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

College Chronicles #11: Leena Resists the Student Work Day, Hits Rock Bottom, then Rises from the Ashes with a Stunning Plan of Her Own

November 30th, 2007 · Be the first to comment

College Chronicles is a blog-based reality series that follows real students attempting to overhaul their study habits. Click here for the series archive.

The Leena SagaTime to Change

When we last checked in with Leena, things were not going well. Her overwhelming MIT workload was taking a toll. She was procrastinating, often leaving work until well after midnight. She was falling behind in classes. Her sleep was erratic. Her stress growing.

It was time to intervene. We sat down and made a full audit of her work responsibilities. We then worked out a student work day that would actually capture all of this work. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would give her a handle on her obligations and keep her from falling behind or staying up late. Seeing what was possible inspired Leena.

But things didn’t go as planned…

Leena Takes a Turn for the Worse

It didn’t take long to realize that Leena wasn’t fully embracing the student work day plan. During the first week, she reported that she had tried to start her day working in the comfortable butterfly chair in her room…and promptly fell back asleep. Then there was a group project that forced her to stay up late. Then she noted that her attempts to work at the crowded student center were problematic, as they represented more of an extended social hour than something productive. She began procrastinating on work until 2 or 3 am, so should wouldn’t miss latenight social hijinks in her dorm.

In general, she found the whole work day idea demoralizing. The thought of working straight from morning to early evening was too much. So she let things slide back to the way they were.

Then things got worse. Much worse…

Leena Stops Hits Rock Bottom…then Makes an Amazing Comeback

The erratic sleep combined with the increasing stress of falling behind eventually bloomed into full-fledged insomnia. By Thanksgiving break, Leena was barely sleeping. Work had slowed to a crawl. She was passing out in class. She failed a test and forgot a presentation worth 15% of her grade. Things looked bleak.

While home for the holiday, Leena saw her family doctor. The physician administered a swift kick in the ass. Her message: “you’ve got to start fresh and regain control.” Her perscriptoin: a strict regimen, including…

  1. No caffiene and only light food after 5.
  2. Eat at scheduled times.
  3. Use your room only for sleep.
  4. Fight stress. Meditate. Do yoga. Use logical thought processes to fight negative habits when things get busy.
  5. Follow strict work schedules. Seperate work from play.

It worked. The rules allowed Leena to sleep once again. Armed with the rest — and fearful of returning to her old broken down state — she began to employ, with great fidelity, a full arsenal of improved study habits; an arsenal that includes:

  1. Scheduling the full week in advance. No surprises.
  2. Doing problem set work during office hours, with the TA’s help, early in the week.
  3. Make strict plans and schedules to cut wasted time out of group projects.
  4. Follow a modified student work day that occurs in chunks: Important work in the morning. A break in the afternoon. Labs and office hours in the evening. Try to get work done in the labs and office hours. Every two days, do a fun evening activity with friends. A final work chunk until 1 AM before sleep. “Working at night isn’t bad,” says Leena, “as long as it’s scheduled and you’ve been having fun.”

The result, one of the most low-stress, productive weeks at MIT that Leena can remeber.


What’s the moral hiding in the epic tale of Leena? After reflection, she reports that the key was taking her daily schedule and habits seriously.

This is especially true of hard majors at a hard school like MIT. Students often fail to realize that the number of hours required to be a succesful student. A double-major in a science program, for example, may need to work as many hours as a new lawyer (over 60 hours a week).

Such a schedule demands respect. Without a serious plan things can get out of control. Once you recognize the challenge ahead and start looking toward solutions — as Leena did this past Thanksgiving — your world becomes a signficiantly more controlled and exciting place.

The Unconventional Scholar: Eat Alone Twice a Day

November 28th, 2007 · 5 comments

Eat Alone Twice a DayUnconventional Scholar

During busy periods: Choose one meal each day to eat with friends. Take your time with the experience. Catch-up. Relax. For the other two meals, however, eat alone and eat fast. Minimize the time wasted.

