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

Monday Master Class: 5 Bad Study Habits You Should Resolve to Avoid in 2008

December 31st, 2007 · 14 comments

Toxic Study HabitsNew Year

I often tell students that there is no magic bullet strategy for increasing their grades. Different people have different work personalities. Some tips that work great for one person might barely make a dent for others.

Negative habits, however, are universal. There are some distressingly common mistakes made by undergraduates that will always lead to more pain and waste more time than necessary. In this year-end post — the last of 2007 — I want to help you avoid the worse of these toxic habits. Below are five terrible study habits that you should resolve to drop like, well, a bad habit, as you head into 2008.

Bad Habit #1: Studying Without a Plan

Do you still use “study” as a specific verb? For example, as in: “I’m going to go study, see you in 12 hours.” If so, you’re in trouble. “Study” is ambiguous. No one can “study.” What they can do is specific review activities, such as “convert first month of lecture notes into question/evidence/conclusion format,” or “quiz and recall study guides 1 to 3.” If you head to the library planning, vaguely, to spend time “studying,” you are likely to waste time. Instead, always first construct a specific plan that outlines specific activities.

Bad Habit #2: Skipping Classes

Do you regularly skip class? If so, and I say this with all discretion, you’re weak. Attending class is your primary responsibility as a college student. If you can’t handle this small little piece of self-control, requiring, at most, a few hours of your time a day, then how can you expect to muster the discipline required to become an efficient, engaged, high-scoring student? Beyond the general wussyness of side-stepping the lecture hall is the practical reality that every hour of missed class will require 2 – 3 hours of copying notes, bothering your friends, and reading to learn the information from scratch. Attend class. Always. Make this non-negotiable.

Bad Habit #3: Using Rote Review

Do you study by reading and re-reading your notes to yourself silently? Stop! I know it feels good, in a monkish, masochistic, pain equals progress sort of way to beat your brains against a book hour after hour, but it’s also a terribly inefficient way to review. Instead, lecture to an imaginary class, out-loud, about the main topics, without reading off your notes. If you can state an idea once, in complete sentences, out-loud, it will stick. You don’t need to re-read it a dozen times. If you can’t capture it out-loud then you don’t understand it yet. Go back. Review. Then try again.

Bad Habit #4: Studying After Midnight

Do you frequently study well past midnight? If so, and again, I say this with all discretion, then you’re an idiot. But you’re also in good company. A surprisingly large percentage of college students think the proper way to review is to wait until 10 or 11, then push through until 3 or 4. This terrible on so many levels I don’t know where to begin. So let me just sample a few high points from the abundant terribleness. First: you can’t concentrate in the middle of the night. Second: staying up that late screws you up the next day, you get sick, you can’t focus, you need naps, class becomes an ordeal, your health and fitness decrease. And so on. Work early, in small concentrated chunks. Get your work done well and fast, and leave your nights for relaxation and, dare I say it, sleep.

Bad Habit #5: Not Taking Notes on Your Reading

Do you think it’s sufficient to simply make it through your reading assignments without writing anything down? It’s not. Ideas from the reading will show up on the exam. If you don’t learn and record these ideas when you first do the assignment, then how will you be able to answer the corresponding questions on the test? Too many students think they can solve this problem by reviewing their readings right before the test. Obviously, this won’t work. The math is simple. Hundreds of pages of dense reading. A day or two review. You’re not going to make it through everything at the last minute. Treat readings like a lecture. Take concise, informative notes on the main big ideas. You don’t have to record every last fact and pore over every word. Learn to hone in on the main thesis, and capture the bullet points needed to intelligently write about it later on. When review time comes along, you should have no need to crack your books again — the notes should be sufficient for an efficient review.

3 Rules For Making Resolutions That Stick

December 28th, 2007 · One comment

I originally posted this article at the beginning of the fall semester. With New Years looming, it seemed appropriate to revist.

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.

How to Make 2008 Significantly More Exciting Than 2007

December 26th, 2007 · 11 comments

Grand ProjectAn Exciting New Year

Hopefully 2007 was a good year for you. If you became a Study Hacks reader during this time, I’d like to think that you’ve been pleased to observe your productivity and effectiveness as a student markedly increase. Of equal importance, however, is the question of excitement. How often during this year were you truly engaged with what you were doing? What percentage of the weeks did you experience a thrill about your various endeavors?

In this post I offer a simple piece of advice that will work to ensure that 2008 is an exciting year. This strategy is one of the most popular from my first book, How to Win at College, and I’m excited to share it here.

The Grand Project

To paraphrase How to Win: A Grand Project is any project that when explained to someone for the first time is likely to elicit a response of “wow!'”

