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

I Want to Send You a Free Signed Copy of My Book

September 27th, 2007 · One comment

I’ve been pleased with the growth of this blog since its launch earlier this summer. I’m committed, however, to make the Study Hacks experience even better. I want this blog to be one of your favorites.

Three Simple Questions = One Free Book

With this in mind, I have a simple proposition. E-mail me with some brief answers to the three simple questions below. After a week I will randomly select some respondents and send them signed copies of Straight-A. It’s that simple.

Here’s the questions…

  1. How many posts per week would you prefer to see on Study Hacks?
  2. What type of posts do you want to see more of? What type of posts do you want to see less of?
  3. Why do you read Study Hacks? What’s one thing I could do to make you enjoy Study Hacks even more?

That’s it. E-mail me some quick answers and you’ll have a good chance of getting a free book.

Q & A: How Much Should I Care About a Minor Assignment I’m Doing Poorly On?

September 27th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

From the reader mailbag:

A history class I have this semester separates its grading as 35% to each the midterm and final exam and 10% each to the weekly 2-3 page position papers, weekly multiple choice quizzes, and attendance. I continually get less than perfect grades on the position papers. Should I work harder on these to gain the perfect score in the class, or are these worth so little that I should not worry about the individual grades on these?

Cal responds:

There are two types of academic problems: major and minor. Major problems represent poor performance on important assignments. If you don’t fix the situation your grade will likely drop a full letter or more. Minor problems are less important. Typically, a failure to address a minor problem might add a “-” or take away a “+”.

Major problems have to be addressed. This might require an overhaul of your study habits and a significant investment of additional time.

Minor problems are less urgent. Your situation with the position papers is a minor problem. So don’t lose any sleep over these.

What should you do? My general rule for minor problems: don’t increase the amount of time you are working on the assignments causing the trouble. (Life is short, don’t take away free time when you can avoid it). Instead, look for simple ways to improve the outcome of the time you already spend on these assignments.

For the specific case of your position papers, I recommend talking with your professor. Don’t ask directly how to improve your grade. This smacks of grade-grubbing. Instead, ask what the better position papers in class do right. He may even give you a few examples to review. This one meeting will only eat up 20 minutes. It will, however, probably give you enough tweaks and tips to your writing process to produce a grade bump on future papers.

If I Could Do it Again: Jessica Crowell

September 27th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

Jessica Crowell resides in two very different worlds. After graduating from the University of North Carolina last spring, she continued her role as the Chief Financial Officer for Size Me Up, the online business she helped invent with her friend Melissa Adelman (who was profiled recently in this same series).

At the same time, however, Jessica keeps a foot solidly in the world of big business finance with her “day job” as an Interest Rate Derivate Analyst for Wachovia Securities.

We asked this multi-focused wonder to reflect on the lessons of her college experience.

What did you get right during your time at college?

I recognized early on that learning was more important than trying to get a 4.0. My opinion is that taking slacker classes that don’t interest you just to boost your GPA or pick up a credit is a waste of time. While many of my friends were taking geography 101, I decided to enroll in an upper level class on Emerging Market Economies…I worked really hard, but in the end, it completely paid off. I learned tons and networked with people that I never would have met otherwise. Since then, I made it a point to consistently pick classes that both interested and challenged me even if I would have to work harder to get the grades I wanted.

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

I would have gotten more involved in the international programs on campus. After being an exchange student myself during the 2nd semester of my junior year, I realized what an awesome experience it is to form connections with other students from around the world.

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

Understand that as a ‘college student’ you have many unique opportunities that aren’t necessarily available to so-called normal adults—the two that come to mind are studying abroad and using your ‘student’ status as an excuse to get to know key people both on and off campus. A great example of this is Size Me Up, an online clothing sizing tool that my roommate and I designed during our senior year. By using our University contacts, we were able to network with everyone from former apparel industry execs to Venture Capitalists. We have been able to keep the momentum we generated, however, I think that it would be much harder to gather the type of support we received now that we are no longer in a college environment.

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

Whenever possible pick your classes based on professors and recommendations from peers that you respect (even if they aren’t in your major or area of expertise). It’s amazing how a great professor can make any subject relevant and memorable. Also don’t forget good professors represent a wealth of knowledge and experiences—take every opportunity to get to know the professors you like personally.

