September 15th, 2008 · 7 comments
In a 2004 interview, author Neal Stephenson noted the following about his writing process:
I did figure out that I tended to write good stuff first thing in the morning. So I had all this free time in the rest of the day that I had to occupy with something other than writing. Because if I sat and [continued to write], I’d just bury the good stuff I’d written in crap and have to excavate it later.
Neal discovered when he could write well. He also discovered where: as revealed in the same interview, he works in a basement alcove, surrounded by artifacts relating to the manuscript in progress, recording his words — believe it or not — with a fountain pen.
He then quarantined his creative efforts to this highly productive window.
His key insight: continuing to work beyond these optimal conditions could actually make things worse — forcing him to return later to clean up the unfocused crap produced when his mind wasn’t fully in the game.
From Writers to Students
I tell you this story because I think the same insight can drive you to become a more efficient student. Like Neal, you probably have some scholastic equivalent to his early mornings in the basement alcove; an environment in which your mind is really ready to rock. Following his logic, you could conclude that if you want to produce the best quality results with a minimum number of total hours, you should quarantine your work to (only) these high-octane windows.
The “only” modifier is the tricky part. It asks you to accept the idea that working beyond your peak conditions might make things worse — creating weak paper writing, or confusing your understanding of an assignment in a way that will require more time down the road to fix.
Work Without Pain
The obvious appeal of this approach is lack of pain. There are few sensations more soul-deadening than pseudo-work. By contrast, when you’re firing on all mental cylinders, and riding that Csíkszentmihályi high, even the most convoluted assignment can fascinate.
A problem, however, lurks. The average college student has a lot of work; more than maybe can be finished in a few hours each morning. I recognize this shortcoming. But I can recommend some common sense advice that can bring you closer to the dream of a Stephenson-style quarantined work flow:
- Increase the size of your quarantine periods by staying rested, exercising, eating well and avoiding energy sapping distractions like the Interweb.
- Decrease the amount of work you have to accomplish by embracing Radical Simplicity. Less courses. Less majors. Less activities. Kick ass at a very small number of things.
- Decrease the time required for your work by obsessing over the efficiency of your technical habits.
- Increase your efficiency by caring, like Neal, about your location and the artifacts that surround you. There’s a difference between working in a dorm study lounge with your Internet-connected laptop open, a chewed Bic, and an old notebook, and working in the rare books room, armed with a Black n’ Red and a Mont Blanc StarWalker.
- Start everything early. You might think that today requires many hours of work because you have two reading assignments and a problem set due. But if you had started those last weekend, when you had nothing else on your plate, you wouldn’t be in this trouble now.
You’ve heard many of these ideas before: location matters, time of day matters, energy matters. But I think Neal’s anecdote smashes them together beautifully, and then finishes things off with the novel twist about the danger of working beyond your quarantine.
Point one: working when you’re not at your peak makes things worse.
Point two: accordingly, you should organize your student work schedule to quarantine your efforts to (only) peak-inducing environments.
Simple. But if Neal’s writing output is any indicator, also devastatingly effective.
(Photo by g-hat)
September 12th, 2008 · 29 comments
The Tale of a Seriously Stressed Student
I recently came across this note from a high school student. It was posted anonymously on a public college discussion forum:
I do a lot: I’m a costumer for the school play, I play three instruments, I take a dual enrollment class, I am taking 5 AP classes, I am being privately tutored in a foreign language, I am the president and founder of a club as well as a member of the debate team, I’m organizing both a multi-cultural fair and a book fair at my school, I’m secretary for the French club, I’m a member of the Honor Board and I founded a non-profit organization. But quite frankly, I don’t have room to breath and I’m feeling the effects of it physically.
Here’s the thing: I don’t know this student. But his story provides a purified, almost exaggerated example of the activity stress that plagues so many students. Because of this, I think he makes a great case study for our Zen Valedictorian philosophy. My goal for this article is to answer the following question: how could this student make his life much less horrible without hurting his college admissions chances? Is such a thing even possible? We’ll find out…
The Activity Lists
Let’s start by dividing this student’s activities into two lists:
- Costumer for a school play
- Plays three instruments
- Has a private language tutor
- Has a heavy course load
- Member of the debate team
- Organizing book fair
- Organizing multi-cultural fair
- Secretary of the French club
- Member of the honor board
- Founded and runs his own club
- Founded and runs his own non-profit
We begin with List A. The sheer size of this list likely causes massive stress in this poor student’s life. But does it add anything interesting to his story? To answer this question, let’s remember the Failed Simulation Effect…
Failed Simulation Effect: People are impressed by things that are hard to explain, not hard to do.