Examples of Grand Projects:

  • Writing a screenplay
  • Starting a company
  • Starting a new campus organization
  • Building a money-making blog
  • Filming a movie
  • Writing a book

The Grand Project Effect

When you work seriously on a Grand Project, it changes the way you view your world. It injects a dose of excitement into your daily routine. The thought of that screenplay being bought or your new organization growing to prominence is a powerful daydream. It floods you with happy chemicals. It focuses you through the small ups and downs that litter the standard student grind. It gives you higher purpose. And, most importantly, it’s a lot of fun.

Laddering to Success

The key to deriving the full Grand Project effect is to take it seriously. At first, the project might seem overwhelming — too difficult, too large. So you need a plan. Here’s one that works well:

  1. Seek out those who have gone before you. Try to track down 2 – 5 people who have done something similar in the past. If possible, find a student or recent alumni from your college, as they are easier to approach. E-mail them to setup a time to chat. Ask them to spell out what worked and what didn’t in their quest to achieve a similar goal. This information is vital. If you start a Grand Project blind, your chances are high of spinning your wheels for a while before simply giving up.
  2. Identify your First Step. Based on the information from your conversations, decide on the first step on the ladder toward completion that you can reasonably complete within roughly a 30 day timeline. Come up with a habit-based system for accomplishing this step. For example, identify a block of time every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, during which you head to the local coffee shop to work on accomplishing the step.
  3. Complete Than Repeat. Follow your habit-based plan until the first step is complete. Next, take a moment to survey the scene. Where are you now? What is the closest next step that will move you the farthest towards completion? Once you’ve identified this step, repeat (2) — develop a plan and execute.
  4. Advanced Tip: Run Multiple Ladders. If you’re really serious about completing the project fast, head for more than one next step at a time. Some steps will fizzle. By running multiple steps concurrently, you increase the chances that you’ll always be making some forward progress.

The Grand Project Challenge

This is the perfect time to introduce a Grand Project into your student life. Before returning to the chaos of the next semester, identify your project, and start step (1) from above. Try to finish your conversations and establish your first habit-based system before the workload really picks up. Start off the New Year with your sights set high and you’ll enjoy the way 2008 unfolds.

If you get a chance, shoot me an e-mail or add a comment to this post about what Grand Project you’re interested in pursuing.

Weekend Links: Don’t Love Your Work, Gain Weight, and Stop Multi-Tasking…

December 21st, 2007 · 6 comments

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

A Stocking Full of Holiday Productivity

Tis the Season…to Conduct a Ruthless Project Purge

December 21st, 2007 · 5 comments

Tossing Dead Weight ProjectsTrash

As you moved through the fall, you probably found yourself accumulating an ever-increasing load of “crucial” projects. If you’re organized, these are all recorded somewhere on a fancy list. As you watched this list grow, you probably grew increasingly frustrated by the impossibility of tackling it all. By now, you may have reached a point of productivity paralysis. There’s too much to do! It’s hopeless!

Now is the time to act. Take advantage of your upcoming holiday vacation to reflect on your priorities…and then ruthlessly cull the ungainly stack of projects clouding your productivity horizon.

In this post, I’ll explain a simple but effective system for accomplishing this goal.

The Ruthless Project Purge

The key to the ruthless project purge is to invert the standard logic for simplifying your obligations. Most people try to identify projects that seem expendable. What we will do, instead, is look for the projects that are unusually important — and then dismiss the rest. This is why I use the term “ruthless.” Most of what you’ve planned to look into will be purged. Only the strongest will remain.

It works as follows…

Step 1: Identify the Spheres of Importance

What are the most important roles you take on in your life? For me, I can divide things into: (1) my grad student life; (2) my writer life; and (3) and my personal life. These are three spheres that are most important to me. I want to wring the most from each.

Step 2: Envision Your “Perfect World” Scenarios

For each sphere of importance, envision what, in a perfect world, that part of your life would be like 5 – 10 years down the line. Write this down. For example, for me, my perfect world scenario for writing involves two things:

  1. I’ve become established as a well-regarded general non-fiction writer.
  2. I have a national profile as a student advice expert, helping to change the way undergrads approach school work.

Step 3: List the Support Paths

Imagine you’re taking a test. Your perfect world scenarios are written at the top of the page. The prompt below asks you to describe a path you could follow over the next year or so that would move you closer to fulfilling these scenarios. Your grade will be based on two factors:

  1. The practicality of the path. The more realistic it is for you to actually have the time and ability to follow it in the near future, the more points you will get.
  2. The potency of the path. The closer it would move you toward your perfect world scenario, the more points you will get.

Assume the test is graded out of 100 points. Up to 50 for each of the two grading criteria. Assume I will give you $1000 for every point you receive. What answers would you record? In other words, you have to find a direction that maximizes both the practicality and power. (Too often we neglect one or the other when brainstorming a plan.) Write down what you came up with under each sphere.

For example, for my writing scenario, the following path would earn me a high score:

  1. Grow this blog into a more prominent community, use as a foundation from which to increase both speaking and expansion of on-campus programs; and…
  2. Identify an potentially wildly popular, non-how to topic on which I am uniquely suited to write, use this to put together the strongest possible book proposal for next book.

