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

Dangerous Ideas: Productivity is Overrated

August 31st, 2007 · 20 comments

I’m introducing a new semi-regular feature: Dangerous Ideas. Each entry in the series will focus on a provocative idea, built out of anecdotal evidence, that challenges a piece of conventional wisdom.

Today’s dangerous idea: Productivity is Overrated

I should be careful here. Much of my livelihood as a writer depends on my good-natured efforts to help fellow students be more productive. So I should clarify…

Productivity is important for being successful. But its role in this endeavor is often blown out of proportion. Some of the most accomplished people I know are incredibly disorganized. They work at the last minute. They stay up all night. They constantly scramble to find what they’re looking for. But they still get it done. Other accomplished people are incredibly organized. What gives? The truths underlying this reality:

  1. Being productive does not make you accomplished.
  2. It does, however, make being accomplished less stressful.

The key to really getting ahead has nothing to do with productivity. From my experience with successful young people (and, as I writer, I have quite a bit of exposure to this crowd) what you need, put simply, is a drive to keep working, with a laser-like intensity, on something even after you’ve lost immediate interest. Tenacity. A grating thirst to get it done. These are the precursors of accomplishment.

Having good productivity habits compliment this crucial skill. They take this intensity and place it in a schedule. They keep small things from crowding your mind. They eliminate the stress of what appointment you might be forgetting or what vital errand has to be done. But productivity is not a substitute for this work.

This is a mistake I sometimes intuit is being made by young people with an interest in this community. There is a belief that if you get just the right system, with just the right calendar technology, and to-do notebook, and task management philosophy, accomplishment will come automatically. You can just turn the system on and watch it churn out what needs to get done.

Alas, this never happens. It’s like the first law of accomplishment thermodynamics: accomplishment can’t spring from nothingness. At some point, even David Allen himself still has to convince himself to do hard things when he doesn’t want to. Effort must be expended. This cannot be avoided.

Within the scope of this reality, productivity plays a crucial role. If you want to get ahead in a meaningful, low-stress, controlled manner you have to pay attention to these little habits. Take college students for example. It’s possible to do really well without all of the philosophies I pitch. This is what grinds do. They want those grades, and they dig in and make it happen. But their lives are pretty brutal. With the right productivity habits, the same goal can be accomplished in a less stressful, more reasonable manner. Along the way, however, you still have to convince yourself to get up, get to library, and open that book, no matter how clearly it’s recorded on your calendar.

It’s important to make this distinction because it helps you prepare. If you acknowledge the role of hard work, you can adjust your mindset to be one that expects and values this trait. This is what, in the end, will make the biggest difference in what you end up getting done — regardless of how you organize, break down, and schedule this work.

What Firefox Should Have Done in the First Place

August 31st, 2007 · Be the first to comment has posted a good comprehensive list of academic-related plug-ins for Firefox. The interested student can pick and choose from this menu. This seems to make more sense than just choosing three at random. Though, to give Firefox credit, Paul Kim recently commented that the FF team will be adding a detailed list of this style to FF Campus Edition FAQs. My irrational anger has been officially dispelled.

One plug-in that didn’t make the list, but has caught my attention recently, is BlueOrganizer. According to the official website: “[BlueOrganizer] helps you save time by navigating the web via smart, context-sensitive shortcuts.”

I have no idea what that means.

But what I do know is that, among other things, it seems to let you send books automatically to your Amazon Wish List (excellent) and get automatic Google Map look-ups of addresses you encounter (also excellent).

What Makes an Interesting Life Interesting?

August 30th, 2007 · 6 comments

A recent blog post by Tynan, over at Better than your Boyfriend, has been generating some discussion recently. The topic: How to live an interesting life.

Tynan’s advice centers on risks. Take social risks. Take financial risks. Even take physical risks. (It seems, for some reason, that Tynan derives real enjoyment from jumping off of tall things).

This advice is in the spirit of Timothy Ferriss, who, earlier this year, birthed a monster bestseller in The Four Hour Work Week. This book completely changed the then culturally-stagnant conversation of how to find meaning in life. In the pre-Ferriss era, people talked in terms of finding work that is meaningful (the definitive anecdote being an Ivy League graduate turning down lucrative banking to teach in the inner city). Then Timothy Ferriss came along and said, in so many words:

  • All work sucks! Stop doing it all together! Start a small, heavily outsourced, low-maintenance web business to pay the bills, then go travel the world racing motorcycles and learning how to kickbox.

This struck a chord. I read it. So did many others. Clearly, even people in “meaningful” jobs are feeling burnt out, and were ready to hear something new. Ferriss delivered.

But on reflection, I’m not so sure how well this would apply to me.