Apply this logic to List A. Is anything on that list hard to explain? Let me put this another way: is there anything on that list that you couldn’t do if you wanted to? The answer is “no.” Every item, in isolation, is something that anyone could sign up and do so long as he had the hours — or in the case of the language tutor, the money — to devote to it.
Accordingly, the impressiveness of List A is reduced to one thing: this student is able to juggle a large volume of relativity easy activities. But here’s the important point: juggling a large volume of relatively easy activities — though time-consuming — does not impress admissions officers. They want to build interesting classes; not diligent ones.
Let me go a step farther. This student could replace the entire List A with the following:
Equivalent to List A
- Spends 20 hours a week transcribing the phone book
Okay, so I’m being a little facetious here. But I’m trying to make a point. Both would have roughly the same impact on an admissions officer: the kid can force himself to work for a large number of hours. (Actually, this revised List A might be better. As we learned in our study of the Laundry-List Fallacy, having a long list of easy activities can signal less value than doing no easy activities at all.)
The Magic of List B
Fear not. All is not lost for our stoic student. Turn your attention to the comparably svelte List B. This list, by contrast, strongly invokes the Failed Simulation Effect — how the hell does a high school student start his own non-profit or club? The effect is instant: he must be doing something amazing! (Remember: people respect hard work but idolize magic.)
The activities in List B are exactly the type of things that make admissions officers — and people in general — swoon.
What Would a Zen Valedictorian Do?
If I knew this student and he came to me for advice, I would tell him to take a page out of the Zen Valedictorian playbook, which recommends, at a high-level:
- Ditch all but your most inexplicable activities.
- Focus on what remains and wring out the most possible impressiveness.
- Resist the urge to fill in your newfound free time.
For this student, this translates to the following specific actions:
- Drop everything in List A.
- Turn your attention to pushing the two activities in List B toward new, cooler places. The more it makes someone say “How did he do that?”, the better.
- Don’t stress out about the fact that you now have abundant free time. Use it to explore or to relax or to try to impress girls at ill-conceived high school parties.
Think about this. With just a fraction of the time he’s wasting playing three instruments and being the secretary of the French club (really!? the French club?) he could be meeting interesting people and forming partnerships for his non-profit. Somewhere in there he’d probably be invited to speak at a conference, or a reporter would do an article on him. You know how this works. This type of random stumbling is what generates truly impressive students. Above all else: this slimmed lifestyle would be more impressive and exponentially less stressful than his current one.
Would this student accept this advice? Probably not. Giving up the security of doing what everyone else is doing can be difficult. And the cult of voluminous activities exerts a powerful hold. But I hope the case study provides you, faithful reader of Study Hacks, a little jolt; perhaps dislodging you from an activity rut that’s generating too much stress. Once you start questioning the assumptions behind your actions, you’ll often be surprised by the better options you discover that have been waiting there all along.
(Photo by rick)
September 10th, 2008 · 17 comments
Scott Young recently released a new eBook titled The Little Book of Productivity. The idea is simple: The volume of available information concerning “productivity” is overwhelming. (Scott’s blog alone has contributed close to 300 articles on the subject.) This eBook attempts to cut through the clutter and identify 99 of the best ideas. Each idea gets one page: some of this advice comes from Scott’s blog; some comes from other blogs; some is brand new.
Unlike related guides, such as Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done (affiliate link) or David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Scott does not attempt to construct a comprehensive system. Instead, he provides an arsenal of small ideas, and hopes, I assume, that readers will use this as a starting point for piecing together a custom system.
Scott divides his 99 ideas between seven chapters Below I list the chapters and provide a brief description for each, including what I liked and didn’t like. Keep in mind that the entire first chapter — Beating Procrastination — is available as a free download, so don’t just take my word for it, check out the content for yourself.
