Study Hacks Blog Posts from July, 2007 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Monday Master Class: Never Take Books Out of the Library

July 30th, 2007 · 7 comments

The wrong way to conduct paper research

  1. Gather up a bunch of books and journals that seem relevant to your topic. Dump them in your dorm.
  2. Wait until the day before the paper is due.
  3. Start writing. When you feel like a quote is overdue, scavenge through your stack until you find something that seems to have some sort of connection to what you have written so far. Add this quote to your paper. (Bonus points if it includes the word “hegemony.”)

A better way to conduct paper research

  1. After identifying a useful book chapter or journal article, photocopy the relevant pages. Make sure you also copy the citations and the title page (if a book), so you have the information you need to later cite the source.
  2. Open a document in your word processor. Skim quickly through your photocopy. As you proceed, type in annotations of the form: page number — quick description of what type of info is there. These are not notes. They are pointers. For example: pg. 124 — discussion of impact of NAFTA on American auto ind.
  3. Print the annotations and staple them to the front of your photocopies. Return the book or journal to the shelf.
  4. When outlining your argument or actually writing the paper, use only these annotated copies to find the material you need.
  5. If possible: batch the above steps. For example, in one library trip, you might make photocopies of several sources. In a later session(s), you can provide the annotations. Like any good, efficient study technique, it decomposes naturally.

(Adapted from Part III of How to Become a Straight-A Student)

The Straight-A Gospels: Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work

July 26th, 2007 · 110 comments

This is the first post in a three-part series focusing on the Straight-A Gospels — the core concepts behind my book, How to Become a Straight-A Student.

Today we focus on Gospel #1: Pseudo-work does not equal work

Here are two facts: (1) I made straight A’s in college. (2) I studied less than most people I know. The same holds true for many of the straight-A students I researched for my book. If this sounds unbelievable, it is probably because you subscribe to the following formula:

work accomplished = time spent studying

The more time you study the more work you accomplish. The more work you accomplish, the better your grades. Ergo, straight A’s imply more work. Right? Then how do you explain me and my interview subjects…

To understand our accomplishment, you must understand the following, more accurate formula:

work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus

That last factor — intensity of focus — is the key to explaining why straight-A students never seem to embark on the same fatigue-saturated all-night study adventures that most undergrads rely on. Let’s take a specific example. Assume that you have a paper to write. The standard approach is to camp out in the library the day before and work until you finish.

Here’s the problem: even with little breaks, there are only so many consecutive hours of work you can manage before your intensity of focus crashes (in practice, this value is probably close to 2-3 hours for most students). Therefore, most of your time spent working features low focus, increasing the time required to accomplish the task at hand.

Let’s say, for example, that your heroic paper writing marathon takes around 10 hours (which matches my experience for a mid-sized paper written in one stretch). The following chart describes your focus over time (rating focus on a scale of 1 – 10):

Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
hour 1 : 10
hour 2 : 9
hour 3 : 5
hour 4 : 2
hour 5-10 : 1

[For math geeks, this is standard exponential decay.]

If we take the area under this curve, we see that the pseudo-worker has accomplished: 32 units of work.

Now let’s consider another approach. Assume, instead, that you break up the paper writing into two bursts. One burst you do for two hours Saturday afternoon. The other burst you do for two hours on Sunday morning. The long gap in between ensures your focus can recharge. Following the rates of focus decay used above, your chart looks like:

Intensity of Focus over Time for Short Burst Approach
hour 1 (sat) : 10
hour 2 (sat) : 9
hour 3 (sun) : 10
hour 4 (sun) : 9

Clearly, this work schedule is much less painful. Just two hours at a time. And a whole day separating the two sessions. However, when we calculate the area under this curve, we see that the short burst approach accomplished: 38 units of work!

In other words, working fewer hours, in a much less painful configuration, the short-burst accomplished more work than the marathon approach. (19% more to be exact)

Not surprisingly, most straight-A students I interviewed, myself included, admitted to studying in short, focused bursts, with plenty of time in between to recharge. As our above example demonstrates, if you integrate focus into your work equation, it becomes plausible to accomplish more work in less time and with less pain.

