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 3/21/07]

Today’s post marks the second in our Getting Things Done for College Students
series. If you recall, the point of this series is to develop a
comprehensive and practical student time management system, based on
David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology.
Initially, I claimed that this post would be dedicated to explaining
the basics of GTD and where it might fail to apply to the
undergraduate lifestyle. Recently, however, it was pointed out to me
that before I dive too deep into the specifics of a particular system
I need to address the motivating question: Do students really need
help with time management?

It’s hard to refute that student’s lives would be made easier with the
introduction of some strategic scheduling. Consider, for example, a
longitudinal study of college students, conducted by the Cooperative
Institutional Research Program (CIRP), that has been following student
trends since 1966 [1]. The most recent reports from this study show
that the percentage of freshman who report “being overwhelmed by
everything I have to do” has increased from 16.4 to 29.4 since it was
first asked in 1987. At the same time, the percentage reporting
feeling “frequently depressed” has increased from 8 to 10 and the
percentage of freshman needing to “seek personal counseling” has
almost doubled from 3.4 to 5.7.

In short, college students are more overwhelmed than ever before. Time
management is not a panacea, but it’s reasonable to assume that it
could make a significant difference in the lives of the one in three
students who are feeling constantly overwhelmed.

This observation leads to a natural follow-up question: If time
management would be so helpful to students, why don’t they do it more?

I have recently begin to think seriously about this question. To date,
I have developed three different hypotheses. I’m am describing them
here, for the first time. They are still rough, and I have little more
than anecdotal data to back them up, so I am, naturally, interested in
your reactions.


REASON 1: They have not yet shifted from the occasional/immediate to
the continuous/optimal model of task flow.

As young children, the role of tasks in our lives was simple. Either
we were at an appointment (such as school or a music lesson) or our
time was free. Occasionally, a task would come along — perhaps our
mom asks us to make our bed, or a teacher asks us to write out some
spelling words. But such tasks were simple enough that we could treat
them as an occasional interruption that we could handle more or less
immediately before moving back to enjoying our free time with no
looming obligations. Advance scheduling is unnecessary. Either we have
nothing on our task queue or we have a small number of things which
can be easily dispatched in the near future.

On the other end of the spectrum are knowledge workers. Here, the flow
of tasks is continuous (i.e., there is no point in which you have an
empty task queue and can be returned to a state of free time).
Accordingly, the job of a knowledge worker is to optimize the number
of these tasks completed per time unit working. Such efficiency is as
prized in the current economy as speed on the loom might have been
prized in an early industrial period. Clearly, this optimization
requires advanced task flow management. It follows that most knowledge
workers speak fluently in the language of scheduling, organization,
and prioritization.

As we age, the task flow in our daily life shifts increasingly from
the occasional to continuous. By the time we arrive at college, the
number and complexity of tasks in our lives is almost (if not equally)
as complex as that faced by the average knowledge worker. At the same
time, however, most students don’t shift their coping strategies from
immediate to optimal until post-graduation. Therefore, during college,
we are in a period of maximum disconnect between how we handle our
tasks and how many tasks we face. Many are able to survive high
school, just barely, trying to tackle their obligations in the
immediate model (e.g., “oh shit, this is due tomorrow, so that’s what
I’ll do now”), but then find themselves unable to keep up under the
increased demands of college.

The fact that we don’t shift earlier is not surprising. We are given
little guidance throughout life on this fundamental change. When we
arrive in the workforce we are provided, for the first time, with
clear motivation: adapt to the continuous model or be fired. The
question is how can we induce this shift earlier without the clear cut
consequences present in the real world?

REASON 2: There is no college workday

Following a schedule consumes mental energy and exhausts scarce
will-power reserves. Accordingly, there are only so many hours in the
day in which we can hope to keep up such efforts. In the working
world, these hours are well-delineated. You arrive at an office, you
spend 8 hours working under schedule constraints, then you leave,
releasing your mind to spend the next 16 hours recharging. At college,
no such defined workday exists. Because of the unpredictability of the
student schedule, work might need to be accomplished at any time
between early in the morning to late at night. Attempts to schedule,
therefore, can require you to induce an organizational structure on
all of your waking hours. This is unsustainable — as many students,
unsuccessful in their preliminary attempts to gain control over their
time, will testify.

REASON 3: The power of peer convergence

One of the most fascinating phenomenon to observe on a college campus
is that of peer convergence. An incoming freshman class consists of
hundreds (perhaps many thousands) of insecure young adults entering a
demanding and unfamiliar new social and work environment. To keep
things sporting, they are given next to no instruction on how to
operate in this new setting. Thus begins a process of cultural
evolution. Students watch their fellow students. They take tentative
behavioral steps, then evaluate and compare to try to assess their
appropriateness. This dance of small moves, counter-moves, and
self-censorship eventual converges on a stable behavioral
configuration. This configuration can help mitigate the uncertainty of
the new environment. It allows the students a model on which to safely
base their behavior. The problem, however, is that this stable
solution tends towards the least common denominator — inoculating a
new class with a bevy of behaviors that are arbitrary at best and
self-destructive at worst. Consider, for example, the timing of test
preparation. There’s an endless variety of ways to break up and tackle
the chore of studying. Observe a freshman class after a few months,
however, and you will see a remarkable consistency in their approach;
e.g., the night before, starting after dinner, continuing until around
midnight with the exception of the “serious” students who can continue
to 2 or 3. Next to no student will deviate from these constraints.
Consider the well-defined classroom slouch with the overly-bent
baseball cap raising his hand to answer a question with a tone couched
in indifference. This demonstrates a carefully calibrated mix of
disdain with a hint of natural ability not being pursued too
vigorously. You will see these same traits show up in almost every
classroom on campus. None of these behaviors are explicitly discussed.
They are simply arrived upon, through many small social interactions,
over the first few months of school.

Time management is a natural victim of such blind convergence. The
behavior is too complicated for a sufficient threshold of students to
try it, early on, so that it can become integrated into the stable
solution. Students at this early point in their college career are
making small, tentative moves; nervous to observe what is approved of
and what is questioned. A full-blown scheduling system is simply to
risky to publicly jump into during this critical period during which
what is acceptable, and what is not, is being adjudicated.

[1] Alexander Astin. The Changing American College Student:
Thirty-Year Trends, 1966 – 1996. The Review of Higher Education 21.2
(1998) 115-135.