Chapter 1: Beating Procrastination
This chapter focuses on getting started. It’s advice spans from detailed time management techniques to big picture psychological questions. My favorite tip was to train your self-discipline like a muscle (a strategy I’ve recently adopted). Some redundancy — inevitably — lurks in these pages. For example, tips on “time-boxing” and “sprinting theory” both emphasize the same point: work in scheduled chunks of time.
Chapter 2: Becoming Organized
This chapter focuses on organization. It’s motivating idea: if you’re organized you can finish projects with less effort. Amen! It’s advice spans from the literal — clean your desk — to the conceptual — capture tasks. I was intrigued by his Simple Organizing System (SOS), which simplifies his task landscape down to three piles: projects, tasks, and events. On closer inspection, it’s a tweak on GTD. Students might enjoy the rules for moving tasks between the daily, weekly, and project level, as these simplify work decisions. On the other hand, productivity junkies might be bored by yet another small variation on Allen’s timeless system.
Chapter 3: Staying Energized
This chapter focuses on the often overlooked importance of energy-management. I’m a big believer in Scott’s advice to take days off, work in cycles, and build play into your schedule. Too many students fall into the easy (but stressful) mindset that equates stress and fatigue with being responsible and relaxation with being a slacker. This theme of avoiding mental guilt-trips shows up in multiple chapters, and I give Scott credit for hammering it home. The rest of this chapter is hit or miss. Most readers will likely skim the notes on drinking water and exercising, for example, as being obvious and lacking that pop that distinguishes the most clever ideas in the book.
Chapter 4: Getting Things Finished
This chapter focuses on completing projects. I have a particular fondness for this content because some of it is motivated from a popular guest post I wrote for Scott’s blog. Most of the ideas in this chapter attack the completion-centric philosophy from different angles — from avoiding over-planning to escaping the “pay by the hour” mindset. This is a great treatment of an important topic. As my readers know, however, I’m not a fan of pseudo-scientific self-help laws, so I skimmed pasts his obligatory tributes to Parkinson and Hofstadter.
Chapter 5: Automate Your Routine
This chapter focuses on the idea of using habits to remove willpower from the productivity equation. This is a topic that Scott has tackled in a previous eBook and a popular series of articles. Here’s the thing: Scott’s the de facto expert on this concept. If you’ve read his habit material before, you won’t find much new in this chapter. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat. Either way: there’s no filler here.
Chapter 6: Productivity Hacks
This chapter focuses on more outlandish moves to boost productivity. A lot of the ideas here are rewarmed Tim Ferriss, from outsourcing to batching. I don’t blame Scott. He makes it clear that he’s collecting the “best” ideas, not necessarily just those he thought up, and Tim certainly contributed some advice worth hearing. If you’ve read 4HWW you’ll skim about 30% of this chapter, if you haven’t, you’ll find some cool ideas. In terms of new material, I like his advice to “avoid lazy people” and “seek exponential payoffs.” Other advice, however, such as “sensory deprivation” (remove distractions), seems redundant with earlier chapters.
Chapter 7: Doing the Right Work
This chapter focuses on finding the right things to work on. This meta-idea is important in itself, and the actual ideas that support it contain a few gems. His focus on measuring results and turning attention toward accomplishment, in particular, are crucial. I also enjoy his reference to Jim Collin’s Hedgehog, which I didn’t know about, but seems to echo my strong belief in the power of focus.
The Look and Feel
I have to give Scott credit, the layout of the eBook is beautiful. It’s optimized for being viewed on a screen, which is nice for a lot of people. I worry, however, that the complexity of the background thwarts those who want to print the pages without burning through a full cartridge of ink. I also noticed that in my PDF viewer (kpdf on linux), the letter “i” disappeared whenever it followed an “f”? Strange. But it might just be my setup.
Who Should Buy This Book
If you’re looking for a coherent system, this book is not for you. Similarly, if you’re an obsessive reader of productivity blogs, you’ll be frustrated with the lack of new ideas.
