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

The Unconventional Scholar: Ignore Your GPA

November 14th, 2007 · 31 comments

This is the first entry in a new semi-regular series I’m calling: The Unconventional Scholar. In the style of my first book, How to Win at College, this series features unexpected (but surprisingly effective) tips for getting more out of college.

The Mystery NumberIgnore Your GPA

In my last couple years as a college student, I looked up my GPA on only two occasions that I can remember. The first was in the fall of my senior year. I had to put it down on my grad school applications. The second was in the late spring. I wanted to see if I was in the running to be Salutatorian. (Fortunately, I wasn’t — my GPA remained a healthy 0.025 points away from being competitive — so I was saved the stress of thinking about giving a speech.)

Outside of these isolated occurrences, me and my cumulative GPA lived separate lives. We had no interest in knowing about each other. I suggest you do the same.

Here’s why…

GPA Breeds Stress

There is no good reason to know your cumulative GPA. It can only serve one purpose: stress. If you’re a GPA addict, then as you study for exams, you can’t help but think about how different grades in the class will affect your overall standing. This makes you nervous. It makes you more upset when you score lower than you wanted. And it shifts your focus away from discovering the most efficient possible way to embrace the material and toward a paranoia about avoiding GPA-busting mistakes.

Ignorance is Bliss

Here’s what you should do instead: ignore your GPA. In most classes, your professor will tell you your grade at the end of the semester. There is no reason to look at the grade report that arrives in the mail, and comes emblazoned with your GPA. Do what I did, and simply throw out this envelope without opening it.

(In fact, earlier this year I ordered a copy of my transcript for use in a promotion for Straight-A, and was shocked to find a collection of citations from professors that I never knew about; I had missed them at the time because I never read the grade reports in which they were originally sent.)

Focus On Performance, Not GPA

Smart students treat each class like an individual challenge. Your goal should be to find the most efficient possible way to really learn the material. You might not always get this right. Sometimes, you’ll make stupid mistakes on a test or bet on the wrong thesis, but that’s okay. So long as you’re getting better at being a student, over time, most (not all) of your grades will be great. By ignoring your GPA, you’re simply cutting out a lot of stress along this journey.

Classic Monday Master Class: Identify an Instant Replay Booth for Every Class

November 12th, 2007 · 5 comments

I will be occasionally reprinting my favorite articles from the early days of Study Hacks in an effort to expose the material to my much larger current audience. This was the first Monday Master Class I every published, it was sent to my newsletter last June.

Identify an Instant Replay BoothBooth

For every one of your classes, identify a quiet location near the lecture hall. This is your instant replay booth. Make it an inviolable habit that after every class you immediately head into your replay booth to spend 5-10 minutes “locking in” your lecture notes. This process should include three steps.

  1. Clean-up any spots where you got rushed before finishing your thought.
  2. Devise a two or three sentence summary of the day’s lecture. Consider this an abstract for the notes that follow.
  3. Create a list at the bottom of your notes that contains the questions you can later use to cover this material when studying with the quiz-and-recall method (see Part 2 of Straight-A for more detail on q-and-r).

This process of locking in takes only a few minutes to complete. And it doesn’t require much will-power, as you’re already in a work mode (having just attended class).

Why This Works

The advantages, however, are significant. First, this extra moment of reflection cements the material in your mind, reducing the effort required later to study. Second, by producing your quiz-and-recall questions while the ideas are still fresh, not only are the questions better, but you’ve just cut out a time-consuming step of the test preparation process: creating the study guide for all of your lectures all at once.

The only caveat to this tactic is that if you have two or more classes in quick succession, you need to visit your instant replay booth only after the last of these classes. At this point, lock in the material from all the preceding lectures in one sitting.

Are You Effective or Just Busy? Calculate Your Churn Rate to Find Out

November 8th, 2007 · 20 comments

The Difference Between Effective and BusyBusy

A few months back, I published an essay titled: Productivity is Overrated. The message was simple. Being organized reduces stress, but it does not, by itself, guarantee that you’ll accomplish the important projects in your life. It’s easy to spin your wheels on a never-ending flow of small to-dos without making progress toward completion of the big things. This same idea has popped again and again (and again) around the blogging community recently. People, it seems, are increasingly interested to ensure that their productivity system is helping them be effective, not just busy.

In this post I will describe how to calculate a simple metric, your churn rate, that helps you determine where you fall on the spectrum from effective to busy.

The Origin of the Churn Rate

Last November, I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal’s College Journal about three students who had big successes in their first years after college. While researching this article, I kept asking myself the same question:

What makes these three graduates successful when so many others with similar backgrounds and aspirations are not?