Dangerous Ideas: What If Everything We Thought Was True About Productivity Was Wrong?

September 26th, 2007 · 12 comments

The Surprising Hardness of the Simple

I just observed something distressing about my behavior. The absolute most simple component to my productivity repertoire is to keep a notebook and a pen within reach at all times. In the standard GTD canon, this allows me to immediately capture any tasks or ideas that pop to mind.

In theory, this basic behavior — taking a notebook out of my backpack when I sit down — should present no difficulty. What task could be more simple? All I have to do is move my arm, literally, just a few feet, from my bag to my desk. No thinking is required. No more than 3 – 5 seconds transpire. No sweat.

Many times, however, I can’t stand the thought of it.

In fact, as I write this, such an occasion just occurred. I returned to my office after lunch, sat down, and found that every ounce of my being was resisting this trivial act. I had to fight to rally the energy to get out that notebook. And this is I fight I often lose.

The Problem with the Hardness Assumption

This observation contradicts a lot of what we assume about productivity. We like to imagine that the difficulty of starting something is in linear proportion to the difficulty of a task. When we see “write term paper” on a to-do list, we know we have our work cut out for us to overcome the urge to procrastinate. Something simple, on the other hand, like “take a notebook out of your backpack,” should be a breeze.

But it’s not.

To my continual consternation, the simple and hard, at times, can be equally difficult to get started. And this causes trouble. The core of most modern work flow management systems depend on the use of “easy” habits to support and simplify the “hard.” If these gradated designations fail, so does, perhaps, many of the claimed benefits of these systems.

Toward a More Realistic Theory of Motivation

The obvious question remains: What does explain our varying motivation levels? I don’t really know. But it’s likely quite complicated.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that I tend to move between grooves and slumps. When I’m in a groove on a certain type of work, it’s relatively painless to switch between tasks within this same type. For example, if I’m in a blog groove, it’s easy to knock off tasks related to the blog. This is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow state, but not quite the same. In a groove you are able to move between many different tasks within a broad type, whereas Flow typically refers to your concentration during a specific activity.

The slump is the evil twin to the groove. It describes a general period of low energy where anything beyond desultory e-mail checking seems impossibly distant.

What’s key is that in both situations the “hardness” of the task at hand plays a minimal role in determining my motivation to tackle it. The key is not only that I’m not in a slump but also that I’m in the right groove for the type of work I face.

The Important Questions

If this general model holds universally, it begs some interesting questions. For example:

  1. How do you avoid slumps?
  2. How do you jump from a slump to a groove?
  3. How do you know what groove you are in?
  4. Is it possible to jump from one groove to another?
  5. Do we have any control over what grooves we land in? And, if not, does it hold that the optimal work flow is one in which you learn to identify and then extract the maximum amount of work out of whatever groove you happen to be in?

From Control to Accommodation

I’m fascinated by these questions. But I have no real answers. It seems that the general paradigm shift at play here is one away from rigid control over your entire work day and toward one where you acknowledge a big part of your motivation is out of your control, and the best you can do is be aware and leverage what you face each day.

For future reading, there are, no doubt, relevant lessons in Csikszentmihaly. There is probably also a lot to be learned from Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s work on energy management.

I leave a more rigorous examination of these issues as future work. For now, however, as I sit and ponder the notebook that sits beside me, and the herculean struggle that preceded it’s arrival in this position, I can’t help but a feel a slight shiver of discomfort — maybe the whole productivity game is much more elusive and much more non-deterministic than we would like to believe.

Follow a Sunday Ritual

September 26th, 2007 · 43 comments

In How to Win at College, I emphasized a simple, but surprisingly effective piece of advice: Create a Sunday Ritual. I learned this trick from the superstars I interviewed for the book, and quickly put it into regular practice in my own life. Now, I couldn’t imagine getting through the week without it…

The Perfect Sunday Ritual

Here’s the idea: Friday and Saturday are a time to be social. Sunday morning and afternoon is a time for you to regroup, get organized, and get prepared for the upcoming week. To accomplish this, you need a Sunday ritual.

A good Sunday ritual consists of the following:

  1. Immediately after waking up, go grab a big breakfast (realistically, considering that last night you were out partying, this is more likely to be a brunch). Do this on your own, with strong coffee, and a copy of the Sunday Times (or, anything else that is both mentally stimulating and completely unconnected to any schoolwork). Take your time. Spend an hour.
  2. Swing by the nearest library. Spend 20-30 minutes to review your calendar and to-do lists. Get a feel for what work you need to get done this week. What deadlines are looming? What personal projects have fallen fallow? If you follow the GTDCS method (or something similar), this is the time to assign specific work to the specific days of the week. Make sure you also set aside around three hours of work to get done today. Preferably select something intellectual but also non-intimidating, such as catching up on reading assignments.
  3. Clear your head. This might involve going for a quiet walk. Or, hangover permitting, hitting the gym. Conclude with a snack that will boost energy.
  4. Settle into the most deserted possible library on campus. (At this point, it will be in the early to mid-afternoon) Taking quick breaks every 50 minutes, efficiently plow through your three hours of work for the day.
  5. Conclude by sketching your Monday schedule. It’s important for your stress levels that you feel like you have a detailed plan for the next day. Now, clear all work thoughts from your brain. Have dinner with your friends. Spend the evening doing whatever it is that you like doing. You’re ready for the new week.

The Power of the Sunday Ritual

A consistent Sunday ritual does wonders for the week to follow. It’s a crucial buffer between the debauchery of the weekend and the grind of the work week.

Something about spending some alone time, making a schedule, and getting some significant work done (but not too much), really helps you calm down and gets your mind and body to a place where they can handle a new, intense week. I swear by my Sunday ritual. If you want a simple change that will eliminate a significant amount of stress in your student life, I recommend you do too.

How to Make Resolutions that Stick

September 25th, 2007 · One comment

New Years is overrated. Fall is the time to make resolutions. For students, this is obvious — Fall denotes the new school year. But it also holds for most other positions in life. Regardless of your business, summer is probably a slow period. When the leaves start to change your work pace picks back up. If you want to make a change, now is the time to get it done.

Unfortunately, many people are terrible at making resolutions. They’re too generic. They focus on lofty goals without addressing the details that are relevant to the day-to-day grind. And they’re quick to abort.

Let’s fix this. Here is a simple system for making resolutions that stick:

3 Rules for Making Realistic Resolutions

  1. Resolve to Follow a System, Not Achieve a Goal.
    It’s easy to resolve to “lose 10 pounds,” “get a 4.0 G.P.A.,” or finally “write that brilliant, original screenplay about a group of high school kids trying to lose their virginity.” But it’s also easy to quickly learn to ignore something so damn vague. Two weeks later, when you’re busy, and stressed, you’re not going to think about what you might do that day to help get closer to your goal.

    • Instead…Resolve to follow a highly specific system that spells out what you do at what times and on what days. For example, instead of resolving to lose 10 pounds, resolve to go the gym, on Tuesday and Thursdays, in that one hour gap between your 9:00 am and 11:00 am class. Instead of resolving to write a screenplay, resolve to spend three hours, first thing when you wake-up each Saturday, in the same library working on your draft.
    • Because…We all suffer from a chronic shortage of will-power. Systems are easier to follow than ambiguous goals. Why? Systems eliminate the need to think or plan, which represent the real choke point in will power exertion.
  2. Establish an Exception Policy.
    Even well-designed systems can be weakened by a momentary lapse. For example, your gym plan works great until a busy period, followed by spring vacation, gets you away from exercise for a few weeks. The momentum is gone. The system is broken. And it’s back to your old habits.

    • Instead…Establish, as part of your system, a specific set of rules for dealing with exceptions. For when busy periods strike, you might, for example, have an abbreviated work-out routine you do one day, early in the week, which you augment with the occasional run on other days. Or, maybe, you have a push-up set you can do in your room, on the road, on vacation, wherever you might happen to be, to keep some fitness alive. Following the screenplay example, you might, during a busy week, require that you instead record at least 10 new scene ideas in a moleskin that you bring with you everywhere.
    • Because…You cannot let your momentum fade. This idea has been recently making its way around the blogging community under the title “Don’t Break the Chain,” in reference to the Seinfeld documentary, The Comedian, in which Jerry talked about the importance of working on his material every single day, without exception. This exact logic is at play here. It doesn’t matter if, during a busy week, the work you do in your system is close to worthless. The fact that you are doing something makes its exponentially easier to continue with the full system the next week.
  3. Respect the Rule of Three.
    We can only handle so much scheduling before we seem to lose control over our lives. If, for example, you have eight or nine different systems to manage at one time, something, eventually, will have to give. Too many time conflicts will overwhelm even the ability of your exception policy to keep the momentum alive. Frustration with the lack of free time in your day will lead to mental mutiny. Or, simply, things will just be forgotten.

    • Instead…Limit the number of system you run concurrently. A good rule is to never follow more than three at a time. This covers both your professional and personal life (from big projects to keeping the house clean). There is, however, a loop hole. If you keep up with a simple system for more than six months, and it gets to the point where you don’t even thinking about it — you follow it as regularly as brushing your teeth — you can consider this system ingrained and free up that slot for a new system.
    • Because…Too many systems and everything breaks down. Tackle only three improvements at a time, and the whole project remains tractable. As you move along, some systems will fade away as it becomes clear that they are not producing results. Some will be tweaked or combined with others. Some will finish! And some will be ingrained. With each new season you can introduce new systems to fill the vacated slots, and your march towards self-improvement continues.

Around the Web: Can You Train Your Brain? (Answer: Yes)

September 25th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

The Sharp Brains blog has a fascinating post about the trainability of your brain. There was once a time when scientists thought that brain function was really only able to move one direction: inexorably downward as we age. Recent evidence shows this not to be the case. We have more control than we think.

Sharp Minds :: 11 Neuroscientists Debunk a Common Myth about Brain Training

What’s great about this post is that it pulls quotes from original interviews with 11 top neuroscientists — with links to the full interview notes also included.

Some choice sound bites:

“Learning is physical. Learning means the modification, growth, and pruning of our neurons, connections–called synapses– and neuronal networks, through experience…When we do so, we are cultivating our own neuronal networks.”

“Exercising our brains systematically is as important as exercising our bodies. In my experience, ‘Use it or lose it’ should really be ‘Use it and get more of it'”

“Individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through education, occupation and leisure activities, have reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms.”

(hat tip: a blog around the clock)

How Unfair is the College Admission Process?

September 24th, 2007 · 6 comments

There’s an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today:

The New York Times | The New College Try

Professor Jerome Karabel argues that selective college admissions is far from meritocratic. Indeed, he notes:

Just how skewed the system is toward the already advantaged is illustrated by the findings of a recent study of 146 selective colleges and universities, which concluded that students from the top quartile of the socioeconomic hierarchy (based on parental income, education and occupation) are 25 times more likely to attend a “top tier” college than students from the bottom quartile. [emphasis mine]

Why does this happen? Karabel notes that the SATs play a big role. The current definition of “merit” in the admissions process draws heavily on SAT scores, and these scores tend to correlate strongly with socioeconomic status:

Of all students nationwide who score more than 1300 on the SAT, two-thirds come from the top socioeconomic quartile and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

The situation is distressing. As Karabel notes:

Only a vigorous policy of class-based affirmative action that accounts for the huge class differences in educational opportunity has a chance of altering this pattern.

This sounds right. But it’s not very encouraging. What are the chances that our current congress will be engaging in “vigorous” social policy any time soon?

The Relative “Fairness” of College Admissions

College admissions is something I’ve thought a lot about. It’s a difficult issue. I think too often people are quick to either fully embrace or dismiss entirely the process. My current thoughts tend more toward additional distinction.

For example, it’s easy to claim that college admission unfairly rewards the rich because they can afford SAT prep and fancy college counselors. Maybe. My exposure to admission offices, however, seems to emphasize that SAT prep doesn’t do any more good than just taking a few timed sample tests on your own (which is free), and the efforts of college counselors are easily sniffed out on most applications (and tend to annoy admission officers).

In other words, college admissions may turn out to be more fair than we think when it comes to choosing between students from the middle class and those from the upper class. On the other hand, as revealed in today’s op-ed, the process may also turn out to be more unfair than we think when it comes to choosing between the lower class and those above.

Maybe the key is not to confuse the two? Another subtlety in a complicated issue…