On the other hand, if you feel stressed, or if you feel should be accomplishing more, or if you’re new to the world of productivity blogs and are eager to soak up as much as possible, then I think this eBook is worth the $10. It’s a smart review of some of the smartest productivity ideas floating around on the web. You’ll come away with at least a few new strategies to add to your personal arsenal of life hacks.
My bottom line: If you’re hungry for advice, spend the $10. If you feel like you’ve seen it all before, take a pass.
Buying the Book
There’s two ways to buy this book. If you click on the first link, a portion of the cost will be shared with Study Hacks to help support what we do here. If this makes you uncomfortable, or if just you plain don’t like me, click on the second link which ensures that I see nothing.
September 10th, 2008 · One comment
From the reader mailbag:
I’m wondering what changes a college student who intends to transfer should make. I ask this because colleges usually expect transfer applicants to have taken a fairly rigorous schedule and still earned decent grades, as well as participated in extracurriculars. While I’d love to do the zen lifestyle thing it just doesn’t seem like an option until I’m at the college where I want to be.
The goal of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy is to become more relaxed without becoming less impressive. Applying it to your situation, we can generate these observations:
- The college won’t care about the difficulty of your individual courses. They’ll look at your G.P.A. and your major. They’ll verify that you’re taking a normal course load. They’re not, however, going to go course by course, and ask: “How tough is this professor?” or “How much work did it demand?” So keep your load reasonable and balanced.
- In terms of extracurriculars, as we’ve discussed before, a laundry-list impresses no one. Instead, choose one thing, focus on it, then once you’ve paid your dues, look for a place to innovate. This will always be more impressive than joining ten clubs — regardless of whether you are applying to college, applying for a job, or trying to transfer.
Remember, it’s not the Zen Slacker philosophy (which is much easier!), it’s the Zen Valedictorian. Finding ways to relax without scuttling success is what makes this lifestyle both tricky and worthwhile.
From the reader mailbag:
As an engineer, I have to do a lot of problem sets. Oftentimes one of my professors assigns homework that covers subject material we haven’t learned until the day before the problem set is due. How do I handle this?
Talk to the professor. Most likely he’ll be happy to adjust the problem sets to make sure they don’t include the most recent material. He’ll also be pleased to know at least some students aren’t waiting until the night before to start work!
Here’s the thing, if he’s like the engineering professors I know, he’s not trying to be mean, it just never occurred to him that the late additions to the problem sets were causing trouble. Good things come to those who communicate.
From the reader mailbag:
I’m a high school senior. I was wondering what advice you would offer me to manage my time, and get things done more efficiently? I guess some of the advice you offer on your blog applies to only to college students and I was wondering how you would modify it for high school?
For high school students, the following tips seem to work especially well:
- Use an autopilot schedule: set specific times each week, to work on specific classes. High school workloads are more predictable than college workloads, making it well-suited for automated scheduling.
- Increase your study efficiency: take smart notes and use smart review strategies. High school students often make life much more difficult than it needs to be by using terrible study habits (think: reviewing a textbook with the iPod on and the instant messenger window blinking.) At this level, you can get away with bad habits — but it makes life suck. If you start taking good notes and stop reviewing like a moron, you’ll be embarrassed by how quickly you get work done.
- Start everything early: break things up into small pieces and start right away. I suggest taking a look at the ESS Method and the Same Day Rule. In high school you get a lot of assignments, but they’re easier than college level work. The main problem, therefore, is scheduling pile-ups. By starting early and making constant progress you can keep on top of this large amount of small things.
At the 30,000 foot level, however, the biggest most important recommendations I can offer is to live the Straight-A Method and, when in doubt, experiment to see what works for you.
September 8th, 2008 · 9 comments
The Writing Life
As most first-time authors will admit, writing a book can be daunting. The scale is so massive that it cannot be thought of as a single task; it’s not something that could be completed in one big gnarly push. At first, this induces panic. But as the process continues, the author falls into a more comfortable job-like routine. Day after day, he returns to the manuscript — a little editing here, a little research there — and soon loses touch with the big, scary, massive concept known as “writing a book.”
Then one day, a deadline arrives, and the author steps back to see the results of his longterm efforts; something that looks, strangely enough, quite a bit like a real book. There is no hard finish point. He could keep tweaking or editing or polishing ad infinitum, and he probably secretly wants to. But the deadline seems as good a place as any to stop, and the current draft gets sent off.