After conducting in-depth interviews with all three, I devised a hypothesis. It focused on a new numerical metric called the churn rate. The idea: list out the major projects on your short-term horizon. Then return, 3 -6 weeks later, to find out how many projects were completed. Divide the complicated projects by the days elapsed, multiply by 100, and you have a handy score capturing how effectively you complete things. My hunch: the students profiled for my article would all have abnormally high churn rates.

How to Calculate Your Churn Rate

By calculating your own churn rate, you can determine, precisely, how effective you are and how this effectiveness changes over time and different types of projects. The details of this calculation are as follows:

  1. Make a list of active projects that are important to you to complete. These should not be projects that have deadlines. Instead, make them the optional work that would really help you get ahead if completed. Each should require around 1 – 2 weeks of fairly regular attention to complete. If it requires more, break it up into smaller chunks. If it requires less, don’t include it — it’s a task, not a project. Overall, you should have between 4 – 8 projects on this list.
  2. Over the next 3 -6 weeks, try to work only on the active projects on your list. You’ll still have to complete deadline-driven work, of course, but don’t get seduced by a new idea and add it to your list until you’ve completed what is already there.
  3. After around 3 weeks you can start calculating your churn rate as often as you like. The formula is as follows:
  • CR = [(number of completed projects from list)/(days elapsed since start of list)] * 100

Example: My Current Churn Rate

Here is an active projects list I started on October 12th:

Sample Project Page

Here is how it looks today, on November 8th:

Completed Project Page

As you can see, I’ve completed 6 projects over a span of 28 days. This gives me a churn rate of [(6)/(28)]*100 = 21

How does that stack up? Read on…

Evaluating Your Churn Rate

What’s a good churn rate? The answer here is, of course, subjective. But here are some general rules that might prove useful in evaluating your churn:

  1. If your primary responsibility is to work on non-deadline driven projects then your churn rate should be around 30 to 40. This captures, roughly, 2 to 3 projects per week.
  2. If your primary responsibility is deadline-driven projects and small tasks then your churn rate should be around 15 to 25. This captures, roughly 1 to 1.5 projects per week.

If your churn rate falls significantly below the appropriate range from above, it’s likely that you are being busy, but not effective. Start integrating more opportunities into your schedule to make serious progress on serious projects. If you hit or surpass the desired range, you’re doing fine.

For example, my churn rate of 21 is okay. But my responsibilities this semester (no classes) push me closer to the first category above, so I need to step it up to get my churn rate into the 30 range. Interestingly, until recently, I had it around 33. What’s bringing me down is trying to shut down the final projects on my list. They are the last ones to remain because they were the hardest. As I procrastinate, my rate falls. This general syndrome is common, but the churn rate helps me capture it exactly — and thus combat it aggressively. And here in lies its value.

Are you effective? Or just busy? Let me know what you find out…

Student Productivity Blog Carnival | November 2007

November 7th, 2007 · 2 comments

Welcome to the November edition of the Student Productivity Blog Carnival. Presented below are a collection of outstanding articles submitted by top bloggers from around the web. Before jumping into the content, I want to first thank the team at Blog Carnival for hosting and promoting the submission form, and GearFire Student Productivity for originating the idea.

Student-Specific Advice

General Productivity Advice Relevant to Students

Monday Master Class: How to Use a Flat Outline to Write Outstanding Papers, Fast

November 5th, 2007 · 36 comments

The Outline OrthodoxyPaper Writing

For decades, students have been held captive by a rigid paper outline orthodoxy. It is first ingrained in elementary school and then reinforced, year after year, until college graduation. Visit the web site for your school’s academic skills department and you’ll find some variation on the following advice:

The basic format for an outline should use an alternating series of numbers and letters, indented accordingly, to indicate levels of importance.

This leads to examples such as:

  1. Rothko Chapel in Houston
    1. Architecture
      1. Letter to Philip Johnson proposing idea
      2. The three concepts suggested in first conversation

…and so on.

Here’s the rub: this format is nonsense! It’s way too confining. It’s impossible to figure out every detail of your argument before you sit down, look at your sources, and actually try to write. Most students abandon their hierarchical outline soon after their fingers hit the keyboard. Those that stick with it end up producing dry, forced-sounding arguments.

I want to show you a better way…

Introducing the Topic

Forget hierarchies. Your outline should capture the topics you want to discuss in your paper. A topic is more general than a specific fact or observation, but less general that a multi-argument discussion. For example:

  • “Letter to Philip Johnson suggesting chapel idea” is too specific to be a topic.
  • “The conception and construction of the Rothko chapel” is too general to be a topic.
  • “Rothko’s Courting of Philip Johnson” is a perfect topic.

Topics are what you’ll capture with our outlining process. You do so as follows…

Step 1: The Topic Skeleton

During the story crafting stage of the paper writing process (discussed in detail here), you’ll start determining, based on the sources you’ve discovered so far, what topics you want to cover in your paper. Start recording these in a word processor document.

As you work on your argument, you will begin to order these topics into the order that you want them to appear in your paper. Once this ordering is complete, you have constructed a topic skeleton. It describes, at a rough granularity, what you want to talk about and in what order.

Step 2: Fill In Research Gaps

Once you’re happy with your topic skeleton, consult the sources you discovered during your research process. Make sure you have solid sources for each of the topics in your topic skeleton. If you discover a topic that is lacking in information, go back to the library to find more information to fill in this gap. (Remember, make personal copies of your sources for easier handling.)

Step 3: Dump the Quotes

Here is where our process really challenges the outline orthodoxy. Stick with me here. This works…

In the document containing your topic skeleton: start typing, under each topic, all of the quotes from your sources that you think are relevant. Label each quote with the source it came from.

We call the final document a topic-level outline. Unlike the compact, hierarchical outlines promoted by the orthodoxy, a topic-level outline is huge (close the size of your finished paper), and flat in structure (no reason to use 18 different levels of indentations here.)

Step 4: Transform, Don’t Create

When you write your paper, don’t start from a blank document. Instead, make a copy of your topic-level outline and transform it into the finished paper. For each topic, begin writing, right under the topic header, grabbing the quotes you need as you move along. Remember, these quotes are right below you in the document and are immediately accessible.

Over time, each topic gets transformed from a collection of quotes into solid writing using those quotes. During this writing process, there is no need to ever leave this one document. This approach allows you too:

  1. Write much more efficiently, without the delay of consulting sources.
  2. Craft better arguments, because the raw material is already in front of you, reducing your task to simply to employing it in your rhetorical assault, no seeking it out.
  3. Avoid the pain of facing a blank screen. The writing task is now one of transformation, not creation, which is much easier to tackle.

In Summary

To summarize the advice in this post:

  1. Don’t build a hierarchical outline. Instead, list the topics you want to tackle in the order you want to tackle.
  2. Revisit the library to find sources for the topics that still need support.
  3. Dump all relevant quotes from your sources under the topics.
  4. Transform your topic-level outline into your paper. Don’t start from a blank screen.

This process is different from what most students are used to. But it works. It is optimized for exactly the steps needed to write an outstanding paper. If you face a lot of writing assignments in your classes give this approach a try. You’ll never look back…

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Weekend Links: Ogle Planners, Drink Your Way to Health, and Dissect Your Life

November 2nd, 2007 · Be the first to comment

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

A Copious Cornucopia of Productivity-Themed Contraptions

The Fitness Guru: Recharging During the Day, Avoiding the Beer Gut, and Self-Amputation

November 2nd, 2007 · 3 comments

The Fitness Guru SpeaksAdam Gilbert

In January of this year, Adam Gilbert, a recent college graduate, left his high-prestige job at Ernst & Young to start My Body Tutor, a web-based company that has Adam, and his team of trainers, work daily with clients, through e-mail and phone, to help them lose weight and get into exceptional shape. The company has exploded in growth recently on the strength of its results. In addition, Adam recently signed on with Conde Naste to become one of their new fitness columnists.

A couple weeks back I asked you to send me your questions about health and fitness at college. I sent the best to Adam, who was kind of enough to provide us some of his expert wisdom…

I’m often tired in class and have a hard time concentrating while studying. What can I do to maximize my energy in the day? Specific food? Exercise? Powerful, powerful Drugs?

Exercise will make a huge difference. It helps you sleep better at night and feel better during the day. Also, make sure you are eating properly. If you don’t eat properly, it can make you feel tired. It’s very important to eat healthy, balanced meals so that your body gets the nutrition and energy it needs. Are you getting enough sleep? One of the most common reasons for feeling tired is not getting enough sleep.

I’m in a frat, so I drink a fair amount. And that probably won’t change. How do I avoid the dreaded beer gut?

To avoid the dreaded beer gut you simply have to burn as many calories as you consume. If you consume more calories than you burn you will gain weight.

Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If you’re going to drink 2-3 nights per week you want to be exercising at least 2-3 times per week for 30 minutes or more. Ideally, you would push this to 3-4 times per week. Remember: Something is always better than nothing!

Another tip: Do you eat late at night? (Something that seems to go along with drinking.) Don’t! You can easily consume an extra 500-2000 calories by eating those beloved cheese fries, wings and pizza.

Do you have any top-secret, dark magic get ripped fast type of gym tricks that I should know about?

I’ll let you in on a secret.

Do you want to lose 20 pounds fast? The easiest, surest, most effective way I know: saw off your leg!

In all seriousness, you have to make eating healthy and exercising a part of your lifestyle. There is no doubt that you feel better, perform better and live better when you do this. No excuses.