That’s the problem with this question of what makes a life interesting — there is an incredible variance in the answers. That is, it really depends on the person asking. Motivated by Tynan’s post, for example, I came up with my own list. I have no idea if this same approach would work for anyone else:

How to Live an Interesting Life (If You’re Cal Newport):

  1. Spend the time required to master something hard and valuable. This is basic human psychology. Nothing is more fulfilling than being world class at something. (The Tiger Woods effect). Furthermore, society rewards experts, giving you many more interesting, attractive options in life.
  2. Corollary to (1): There are no shortcuts, don’t jump from scheme to scheme. Somewhere, along the way, you have to just dig in and do the hard work.
  3. Defy Conventional Wisdom Regarding Limited Time. Most people are incredibly inefficient. Very few pursuits can’t be mastered within the confines of no more than a 9 – 5 work day, five days a week. Learn to be ultra-productive. Ignore other people’s thoughts on how much time work requires.
  4. Have One Secret Project. Choose one crazy side project that, if accomplished, would make people yelp “wow!” Work on this consistently — within the confines of your 9 to 5 day. This adds real spice to your life, and injects some opportunities that might not otherwise be available.
  5. Don’t schedule the rest of your time. Use it to relax. Or do whatever seems interesting at the moment. Be social. Adventure. Read. Watch TV if that’s your thing. Drink good beer (life’s to short for American Pilsner). Just enjoy being.

But this is just me. What do you think makes an interesting life interesting?

Why Does Firefox Campus Edition Make Me So Irrationally Upset?

August 30th, 2007 · 5 comments

It seems like just about every productivity blogger on the planet has recently posted about the new Firefox Campus Edition. I’m starting to feel left out, and I’ll tell you why: I couldn’t care less about it.

Firefox bundled together three readily available plug-ins. Two of them — FoxyTunes and Zotero — are unnecessary injections of complexity into your already busy student life. If you own an iPod and a pad of paper, they’re redundant. Here’s a tip, take the time required to learn these tools, and use it instead to have a beer with your roommates.

The third plug-in, StumbleUpon, is cool. But it doesn’t need to be bundled. If you want it, go download it!

This still doesn’t explain, however, my mysterious anger. Maybe some students want those three plug-ins? It certainly can’t hurt to offer it…

What secretly upsets me, I think, is the painful marketing copy plastered on the ultra-slick Firefox Campus Edition homepage. It reads, in part:

“Introducing the best thing to hit campus since ramen noodles…Firefox Campus Edition combines the speed, security and features of the Firefox browser with special extras that give you streamlined access to music, cool sites and useful information.”

It sounds like a freakn’ Best Buy back to school commercial! It reeks of that painful collision between trying to be low-key and hip while still having to work in all of the bullet points from the latest marketing meeting — an effort that almost inevitably distills to trying to work words like “cool” and “stuff” into your copy. Ugh!

I guess I’m not quite ready for Firefox to make that transition from rouge open source project to something some institutionalized.

Why Do Good Reporters Write Bad Articles About Successful Young People?

August 29th, 2007 · One comment

When I was in high school, I started a web consulting business with my good friend Michael Simmons. Naturally, it attracted some press. Here’s a quote from one such article (which focused on Michael):

“While his peers were spending their senior year of high school thinking about the prom, Michael Simmons was making thousands of dollars.”

Another friend of mine, Ben Casnocha, also started a company while still in school. An article in The New York Times gushed:

“Or you can be Ben Casnocha…Publishing a book in his teens actually ranks as one of his more modest accomplishments. At 12, he started his first company. At 14, he founded a software company called Comcate Inc. At 17, he was continuing to prosper as an entrepreneur…Along the way, Ben (I refuse to address him as Mr. Casnocha until he turns 21) was also captain of his high school basketball team and edited the school newspaper. “

Ryan, yet another school-aged entrepreneur friend of mine (I have many), was introduced as follows in a recent interview:

Imagine starting your first company at the age of 16. Imagine gracing such prestigious magazine covers as Small Business Fortune and Success. Imagine running a million dollar company before you were even old enough to drink. This super whiz kid Ryan Allis sat down with Exposzure and filled us in on how he got started.”

The “Pow and Wow” Article Format

The format highlighted above is endemic in articles written about successful young people. Reporters from small web sites to the New York Times all seem to regress to the same, simplistic structure when faced with someone who is under 25 and unusually accomplished:

  1. Shock the audience by emphasizing how much the person has accomplished at such a young age. The more amazing the better! If possible, ask the reader to imagine what he or she was doing at the same age.
  2. Give a funny anecdote about getting a ride to business meetings with mom.
  3. Inject a couple unchallenged, grandiose quotes about future plans.

I call this format “Pow and Wow,” because it hits the reader — pow! — with a bunch of accomplishments then tries to wow them with the punchline: the person doing all of this is really young! Here’s the thing: I hate this format. And I think it’s pernicious and damaging.

The Danger of Pow and Wow

I’m not alone in my dislike of this format. Many young entrepreneurs I know, for example, share my disapproval. One problem is that the quest to shock and amaze the reader leads to exagerations. I remember an article from my dot-com days that stated that Michael and I were millionaires. Not even close to true (exhibit A: my immense student loan debts). Another stated that we each averaged about $30,000 of income a month. (I believe the line they used was: “better than a paper route!“) This is also not true. We had signed a $30,000 contract around the time that the article came out. But this was hardly a monthly occurrence. They reported what they wanted to hear.