Here’s the cool thing: the short-burst approach doesn’t require extraordinary effort. At no point was the focus higher with this approach than it had been at some point during the marathon approach. Simply by manipulating when the studying happened, and nothing else, the productivity was significantly increased.

Jason, a straight-A student from Penn, used the term “pseudo-work” to describe the low-focus, time-intensive marathon style of work. I think this term is apt. Pseudo-work feels like work. It’s hard and time is being spent. But it’s not really accomplishing much.

It follows that one of the most important steps you can take to improve your academic performance is to eliminate all pseudo-work from your study habits. Let’s conclude with some tips for putting this idea into practice.

Tips for Eliminating Pseudo-Work

  1. Take a ten minute break for every hour worked. This helps reduce the rate at which your focus intensity decays.
  2. Never work more than three hours (with ten minute breaks) before taking significant time off.
  3. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy. Exercise. These factors control your energy. Your energy impacts your focus.
  4. Work in the morning and afternoon. Try to accomplish as much as possible before dinner. Your focus degrades quicker at night, and activities during the day will force your work into smaller bursts.
  5. Always study in a quiet, distraction-free location. Talking roommates or a TV in the background will lower your focus.

In the next part of this series we tackle the second Straight-A Gospel: Studying is a Technical Skill. Stay Tuned…

(For more coverage of pseudo-work, and how to eliminate it, see Part I of How to Become a Straight-A Student.)

The Straight-A Gospels

July 26th, 2007 · 2 comments

My book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, presents a simple thesis:

Most college students could score straight A’s without studying more hours than the average undergrad.

To the uninitiated, this claim reeks of sensationalism. Unfortunately, not everyone is convinced by my first reaction to this skepticism: read the book! I have, therefore, become adept at quickly communicating the core concepts that make this thesis plausible.

There are, I have determined, three ideas that structure all of the content in Straight-A. Once you understand these ideas, it becomes apparent that most of the content in this book is really just details — one particular approach, among many, for putting these concepts into practice.

With this in mind, I want to introduce these ideas, which I call, with a completely unjustified sense of grandiosity, The Straight-A Gospels. They are as follows:

The Straight-A Gospels

  1. Pseudo-work does not equal work.
  2. Studying is a technical skill.
  3. Structure catalyzes results.

Over the next three posts in this series I will address each gospel and explain what it means and how to act on it.

Monday Master Class: Apply Weakest Link Theory to Time Management

July 23rd, 2007 · 7 comments

We start, as usual, with a story. If you want to get right to the meaty advice, skip ahead to the heading labeled: The Weakest Link in Time Management.

The Hidden Danger of the Weakest Link

The heat shield that protects the modern Space Shuttle is a marvel of modern material science. To understand the importance of this collection of Nomex-mounted silica tiles, is to understand the limitations of previous technology. The Apollo command module, and the smaller Gemini orbiters that preceded it, relied on ablative heat shields. These were, in essence, large and, more importantly from the perspective of space flight, heavy hunks of metals that literally melted away as the vehicle battled the intense friction of earth’s atmosphere during reentry. When the shuttle program was initiated, it soon became clear that an ablative solution would not work for a vehicle as large as the space shuttle. It would be too heavy and too cumbersome.

Thus began the development of what eventually became known as the Thermal Protection System (TPS). The resulting technology was nothing short of spectacular. Lightweight silicon-based tiles were invented that could withstand temperatures in excess of 2300 degrees Fahrenheit. Even more impressive, they could be taken from this extreme heat and thrust into extreme cold, like that found in the vacuum of space, or the icy pre-dawn mornings of Cape Canaveral, and suffer no deformation. The ability for the material to radiate away heat is so efficient that material scientists discovered that they could grab the tiles, with unprotected hands, only seconds after removing them from a 2000 degree oven. Over 31,000 of these tiles are carefully layered under the underside of the shuttle, allowing it to make over two dozen re-entries before needing major repair. This is, to put is plainly, a miracle of material science. A quantum leap from the technology of Apollo that dominated just a decade earlier.

Then, in 2003, the Columbia was destroyed.