This sounds draconian. But, surprisingly, it will actually make your social life richer.

Allow me to explain…

The Work Momentum

Work requires focus. Once you enter a flow state, you can go for hours, knocking off one chunk after another. When you sit down for a social meal, on the other hand, two things happen. First, time is wasted. Typically, well over an hour will transpire from when you first head off to the dining hall until you head back to the books.

Second, and more important, your flow is demolished. Your mind switches from work mode back to relaxation mode. Even if you plan to diligently return to the library after your long lunch, your effort might be for naught. You’ve lost your momentum, and procrastination has gained the high-ground in the battle of work versus slack.

Focus Your Relaxation

Have breakfast alone. Your friends are too tired to be much company. If it’s possible to get most of your work done in the morning, afternoon, and early evening, then have a quick working lunch to keep your momentum alive. Try to finish everything before dinner. Then, when you head down to the dining hall, you can fully relax. Invite your friends. Unwind. Your work is done. Time to kick off a night of socializing.

If, on the other hand, your day is jammed with classes and meetings, and you need to work at night, then make your lunch social. You don’t need daytime momentum because you’re attending appointments more than working. Kick-off your evening of productive work with a quick, energy-boosting, solo dinner. Hopefully, your leisurely lunch will stave of feelings off social withdraw.


A key to consistently getting things done is having a good set of mindless habits that you can automatically rely on to structure your work flow. This tip is simple, but it’s effect is powerful. A little more separation between work and play can go a long way toward becoming an efficient academic.

I Need Your College Admissions Story for a Writing Project

November 26th, 2007 · 6 comments

Share Your Story

I’m in the early stages of a new writing project about the college admissions process. Specifically, I am interested in hearing stories about students who followed unconventional paths into top colleges. That is, I want to hear about students who focused on one interesting, unusual thing in high school (instead of taking on a million activities to try to impress an admissions officer), and ended up getting accepted at a good college. The goal of the project is to question the necessity of some of the more painful and stress-inducing hoops many students jump through when thinking about college admissions.

Examples of the type of students I’m interested in:

  • A young man in California who took on a reduced course load his senior year (no AP courses!) to revive a local search and rescue program.
  • A young woman who traded a crowded extracurricular schedule for an obsession with a certain type of meteorite.
  • Another young woman who took advantage of a work-study program to skip out of school early to hang out in Manhattan dance studios.

If you have a similar story to tell, or know someone else who fits this mold, send me an e-mail and briefly describe your unconventional admission tale. Most likely, I’ll follow-up with some additional questions. You might even be featured in an upcoming article.

Thank you in advance for your help. I look forward to hearing your stories.

Monday Master Class: Five Ways to Avoid Panicking on a Hard Test

November 26th, 2007 · 8 comments

The Panic SpiralPanic!

The scenario is common. You sit down with your test, flip it open, start reading the first question, and then…panic. You have no idea how to answer it. Minutes pass. A cold sweat glistens. Eventually, you move on to the next question. But your brain, now buzzing with the electricity of nervous dread, cannot focus. The answer eludes you here as well. Suddenly a thought slips in from the periphery: “what if you left the whole test blank?” At first, it’s soft. Almost comical. But the insistence grows. As does your panic.

How to Side-Step Panic

We can’t ignore this common academic occurrence. Its impact is too great. After hours of careful, efficient study, a panic spiral can, in essence, erase all of this effort. Your score is no different than if you had blown off your studying altogether. Clearly, this is something to avoid.

Below are some simple tips to help you side-step test-taking panic before it scuttles your performance:

  1. Re-Order the Questions. Quickly review all of the questions. Determine which ones are easy (you know everything necessary to get full credit), which are doable (with some thinking, you should be able to put down something good), and which are worrisome (you’re not sure how to start). Tackle the easy questions first. Then move on to the doable. Leave the worrisome until the end. This ensures that you get down great (confidence-boosting) answers for the easy, solid answers for the doable, and approach the worrisome without concerns about wasting time that could be spent answering questions you know.
  2. Create a Time Budget. Before tackling the easy and doable questions, figure out a simple time budget. Assign more time for the doable questions than the easy, because the former will take a little more concentration. Leave time at the end to take some stabs at the worrisome bastards lurking in the background. A common mistake is to spend too much time on the easy questions, eliminating your ability to wring out the maximum number of points from the doable and worrisome prompts that follow.
  3. Change your Goal from Letter Grade to Point Grab. Don’t approach your test with the high school mentality that 90% to 100% of the points earns an “A,” 80% to 89% earns a “B,” and so on. In most college classes, your grade is relative to the performance of your classmates. If you studied, and are having a hard time, than it’s likely that are people are struggling as well. You don’t have to beat the test. You just have to beat them. Your goal, therefore, on the worrisome questions is not to get a perfect answer, but, instead, to wring out every possible partial credit point. While your classmates panic, and leave full questions blank, you can calmly record every useful insight or step that comes to mind. These little points add up.
  4. Ask Targeted Questions. Once you’ve finished the easy and doable questions, and you’ve recorded as much as you know about the worrisome, you might consider using a targeted question to shake loose some additional insight. Determine if there is any ambiguity in your understanding of the hard questions. Often, a confusion over what is being asked, or the type of answer expected, can be what’s blocking your progress. Ask the professor (or TA) a targeted question meant to disambiguate this block. Often, their answer will help you move forward.
  5. When Stumped, Go Back and Clean. If you’re completely stumped on a worrisome question, and can’t make any additional progress, go back to your doable questions and polish your answers to an intense shine. Double-check your work. Add extra arguments. Make them the best damn answers the grader will see. Squeezing out every last bit of credit from what you do understand will help offset what you left blank. Remember, many of your classmates are having the same trouble. Your goal is to grab points that their panicking pushed out of reach.


Having a plan — any plan — goes a long way toward diffusing a slide into panic. The advice above, which focuses on getting down what you know and not losing control of your time, further helps avoid this slide by disarming the pitfalls that help fuel a test-day meltdown.

Q & A: Recording Lectures, Dealing with Definitions, and Spreading the Good Word

November 21st, 2007 · 6 comments

Have a happy Thanksgiving! Because of the holiday, I’ll be skipping the usual Friday post to aid my postprandial recovery. I’ll be back in action on Monday.

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

What are your thoughts on recording lectures?

Cal responds:

A waste of time. The motivating principle of the Straight-A method is to minimize the time spent studying. Reviewing tape would egregiously violate this philosophy. Instead, upgrade your note-taking skills until they can keep up with the professor. Here are some tips to help in this effort:

  1. Take notes on a laptop. You type faster than you write.
  2. Don’t transcribe. Instead, attempt to capture the big ideas with lists of evidence to support the ideas. You don’t have to capture everything (see here for more detail).
  3. Take advantage of lulls. When the professor digresses, or answers a question, dump the backlog from your short-term memory onto the page.
  4. Ask questions when lost. Forcing the professor to clarify gives you room to catch up.
  5. Spend five minutes after class cleaning things up. This is the instant-replay strategy from last week’s Monday Master Class.

The same reader also asks:

In Straight-A you say note cards are best for things like dates, artists, and formulas. I was wondering if this holds true for definitions? Or should the definitions be handled in your regular notes?

Cal responds:

Definitions are a perfect fit for flash cards. As with all flash card based studying, isolate this work from the rest of your review. Do it in little chunks spread over a long period of time. A personal favorite of mine is taking advantage of commercial breaks in TV shows to get up to speed.

Another reader writes:

I am a huge fan, and I have implemented your techniques in my academic life. This does, however, come with several consequences: I’m kicking ass in my environmental science class (for my major) and other people are beginning to notice this. The average grade is a C, C- in the class, and I have a solid A; so with the midterm coming up, how do I teach the Straight-A method to my classmates? In other words, if I’m sharing the Straight-A gospel, what do I start with?

Cal responds:

Your best bet is to buy each of your friends a copy of my book. In fact, why stop at one copy? I suggest buying them, and, perhaps, also their extended families, a new copy every day for a few months — just to get the acclimatized.

If this fails, you might try sending them to this blog. The key is to describe it as “advice to reduce study time,” and not as “advice to increase your grades.” Students tend to associate getting better grades with doing more work, and this will lead them to get defensive and name a million reasons why their schedule sucks. Reducing work, however, sounds quite appealing. Once they see their stress begin to fall and their grades begin to rise, they’ll be hooked. At this point, they can move on to Straight-A and How to Win to get more serious about revamping their habits.

Monday Master Class: How to Take Notes on Power Point Slides

November 19th, 2007 · 36 comments

The Rise of Power PointSlide Projector

It’s increasingly common for professors to lecture with the help of Power Point slides. Whether or not this is a good development is an argument for another time. What is clear, however, is that the modern student needs to know how to best take notes on this style of lecture.

In this post, I describe simple rules for taking effective notes in a Power Point lecture. I also describe how to later use these notes to study as efficiently as possible.

Don’t Print the Slides Before Lecture

Professors will often post their Power Point slides before the lecture. Many students assume they should print the slides and bring them with them to class.

Don’t do this…

Instead, load the files on your laptop. While the professor lectures, follow along with the slides on your laptop. Take notes in the notes window that appears at the bottom of your screen in Power Point. This is demonstrated in the following screen shot:

Adding Notes to Your Power Point Slides

When the class is over, you can then print out your slides in notes view — which will show, on each page, the slide along with the notes you recorded. The notes view can be selected from the print menu as shown below:

Printing Power Point in Notes View

If You Don’t Have the Slides in Advance, Mark the Page Numbers

Sometimes the professor makes the slides available only after the lecture. In this case, take notes in a word processor on your laptop as usual. This time, however, whenever the professor changes the slides mark the new page number in your notes.

Later, when you get your hands on the slide files, load them up in Power Point. Use the page numbers in your notes to copy and paste the text right into Power Point in the notes window under the appropriate slides. You can now print out the two together in notes view as before.

Studying Power Point Slides

The alert reader will remark that some professors use a huge number of slides. The thought of having to review every single slide presented during the semester is enough to drive many to despair. In this case, you might considering cleaning up your notes in Power Point before printing them for review. Even after you’ve done some cleaning, it’s still not obvious how best to study from this material. Here are some tips to help you out:

  1. Throw Out Unnecessary Slides. Some slides don’t really add much to the content of lecture — maybe they represent a minor tweak on a different slide, a digression, or some administrative details — erase these from the slide show file. The less slides you print, the quicker you’ll be able to study later on.
  2. Consolidate notes for sequences of slides. If a several slides in a row expand on the same basic point, consolidate your notes onto the first of these slides. This reduces the number of pages of notes you have to review even if you can’t throw out all the slides.
  3. Study by Replicating the Lecture. Print the slides in notes view. Go through the printouts one by one. For each page, start by covering over the notes section so you can’t cheat. Try to lecture, as if talking to an imaginary class, about what’s important about the slides. Check the notes to see if you hit the high points. If not, mark it to return to in the next pass (this is classic Quiz-and-Recall studying.)


Think of Power Point slides as a handy visual aid to augment your studying. They might make the lectures stilted, but having slides printed along with your notes will make your life easier when it comes time to review.

Weekend Links: Register Like a Pro, Avoid Red, and Start From the Bottom With Your Career Planning

November 18th, 2007 · 2 comments

Interesting links from around the web to help you through your weekend Study Hacks withdrawal…

A Liquidation of Productivty-Scented Links

  • How to Register for Classes | Hack College
    The Fall semester is rapidly tumbling toward a conclusion. Might be time to start pondering your winter course load. Here’s a great tutorial from Hack College on getting through the registration process unscathed.
  • Does the color red really impair performance on tests? | Cognitive Daily
    Maybe your lucky Red Sox jersey is doing more damage than good during test taking. Cognitive Daily reviews some research on the insidious effect of this color on our mental ability. (Interestingly enough for Red Sox fans, the colors actually seems to help athletes.)
  • Career Planning | Steve Pavlina
    Self-development guru Steve Pavlina outlines an interesting approach to planning your post-college career. Start with the little things, then work your way up to the big questions.
  • Reading IS Productivity | ProtoScholar
    Rebecca over at ProtoScholar makes a well-intentioned plea about the importance of reading. I couldn’t agree more.
  • Looking for Unique Vintage Jewelry?
    Allow me a slight digression. My ever-talented wife, Julie, has just launched an online store for her popular line of hand-crafted jewelry featuring vintage watch parts. Looking for a gift, or want something interesting for yourself? Check it out!

Dangerous Ideas: Bodybuilders Should Be More Successful

November 16th, 2007 · 8 comments

The Bodybuilder ParadoxDumbbell

Allow me a bold statement: bodybuilders, as a group, should be disproportionately successful in life. The halls of congress should be crowded with broad shoulders. Our most revered authors and business tycoons should sport 6-packs. It should be almost cliché to quip: “those bodybuilders really have it made,” like saying, “kids are spoiled nowadays,” or commenting on the weather.

But this is not case…

To try to understand why one might expect this success for this group, and, more importantly, why this expectation remains unfulfilled, will help shed some unexpected illumination on one of the thorniest problems of the human experience: why do some ambitious people get ahead while others wallow?

To grasp these connections, we must start at the beginning: What do we think we know about success, and how might we test this…

The Persistence Theory of Success

I’ve been interviewing and profiling unusually accomplished young people since 2002. The core mission of the majority of my writing has been to understand what these people did differently. As I’ve mentioned before, the most consistent trait I observed was an addiction with completion. Most of these achievers, when they got a project idea in their head, would do whatever it took to get it implemented.

Is this the full secret? Train yourself to be a completion addict and success will follow? The self-help author in me wants to latch on and start preaching the good word. But the scientist in me is putting on the breaks. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s do some testing…

Falsifying The Persistence Hypothesis

We can state our intuition about the persistence theory of success in the form of a falsifiable hypothesis:

Hypothesis: Groups that exhibit a willingness to persist through hard work in the achievement of difficult goals should be on average more accomplished than other groups without this trait.

This is where we get into trouble. Bodybuilders are a perfect test of this hypothesis. To get ripped takes a lot of intense work over a long period of time. This includes regular pain-inducing activity (weight-lifting), a commitment to a difficult schedule (regular gym visits), and, typically, lifestyle sacrifices (careful nutrition).

This indicates that body builders have the right temperament and willingness to take on (really) hard projects and follow through. So why are they not also very successful in other endeavors?

Our hypothesis appears falsified. There must be more to this story. Following the scientific method, I returned to my data in an effort to refine my hypothesis. In doing so, a new idea arose. The core of this new idea: information.

The Information Theory of Success

There is a big difference between becoming a bodybuilder and, say, becoming a published author. If you want to get strong, an expert can sit you down and walk you through the whole process. The steps are hard, but the outcomes are known. You do this workout, for this long, and you’ll gain about this much muscle. In other words, body building, for most people, is a full-information goal. Going into it, you know exactly what to expect.

Becoming a published author, on the other hand, is for most people a minimal-information goal. It’s unclear exactly how this might work. Sure, you might have some basic insight: It’s useful to have some writing credentials; an agent should come before the pitch. But for most people setting out on this path, the steps ahead remain saturated in shadow.

This lack of information makes it hard to keep plugging ahead. Enthusiasm dies. Even the most committed completers eventually give up if they can no longer figure out what they are trying to complete. The project withers. Then dies.

The core insight of this theory is that information is crucial to accomplishing a goal. We can state this as follows:

Hypothesis: Groups that have a large amount of experience and information regarding the accomplishment of a specific goal are more likely to achieve it than those groups with less information.

Evidence for the Information Theory of Success

Once we calibrate our expectations to this idea, we begin to notice more and more examples of people accomplishing hard goals, aided by the use of detailed information. For example:

  • Earning a College Degree: This requires an immense amount of work. (Think about the tales of all-nighters and sacrificed health we hear so commonly on this blog). But students are undaunted. They have full-information. Attend this many classes, do the assignments, earn at least these grades, and you will get a degree. The information here facilitates (and greatly simplifies) a huge effort.
  • Growing a Popular Blog: The most successful bloggers I know tend to have gathered information from existing popular bloggers before setting out on their own. They understood the quality, quantity, and consistency of content they would have to produce. They knew that hours a week would have to be devoted to networking and linking and working with other blogs in their niche. And they knew the long time frame required for significant traffic growth. Armed with this information, they could put their head down and confidently slog away until they hit the big league. Most amateur bloggers start strong, post a lot, get frustrated, start throwing up link bait, then give up. Usually within 2 – 3 months. Their work ethic isn’t lacking. They simply don’t have the information necessary to focus their energy.
  • Being Fit: To return to our motivating example, those who succeed in getting fit are almost inevitably minor experts on the physiology of their sport. Talk to the pumped up guy at your gym, and he can probably walk you through a complicated lecture on muscle fatigue and regenerative factors. Talk to the enthusiastic, hyped-up young guy in the designer sweats — the guy who will probably disappear within a month — and his knowledge probably doesn’t go much farther than a basic knowledge of the bench press.

Information-Centric Goal Setting

Assuming our hypothesis is true, what are it’s implications? For one: it should change the way you think about goal setting. Having a clear desired outcome and a well-defined first step will not necessarily get you all that far in the world of big league accomplishments. The information theory of goal planning tells you that you need extensive, almost overwhelming expert research regarding the path before you.

What’s the most effective way to complete this planning stage? Here’s a simple three step process:

Step 1: Become an Expert on Your Path

You need to develop a well-honed sense for how others before you have accomplished the same goal you desire. Here’s some ways to accomplish this:

  1. Read the relevant sections of biographies in which the subject completes something similar. The more accounts, the better.
  2. Ask someone who has done it before to chat. Try to get past the generic, self-lauding banalities, and dive into the details of what actually made it happen.
  3. Search for articles in which people describe related experiences. No one article will give you a crystal clear picture. But the combination of many can go a long way.

Step 2: Identify the Catapult Points

After you’ve developed a broad understanding of your path, it’s time to analyze the data. Consulting the sources from the previous step, attempt to identify the catapult points for you goal — the places that require the most work or creativity and yield the biggest leaps toward final accomplishment.

For example, in book writing, an important catapult point is coming up with a book idea that is very compelling and that you are in a unique position to write about.

Keep seeking sources until you can identify 6 – 10 unique examples of successful catapult points for your goal.

Step 3: Make Your Plan

With this information in mind, you can come up with your concrete plan. The best such plans are habit-based. Like the blogger writing a certain number of posts and doing a certain amount of linking each week. The hope is that the extensive information gathering from the previous phases will make these long hauls more tolerable.

Here’s the tricky part: make sure you are integrating serious time into your plan for coming up with a great solution to your catapult points. These are the gatekeepers to accomplishment. Now that you’ve identified them, you need to focus on how you can best conquer them. Getting this right is the final real obstacle in your way. Fortunately, knowing exactly what you are trying to figure out, and being armed with examples, makes this task eminently doable.


Being a compulsive completer is still necessary for being accomplished. The hypothesis falsified here is that it is also sufficient. The information theory of success predicts that in addition to being able to work persistently, you need to also arm yourself with the most relevant possible information. If this information is not available, you might consider another goal.

How might your work on your biggest goals change if you were to conduct a serious intelligence gathering mission?