These exaggerations, however frustrating, really only affect the subject of the article. The real problem, I believe, hits the young readers of these articles who hold ambitions of their own. In the quest to pow and wow their audience, the reporter provides an inaccurate sketch of the reality of young accomplishment. By exaggerating accomplishments and ignoring hardships the provided picture falsely erects an impossibly high barrier to entry.

“These are whiz kids,” the typical pow and wow article claims. “They are making millions of dollars, and they’re only teenagers, and most people could never, ever, do this! Wow! It’s amazing!”

It’s no wonder that so many young people are pessimistic about undertaking grand missions.

The Reality of Young Accomplishment

From my experience, young accomplishment is usually a surprisingly prosaic affair. It almost always distills down to a simple two-part formula:

  1. Young person diligently pursues a modest, but interesting endeavor.
    For example, he helps build little web sites for a handful of local businesses. Or, he organizes a community service group at his high school.
  2. Serendipity pushes the endeavor to a new level.
    For example, a slightly bigger company hires the kid to be the sub-contractor on their web design contracts, quickly building a large portfolio that leads to much larger contracts. Or, the founder of the community service group runs into an old friend starting a global network, and ends up coordinating youth in his entire region, leading, eventually, to meeting officials at the UN.

The first example is, more or less, what happened to me. The second is the story of my friend Mohammed, who I interviewed in a recent Flak Magazine feature. The typical mainstream profile, however, would ignore the mundane endeavor from (1) and remove the serendipity from (2), jumping straight to the result. Ugh!

The irony is that the real stories are more gripping. The struggles Michael and I had to reconcile our work with the expectations of our high school social scene make for some real drama. Mohammed tells a fascinating tale of his professors’ growing anger at his frequent absence from class, and his own mounting self-doubt. These accounts provide grit. They reek of the human condition. Alas, we rarely see them.

My final plea is simple. If you’re a reader, pay little mind to the standard successful youth fluff. Don’t let this throw you in your own quest to carve out an impressive niche for yourself. And, if you’re a writer, please, for the love of all things sacred, remember: your cute little opening that ends with the tagline “and he’s only 16!” does not surprise us. It does not make us want to read on. We can smell the artifice. We know there is more to the story, lurking, just below the surface. Real tension. The more you hide this, the more annoyed we will become.

Looking for a Courageous Volunteer

August 29th, 2007 · One comment

I’m looking for a courageous volunteer to help all of us here at Study Hacks better understand the reality of trying to deploy advanced study tactics amidst the turmoil of a real college semester.

Specifically, I’m looking for a student, just starting his or her fall semester, who is willing:

  1. For the beginning of the semester, to occasionally report back about their workload and studying.
  2. Later in the semester, to put some of our advanced tactics into practice, and then report back on the difference (or, gulp, lack there of) they made.

Not only would you be helping us all become better students, but also, the experience will, likely, give a real boost to your grades.

If you think you might be interested, e-mail me.

The Science of Studying

August 28th, 2007 · 2 comments

The August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science contains an interesting article titled: Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time (available free). It’s written by psychologists Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler.

Here are some interesting observations from the study:

  1. “[We found] a single session devoted to the study of some material should continue long enough to ensure that mastery is achieved but that immediate further study of the same material is an inefficient use of time.”
  2. “In essence, overlearning simply provides very little bang for the buck, as each additional unit of uninterrupted study time provides an ever smaller return on the investment of study time…There are, however, situations in which overlearning is desirable. For instance, overlearning appears to be effective in the short term and therefore might be a fine choice for learners who do not seek long-term retention.”
  3. “The benefit of distributing a fixed amount of study time across two study sessions—the spacing effect—depends jointly on the interval between study sessions and the interval between study and test.”
  4. “In the first of these studies, students studied Swahili–English word pairs. The ISI [spacing between two study sessions] ranged from 5 minutes to 14 days, and the RI [the time after studying and before the test] was 10 days. ISI had a very large effect on test scores, with the 1-day ISI yielding the best recall.”

I’m not surprised to see a close correspondence between these results and what I observed of the straight-A students I studied. In particular, notice that Quiz-and-Recall eliminates overlearning by having students only revisit ideas that gave them trouble. Similarly, my claims that you should process information into ideas before recording them in your notes, and then study in small chunks spread over many days (explained here and here), fit nicely with the finding that separated study sessions perform far superior to one massed cram session.

(Thanks to Wray Herbert for finding this article)

Around the Web: Introducing

August 27th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

I was pleased to recently discover Gideon Addington’s excellent academic productivity blog (Notice, this blog used to be called Study Hack, and was located at, but Gideon graciously volunteered to rename once we mutually discovered the coincidence of our respective monikers.)

Gideon’s focus tends to be the intersection between technology and student productivity, and he does, in my opinion, a great job of keeping readers abreast of the latest software and online solutions that actually fit the student lifestyle. Some recent posts I liked, include: