Study Hacks Blog Posts from August, 2007 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport - Part 2

Monday Master Class: Back to School Advice You Won’t Find in Your Freshman Handbook

August 27th, 2007 · 5 comments

Late summer is the season of back to school advice. Nowhere is this more true than in the blogging community. Post after post slops full with helpful tips. Some irritating (“treat yourself with a reward, like a nice t-shirt or an ice cream every time you follow your schedule!”); most just boring (“get enough sleep!”)

I want to buck that trend. College is grittier than the world of freshman mixers and study breaks that writers like to focus on when offering up advice. As any student will tell you, it’s also a world of booting and popularity woes. Where social circles are vital and the party scene can be equal parts exhilarating and brutal. With this in mind, I want to present three pieces of gritty back to school study advice that are crucial, but that you probably won’t hear anywhere else:

Back to School Advice You Won’t Find in Your Freshman Handbook

  1. Party twice as hard for the first few weeks
    The beginning of the semester sets the pace for your social life. For your first few weeks on campus, before the workload becomes intense, go out more nights and stay out longer than you are used to. This is where many serious friendships will be forged. It will also rapidly acclimatize you to the social scene, and help ensure a steady stream of reliable, easy social options once your schedule begins to fill-up later in the term. If people had memorable experiences with you early on, they will keep you integrated in their social planning as the semester continues.
  2. Learn how to drink
    If you’re going to drink at college (around 50 to 70% students make this decision, depending on the source), you need to learn how to do it right. This means: learn your tolerance level. Figure out what pace you can sustain without losing control. Too many freshman go overboard in their first semester and end up embarrassing themselves. No one is impressed that you got completely smashed. In fact, while you might find yourself hilarious, most will find you awkward, and wish that you would just shut the hell up. If you shadow a senior around for a Friday night out, you will note that, after three years of experience, he or she will have learned how to have a good time without: (a) losing control; or (b) making themselves sick the next morning. Experiment with your intake to figure out how to get to this point as quickly as possible. Take this seriously. Like an athlete. You must learn how to maximize the capability of your body.
  3. If you don’t drink, don’t try to explain
    If you’re not a drinker, people will often ask you why. Don’t try to explain. Just say: “I have my reasons.” If they persist, get harsh: “What the fuck is it to you?” This ends the conversation, and lets you move on with the night. Pretty soon, people will stop bothering you about this. From what I’ve seen, trying to offer up an explanation will instigate a conversation that won’t go well. First of all, it always ends up making you seem like a bit of wuss, like you feel obligated to explain yourself to this jack ass. Secondly, the asker probably doesn’t care. They just like to talk about their own drinking.
  4. Start off as an activity slacker
    During the first week or two as a freshman, join one club that you are willing to apply serious energy towards. As I’ve talked about before, being the best at something is exponentially more rewarding than merely being involved. Also, this club will provide structure and a ready-made social group to help jumpstart your college career. Don’t, however, sign up for anything else. At least, not at first. The excitement of your first few weeks makes everything seem impossibly exciting. When the first exam period rolls around, however, you will regret having joined 18 different clubs. So be a slacker at first. Evaluate but don’t commit. Wait until your workload has hit its peak before you start to make smarter decisions about additional extracurriculars.

Unconventional SAT Prep: What I’ve Learned So Far…

August 20th, 2007 · 2 comments

Based on the initial responses to my call for unconventional SAT prep strategies, I have extracted a couple early insights. I still want to hear more stories. If you had good luck preparing for the SAT on your own, e-mail me a quick description of what you did.

 Some Initial Observations About Self-Preparation for the SAT

  1. Doing well requires a (very) large volume of practice tests. Much more than most students assume when they consider test prep. Two dozen full sample tests is not uncommon. (As a side note, this reality is much more established among those preparing for the LSATs. I have a three college friends that studied together and all got into to Harvard Law. The defining feature of their strategy: an immense number of practice tests, spread out over an extended period).
  2. You must deconstruct every single question you get wrong. Different people have trouble with certain questions for different reasons. By performing a rigorous autopsy on your trouble spots, you develop, over time, an accurate understanding of your weaknesses. This allows custom solutions to fill in these gaps, leading, it seems, to much higher scores than if you follow only the generic strategies of a test prep firm (case in point: joe freakn’ bloggs).

Wish Me Luck…

August 20th, 2007 · 3 comments

I’m heading down to New York tomorrow to tape a bunch of TV and radio appearances about the best technologies for the back to school season. My publicists seemed to have found this blog, and honed in on my recent post suggesting students “sit next to the hot chick,” which they subsequently pitched to every producer on the planet. I’m starting to think that I may live to regret that particular piece of advice… 🙂

Monday Master Class: Never Be Hungry

August 20th, 2007 · 5 comments

What Exercise Habits Reveal About Productivity

I was a varsity athlete through high school and into my first year of college. Because of this, I’m no stranger to the gym or exercise. Indeed, since leaving formal athletic programs, I would be hard-pressed to find a span of two weeks or more, excluding times of sickness or travel, in which I didn’t exercise. Some periods, however, have been more active than others. When I look back through my old gym charts, I note that some months I’m in the gym three times a week, working hard, and making progress. Other times, I limp in maybe once a week, before letting the other days slide. What explains the difference?

After some examination, I concluded that the explanation was as unexpected as it was simple: my snacking habits. During periods in which I am careful to bring in large snacks to eat mid-morning, an hour or so before my normal workout time, I get it done. During periods in which I let coffee fuel me through the morning, I am crippled by an overwhelming urge to procrastinate. “Maybe later,” I tell myself. But rarely follow through.

The Hunger Danger

This lesson, of course, extends beyond exercise. Hunger builds the urge to procrastinate to near unconquerable levels. If you’re hungry, it’s hard to convince yourself to study. And even if you start, it’s hard to convince yourself to study well. It also makes it hard to make a schedule, follow a plan, or stay consistent with your habits and systems. I would go so far as to claim: being hungry during the day is as damaging to your productivity as being drunk or sick. It must be taken seriously! Here a few tips to help you realize this importance:

  1. Schedule snacks as top priority events
    Don’t leave these to chance. Put aside the time on your calendar. Know where you are going to go and what your are going to get. Focus on healthy. And make sure you get enough.
  2. Have energy boosters handy
    A granola bar or bowl of instant oatmeal should be on hand and ready to go should the slightest tinge of hunger arrive. Bring something to class, in case half way though the lecture you begin to feel your attention crash. Avoid trash food. No pop-tarts. No candy bars. You’re not 11 anymore.
  3. Never allow yourself to feel hungry (or full)
    You know you are eating enough if you never reach a state of true hunger. This might take some getting used to. Most young people are used to waiting until their appetite really growls, and then satiating it with a huge meal. Do the opposite. Make your meals smaller, and snack more. You’ll never feel hungry, you’ll never feel stuffed, and your energy will burn much longer.

Unconventional SAT Prep

August 18th, 2007 · One comment

Something I’ve been curious about lately is how my study advice does or does not apply to the related arena of standardized tests. I’m interested in collecting some real life stories…

If you did well on your SATs, and you used your own ad hoc methods to prepare (e.g., not a formal test prep course), consider sending me an e-mail to briefly explain your system.

I’ll report back any suprising strategies that show up frequently.

The Vital Five: A Crash Course for Turning Around Poor Academic Performance

August 17th, 2007 · 3 comments

About once or twice a month, I will get an e-mail from a college student who is in real need of some advice to turn around poor academic performance. Sometimes a scholarship is on the line. Often, it’s the wrath of watchful, tuition-paying parents that’s driving the desperation. Whatever the case, in responding to these e-mails, I’ve learned to extract from the large corpus of tips surronding my study philsopophy, a core set of advice that can effect a rapid change of academic fortunes.

Here are the vital five, as I sometimes call them: tips for creating a drastic change, quickly, to a poor academic record. These changes aren’t easy. But if you need results, and are willing to follow through, they’ll get the job done:

  1. Attend every class. Take notes on a laptop.
  2. Set aside a fixed two-hour study block for every weekday and Sunday. Use this time to study, in a remote corner of the library, without exception, every week of the term.
  3. Make a study plan for every test in every class at the beginning of the term. Decide what you are going to do and when.
  4. Replace rote review with quiz and recall.
  5. Attend office hours every single week to discuss the most challenging material from lecture, or the hardest problems from the problem set. Inform the professor that you are making a real effort this term to turn around your performance.

The Paradox of Young Lifehackers

August 13th, 2007 · One comment

In a recent article I wrote for Flak Magazine, I investigated the growing popularity of lifehacking among young people. “Since when,” I asked, “did twentysomethings, the demographic that previously gave rise to the beatniks, hippies, punks, and slackers, care about something so prosaic, so establishment, as to-do lists and reclaiming wasted time?”

My quest for an answer took me in unexpected directions, from “a small group of Silicon Valley geeks, to a young professor, who, during the early ’90s, began to get strange results from a simple experiment.”

I’m interested to hear how my conclusions match up with your personal experience.

Lifehacker 2.0 — Flak Magazine, 08.13.07

Monday Master Class: Three Trivial Study Habits that Provide Significant Results

August 13th, 2007 · One comment

Sometimes, the hardest part of a making a major lifestyle change is achieving those first positive results. So here are three stupidly simple study tips that, based on my research, tend to prove surprisingly effective. (Readers of my books will note that these distill some of the key insights that show up again and again as motivation for my suggested strategies…)

Three Trivial Study Habits

  1. Sketch a plan when you sit down to study
    Spend 30 seconds to jot down what and how you are going to study during the current session. Put time estimates next to each piece to confirm that the plan fits into the time you set aside to work. Put nice checkboxes next to each piece as you finish…everyone loves to check off nice checkboxes.
  2. Drink three glasses of water and one healthy snack for every one caffeinated beverage you consume
    Self-explanatory. You’ll be surprised, however, by how big a role your nutrition-driven energy levels play in your ability to concentrate.
  3. Ask your mom to perform a post-test idiot check
    On the way to the library call home on your cell phone. (Your mom will be happy to hear from you.) (Unless you ask for money.) Tell her that you’re about to starting studying for an exam, and your goal is to not be an idiot. In other words, to not waste time, or study inefficiently, or procrastinate. Ask her to call you in a few days to check-up on how you did.