Hot gases, generated by the intense heat of reentry, had penetrated into the right wing, literally disintegrating the internal structure. Once the wing was gone the rest of shuttle quickly broke apart — unable to resist the torque and torsion subjected on its compromised structure. How did the miracle tiles of the TPS system fail so spectacularly? They didn’t. The tiles did what they were engineered to do; absorb extreme heat and radiate it away. The problem had occurred during lift-off when a chunk of insulating foam, roughly the size of a briefcase, had careened from the main fuel tank and knocked loose a single five inch tile over the wing. That small gap was all it took for the relentless, super-heated bi-products of re-entry to find their opening and cause their devastation.

The Columbia was a victim of what the engineering community calls Weakest Link Theory. A system failure can occur at any vulnerable point. Over-engineering the most obvious problem areas does not increase the overall effectiveness of the system so long as any vulnerabilities exist. The tiles worked perfectly. The weak link in the system, however, was the presence of debris that could knock one or more of these miracle tiles loose. It was the aerospace equivalent of the homeowner who installs a heavy-duty, steel deadbolt to his front door, then forgets to close the nearby window.

Weakest Link Theory, as it turns out, also has an interesting story to tell about one of the most important pieces to a successful college career: time management.

The Weakest Link in Time Management

The adoption of a time management system is often the result of an extreme encounter with stress. Upset by the chaos born of an uncontrolled schedule, the hypothetical student decides to inject order back into his life. Soon, an impressive time management system is born. Every to-do will be captured immediately! Project lists will be broken down, tasks categorized! Daily time blocking will root out wasted minutes, and keep days productive!

Fast forward six weeks. The system is long forgotten. The chaos level once again begins to rise.

The mistake made here is to over-engineer one piece of the time management solution and neglect the others. Namely, we like to focus on capture and organization. What is the optimal way to intake, sort, and plan the various obligations that enter our life? But we tend to overlook how difficult it is to restart our brilliant system after an inevitable period of neglect.

In short: the restart complexity is the weakest link of time management.

If this link fails, then the system is a dud. It will last, at most, one or two months, before the first period of malaise cripples it permanently. How do you ensure your time management system avoids these problems? Here are three simple rules:

(1) The 15-minute restart. After one or two weeks of neglect, it should take only fifteen minutes of processing to arrive at a state indistinguishable from one in which you took no time off from the system. The hidden danger here is your e-mail inbox. In a week, it’s easy for hundreds of messages to pile-up. If your restart requires you to examine and act on every message, you’ll never make the 15 minute deadline. My implementation of GTDCS, for example, uses context labels in Gmail. I can clear an inbox as quickly as I can label and archive the messages it contains. Once processed in this manner, they are in the system. Restart accomplished.

(2) The stateless schedule. Your system should not require you to maintain any day-specific records. For example, some systems record the time you spent on each activity during the day. This thwarts easy restarts because, after a period of neglect, there are holes in your data that cannot be (easily) re-filled;. This weakens the integrity of the entire scheme. GTD-based systems satisfy this requirement because of their simple review-then-act structure.

(3) The bare-bones material requirement. The complexity of a restart is directly proportional to the complexity of the materials used in your system. If you use complicated custom software, located only on your dorm room computer, then restart is hard. You have to go to that location, load the program, then manually bring it back up to speed. (Which is why, incidentally, I am wary of solutions such as thus derived from Omni Outliner Pro, for use by students). Better alternatives include: a legal pad that never leaves your backpack and/or your online e-mail client. Simplify as much as humanly possible.

If I could do it again: Michael Simmons

July 20th, 2007 · One comment

I’m inaugurating a new regular feature for the blog: If I could do it again. The idea is to interview recent college graduates doing interesting things and ask them to reflect on what they did right during college and what they would do different.

Our first victim is Michael Simmons, a graduate of NYU, who is the co-founder of the Extreme Entrepreneurship Education Corporation, a company which publishes books, operates a successful college road tour, and owns the goal-oriented social networking site Journey Page. Michael’s been featured on CBS, ABC, NBC, and USA Today, and was named one of Business Week’s top 25 entrepreneurs under 25. (He’s best known, however, for co-founding a high school dot-com with a dashing and brilliant classmate who went on to write a pair of book about doing well at college.)

SH: What did you get right during your time at college?

Michael: I spent a lot of time building relationships with the administrators
(professors / deans / advisers / president / marketing / etc). These
relationships helped me become aware of and receive great opportunities.

SH: What would you do differently if you could do it again?

Michael: I would have studied abroad in a third world country.

SH: What is the single most important piece of advice you would give a current undergraduate?

Michael: Contemplate your goals for life and college and then make them happen no
matter what. Otherwise, you’ll end up following somebody else’s goal for

SH: Describe one simple hack you found made your student life easier.

Michael: During the first week of every semester, sit in on as many classes as
you can and then drop the classes you don’t like. I found that professors have more of an impact on my enjoyment of a class rather than the topic. Beyond a professor’s reputation and curriculum vitae, it is really difficult to know whether or not you’ll like the professor until you seem him/her in action.

Monday Master Class: The Activity Filter

July 20th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 7/16/07]

Earlier this year I got the opportunity to chat with a group of
freshman at Dartmouth College about the challenges they face. One
young woman admitted an affinity for history. She wanted to study it
at grad school. Maybe, at some point, even become a professor. But she
had a problem. Her extracurricular load was fast becoming too much to
handle. She worried about being able to maintain this demanding suite
of activities for three more years.

Before I could respond, a dean who was also attending the event, and
who happened to be a professor of Medieval History, jumped into the
conversation: “Why are you doing all of this stuff if your interest is
studying history?” The dean continued: “Forget the other activities,
if you want to study history in graduate school, you need to focus
only on activities that lead you toward becoming one of the best
history students in your class.”

Though she might not have used these terms, the dean was providing the
student with what I call an “activity filter” — a simple rule that
can be applied to determine whether a potential activity is worth the
time commitment.

The great thing about college is that you have discretionary time and
numerous opportunities. The downside, however, is that it’s easy to
completely fill your schedule yet still end up graduating having made
little progress on the aspirations most important to you. An activity
filter is a solution to this problem. It’s a simple way to keep your
commitments focused.

Here’s how it works:

(1) Select an aspiration that excites you.

(2) Determine the type of accomplishments that would make that
aspiration most plausible. If necessary, you might to do some research
here by reading the paths taken by others who accomplished similar

(3) Find a concise description for the type of activities identified
in the previous step.

(4) Now, when deciding whether or not to take on a new time
commitment, ask yourself whether it fits this description. If not,
ruthlessly bypass it.

You probably have more than one aspiration, so you probably need more
than one activity filter. More than three, however, is too much.

As an undergraduate, for example, I had two filters. One applied to
academics (“Will this help distinguish me as one of the top computer
science talents in my class?”) One applied to writing (“Will this help
hone my skill and reputation as a writer?”)

If you’re interested in campus politics, you might focus only on
activities that help establish you as someone who gets useful things
done for his class. For film-making, you can ask if the activity is
helping you craft an original visual voice.

This advice is simple enough to border on triviality. But it works.
The simple act of having a simple slogan can go a long way toward
consistently taming the day-to-day chaos of college life. At times, it
can feel heartless to eliminate, so ruthlessly, the diverse
opportunities available to you. But this is what it takes to
accomplish things worth accomplishing. If you relinquish control of
your attention, you will, in an perversion of the famed expression
“death by a million paper cuts,” find yourself facing “mediocrity by a
million activities.”

Monday Master Class: Accelerate Q/E/C Note-Taking

July 20th, 2007 · 7 comments

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 7/2/07]

Taking lecture notes requires great speed, as professors can spew
information at a ferocious rate. This is one reason why I emphasize in
STRAIGHT-A the importance of using a laptop in the classroom – you
type faster (and neater) than you scrawl.

This need for speed, however, can conflict with the
Question/Evidence/Conclusion (Q/E/C) note-taking style. When the
information is flying, you might not have the time to write out the
full word “Question” or “Conclusion.” This problem becomes pronounced
if you like, as I do, to put them into bold face to better structure
your notes visually.

Here’s an easy hack for Microsoft Word users to bypass this issue:

(1) Type and format the word “Question” the way you prefer it to
appear in your Q/E/C notes.