This probably sounds nothing like the frenzied last minute pushes that define your own stressful student paper writing adventures, which is exactly why I’m telling you about it. For, you see, this post presents a simple yet outlandish idea: You should consider writing your student papers like authors write massive books.
As always, allow me to explain…
The Paperback Writer Method
To write a student paper like a book means the following:
- Start work on the paper immediately.
- Make progress in small batches: 1 – 2 hours at a time, on at least 2 – 3 days out of each week.
- Finish a full draft of the paper well before the deadline. (It’s okay if these are really terrible, you’ll knock it into shape over time.)
- Keep tweaking and editing and polishing, in little batches, until the deadline arrives.
- Spend a lot of this time not just writing, but also thinking — thinking hard about what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, and what would be better to say instead.
I started following this method in the spring of my senior year. Not surprisingly, this was the first semester after I finished writing my first (paperback) book. It changed my student life.
Let’s explore why…
Living the Paperback Writer Lifestyle
Here’s the thing about this method: it requires more hours than doing the work in one long push right before the deadline. I admit this. But at the same time this work is a lot less painful. Like the professional author, it’s not about the big scary capital-P “Paper.” It is, instead, about little daily pushes.
The biggest advantage, of course, is that the papers it produces are significantly better than those written the day before. If you use the paperback writer method — and take it seriously, especially the part about putting aside time to think — you’ll score an ‘A’ on every single paper.
The alert reader might wonder how this method fits with my existing paper advice; e.g., flat outlines and the three-pass editing method. Think of these strategies as weapons in the arsenal of the paperback writer practitioner. As you work in small batches over a long period of time, you can use, for example, a flat outline to organize your thoughts and the three editing types of the three-pass method to keep sections tamed.
A Simple Experiment
I know this method is asking a lot, and it might not fit with all types of student personalities. But if something about this pain-free approach resonates, let me invite you to try a simple experiment. Take one paper — a small one — and apply this method. Go from assignment to submission without ever working more than an hour or two at at time. Hand in a manuscript that you thought about and tweaked and polished for weeks. Experience the reaction you get from the professor.
If you get this far, I have a suspicion that, like me, you’ll never look at paper writing the same way again.
(Photo by jefield)
September 5th, 2008 · 7 comments
The New Season Begins
Last fall I launched an experiment dubbed College Chronicles. It was a “blog-based reality show” that followed three students struggling to overhaul their study habits. You met Leena, the exhausted MIT student, Welton, the over-committed Harvard junior, and Jake, the Tufts rugby player looking to walk that fine line between frat-boy debauchery and academic excellence.
As I announced a few weeks ago, this fall will feature a new season of College Chronicles. This time, we’ll be focusing on three students who want to embrace the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.
Thirty of you answered my call for volunteers. Whittling this down to a final group of three was tough; but I think I’ve arrived at cast that will provide us a semester’s worth of insight and entertainment.
But enough promotion. Today we begin by introducing you to the first of our three students…
“I remember pulling an all-nighter in the library with a bunch of friends,” says Marina, recalling last spring. “[I remember] leaving for an hour to go to a meeting, coming back, phone conferencing with my sister [to discuss my paper], sleeping for 2 hours, putting the finishing touches on my paper, walking back to my room…finding a huge half-dead roach wiggling on the floor of my room, printing my paper, going to breakfast, pouring hot sauce on an omelet, poking at it with my fork and thinking, ‘This is NOT my life!'”
Marina is a rising sophomore at an elite northeastern liberal arts college. Her first semester as a freshman taught her a lesson about the difficulty of college-level academics.
“I remember the moment when I realized I was way in over my head academically,” she recalls.
“I’d just gotten my first papers back and had gotten B’s on both of them, despite having spent a reasonable amount of time on both of them. I’d also just gotten a grade too bad to print on my first math midterm because I’d had a huge panic attack during the test and hadn’t written anything for most of it.”
Marina’s second semester started with the concern that she wasn’t involved in enough activities, so she “signed up for a bunch of groups,” joined a club sport, and started up a woman’s shelter.