(2) Highlight the text. Go to Tools –> AutoCorrect Options.

(3) The “AutoCorrect” tab should be automatically selected. In the
“With” field you should see your formatted text. Now, put the letters
“qq” into the “Replace” field and then click the “Add” button.

(4) Repeat this procedure for “Conclusion,” using the letters “cc”

Now, when typing your notes, simply hit “q” twice and press the space
bar and your formatted “Question” will automatically appear. The same
holds true for “cc” and “Conclusion.”

It seems minor. But it frees your fingers from having to leave the
letter-keys on the keyboard, freeing up valuable time for capturing
the information being delivered.

Monday Master Class: The Graph as Question

July 20th, 2007 · 3 comments

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 6/25/07]

I begin with an academic horror story that motivates today’s advice.
If you want to skip the drama and get straight to the technical
content, scroll down to the section labeled: “USING THE GRAPH AS


In my second semester as a graduate student at MIT I took a course on
distributed system design. Like many science-focused graduate courses,
the reading was exclusively published academic papers. The professor
would tackle a few papers a day — each of which discussed a specific
distributed system — covering the basics.

To prepare for the first exam, I dutifully constructed my study guide,
and studied with the Q/R method. I arrived in the classroom on test
day with a ready grasp of the main features and architecture of each
of the systems we had reviewed.

Then I got hosed.

The exam didn’t cover the main features or architecture. It focused,
instead, on specific scenario-based questions (think: “How much
performance would you gain from doubling the number of processes on
system X while removing 30% of the servers?”) The professor hadn’t
discussed the material at this level of specificity, so my
lecture-derived Q/R questions were woefully inadequate. I, of course,
scored terribly.

I allowed myself exactly one day to mope. A process, which involved,
mainly, informing my wife (then girlfriend), with the solemnity of a
general sending a platoon toward eminent death, that I would soon be
ejected, mercilessly, from MIT.

Then I went back to the drawing board.

As you know from STRAIGHT-A, the most important piece of studying
advice is to never trust any single piece of advice. Instead, always
experiment. See what works and what doesn’t — then change the latter.
(A sentiment I’ve taken to summarizing as: “Study like Darwin”).

After some reflection, I realized that the key to these papers were
the graphs and tables. These captured the crucial information you
needed to know to really understand how the systems operated. (As I’ve
learned from my own peer-reviewed publications, figures are used as a
shorthand between experts in a scientific field to quickly communicate
everything you really need to know about the research being

I completely revised my study strategy. Forget lecture notes. Forget
my old study guide. For the second exam I was going to study only the
figures. I used Q/R, but the figures now became my questions. I went
paper by paper, figure by figure, and tried to lecture out loud
exactly what was being shown. If it was a graph, for example, I had to
explain what the axes were, and what, exactly, was demonstrated by the

This approach pushed my understanding to the core of how these systems
operated. To reach this same understanding from scratch, by reading
and re-reading the papers, would have been a hopeless task. The
figure-based approach, however, fit neatly into the Q/R method, and I
was therefore able to internalize with maximum efficiency.

The effect: I did well on the final exam. Better than most of my
classmates. And yes, true to my titular reputation, I did end up
scoring an “A” — keeping my streak alive.

Let’s now generalize this advice:


For many technical courses you will be presented with reading material
that contains graphs and tables. Economics textbooks, for example, are
full of them. As are statistics texts, or the papers given out in
upper-level computer science courses. I assume this is also probably
true of the chem books in pre-med courses, among others.

In these situations, consider the following adjustment to the strategy
laid out in Part 2 of STRAIGHT-A:

(1) Photocopy every figure in the reading that will be covered by the
upcoming exam. One figure per page.

(2) Integrate these figures into your study guide along with your
other sample problems.

(3) When doing Q/R studying, treat each figure as a question. The
appropriate answer is a full explanation of: (a) exactly what the
figure is measuring; and (b) the implications or explanations for what
it shows. For example, why are the two curves on a graph different.
Or, why do the numbers get larger as you move across the columns in a

(4) You will likely find that a single figure covers the same
information also captured by several other sample problems in your
study guide. Feel free to consolidate by eliminating the redundant