“I was pretty good about attending meetings at first, then proceeded to spend the rest of the semester feeling guilty for sporadic meeting attendance.”
The combination of her academic challenges coupled with her growing extracurricular soon became a drag. To put it simply: Marina’s ready for a change.
At the top of her Zen plans for the new term: underscheduling. “I am not making any set-in-stone commitments this semester,” she promises. “Except for my club sport and volunteering at a women’s or family interest non-profit.”
On the academic front, she’s seeking more simplicity by embracing some of the strategies familar to Study Hacks readers. Among them, the student work day and studying using the quiz-and-recall method.
In terms of innovation, she’s has her eye set on the women’s interest non-profit as the insider world in which to start her path toward impressiveness. As we’ve discussed before, the most innovative accomplishments start with paying your dues in a world you enjoy, then, later, leveraging this access into something inexplicable. It seems like Marina will be taking the first step in that direction this semester.
Marina has certainly embraced some of the key ideas of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy. She’s simplifying her activity schedule and looking to make her studying more efficient.
From my experience, the hardest challenge of the near future will be helping Marina find peace with simplicity. Many undergraduates panic when they feel like their schedule isn’t filled with “enough” activities or work. I think she’s setup perfectly to launch an impressive, relaxed, Zen-style life. It’ll be interesting to observe how rocky this transition actually proves to be.
(Photo by peasap)
September 3rd, 2008 · 8 comments
The new school year has begun. These first few weeks are a time of heady possibility: exams haven’t yet sucked your will to live; conflicting paper deadlines haven’t yet made you curse the invention of written language.
I want you to take advantage of these golden days by committing to try some new and exciting things this semester. Make these resolutions now, before life gets too tough. To help you in these efforts I’ve listed seven suggestions for things you should try — five you’ve seen before and two are brand new. Now is the time to upgrade your college career. Take action while you still can.
Five Things You’ve Meant to Try But Haven’t Yet
- Adventure Studying
Just because everyone else studies in the library doesn’t mean you have to as well. The adventure studying philosophy says you should decamp to the most exotic possible places — from the beach, to the forest, to art museums. (See also this case study of adventure studying in action.)
- Launching a Grand Project
Are you working on something so compelling that when you describe it to people they exclaim: “wow!” If not, you should be. Not only does it keep life exciting, but it will help unlock outstanding opportunities down the line.
- Calculating Your Churn Rate
If you’re the type that has lots of big ideas but not lots of accomplishments, then you need to rethink how you measure productivity. Forget endless lists of small tasks, and focus instead on your churn rate, a metric that captures the speed with which you actually complete projects.
- Fixing Your Schedule in Advance
The concept is simple. Fix the number of hours you want to work, then move backwards from there to construct a lifestyle that matches this goal. It might require drastic cuts to your schedule. Your double major might go out the window as might most of your activities. You might start saying “no” a lot more than before. But you’ll be in control of your own life and live the lifestyle you want to live, not what was forced upon you.
- Seeking Randomness
Entrepreneur, writer, blogger, NPR commentator and college sophomore Ben Casnocha has a simple rule for launching an interesting student career: seek out randomness. Lots of it. If you schedule every minute of your day you’re going to miss out on the opportunities that really catch people’s attention.
Two New Things to Add to Your List
September 2nd, 2008 · 5 comments
- Travel Somewhere Alone
It’s a crazy idea. Get on a train. Go to a new city. Spend a couple days by yourself. Wander the streets, think big thoughts, figure out your life, maybe even get some real concentrated studying done. We’re so busy we often forget to take time to reflect. Do so while you still have the flexibility to get away.
- Sign-up for a PE Course
There’s something therapeutic about working your muscles, in the company of other people, two or three times a week. It burns away stress and clears the mind. Joining a PE class is a simple way to hold yourself accountable to this goal. For me, at Dartmouth, it was raquetball. For others its basketball or tennis. Whatever seems like fun; just get yourself out of your dorm and to the gym on a regular basis.
I’m introducing a new feature here on Study Hacks — a recap of each month’s most popular posts. I hope this will help readers keep up with the content and sift the best from the rest. Below are the five most well-received articles of August, as determined by a combination of page views and user comments.