Step 4: Choose the Lucky Few Projects

Consult your current project list. For each sphere of importance, identify only the 2-5 projects that best seem to align with the corresponding support path. If none align, make one up that does. Everything else gets tossed.

To return to my writing example, as of today I have a list of over 20 writing-related projects stored in my GTD system. Only three make the cut as best supporting my support path. They include:

  1. A project concerning the expansion of the look and content on this blog.
  2. A project concerning the development of a major article that will serve as the cornerstone of my new book proposal.
  3. A project concerning a writing seminar, conducted by an editor I know, that will help me hone my craft.


The key to the ruthless project purge is starting fresh. When you return from the holidays, you want your attention focused on what’s important — not bogged down with minutia. Over time, of course, you’ll finish these projects and new, more important projects will arise. Less important projects, too, will inevitably creep back onto your list. But that’s okay. Once productivity paralysis sets in again, you can conduct a new purge. In the meantime, however, you’ll have made some serious progress towards what’s important. And, in the end, that’s what counts.

For the Student Who Has Everything…

December 20th, 2007 · 9 comments

A Humble Holiday SuggestionHow to Become a Straight-A Student

Do you know a student who could benefit from a study skills makeover? Consider buying him or her a copy of How to Become a Straight-A Student for the new semester. This book, published by Random House earlier this year, details the study system that motivates all of the advice you find here on Study Hacks. Its chapters cover everything from time management, to note-taking, to paper writing — all based on my extensive interviews with over 50 straight-A students from a variety of majors and colleges.

To find out more, check out the 16 18 five-star reviews on Amazon or read this excerpt.

Still not convinced?

Here’s what reviewers at student newspapers across the country had to say about the book:

  • “This book was surprisingly realistic and easy to read. I read the entire thing within a few hours — I couldn’t help myself…Lately, my homework is getting done faster, my reading quicker, and my comprehension clearer. I haven’t had a headache yet, and I’ve been able to get at least six to eight hours of sleep a night.” (full review…)
    — Regis University Highlander
  • “The student-friendly mind-set is what sets this academic success manual apart from the countless others…The defining characteristic of this book is it does not ignore the fact that college students have an overwhelming tendency to procrastinate, sleep and have a good time, often putting grades at the bottom of the totem pole…How to Become a Straight-A Student equips the college student with an attainable, hands-on guidebook to do well in all classes, without becoming a caffeine-addicted recluse.” (full review…)
    — The Daily Texan, student paper of the Univeristy of Texas

  • “Newport’s words are a must-have for students…The book targets students’ weak spots and shows them how to improve. In fact, it’s already helped this reader.” (full review…)
    — The Battalion, student paper of Texas A&M

  • “Every college student should read How to Become a Straight-A Student.” (full review…)
    — The Central Connecticut State Recorder

How to Purchase

Click here to buy the book from Amazon. While there, check out my first book, How to Win at College, a newly-minted college advice classic, now in its 7th printing!

5 Tips For Working Effectively Over Christmas Break

December 19th, 2007 · One comment

The Humbug AssignmentStudy Break

There are few experiences worse than having to bring work home over Christmas break. In the battle between writing your history paper and main-lining egg nog on the family couch, the paper usually does not fare well. Who wants to be holed up at a dark desk? You’re home! It’s the Holidays! It’s time to relax!

Fortunately, with some advance planning, break work does not have to pose a major struggle. Below are five simple tips to help keep your holiday cheerful and your professors impressed.

How to Work Effectively Over Christmas Break

  1. Cram before coming home. Choose one day before heading home for the break to really push hard on your work. When you leave campus, you should be exhausted, but also much less burdened.
  2. Work while you travel. Furthering our theme of finishing as much as possible before the break begins, take advantage of the time you spend traveling. Are you flying? Throw out your Us Weekly (yes, I know what you read), and kill time in the terminal and on the plane knocking off some class reading. Taking a bus? Your assignments will distract you from the odd smells emanating from multiple sources all around you.
  3. Schedule your work in advance. When at home, it’s easy for your time to be hijacked by an important family event that just can’t be missed. To prevent this from happening, call your mom before you come home, and schedule which days and which hours you plan to work. Have her write this on her calendar so nothing will be planned that conflicts with your schedule. As an added bonus, the fact that your mom knows your plan will reduce your urge to procrastinate.
  4. Work at the local library. It’s impossible to get significant work done when, in the other room, your siblings are in hour 4 of an all-day Wii marathon. To get things done: You have to get out of the house! A surprisingly effective place to work is the local library. They’re quiet. They have study cubicles. And they typically require a car ride to get there, so you are much less likely to stop working on a momentary whim.
  5. Return to school early. You don’t have to spend your entire vacation at home. If there is any sort of gap between New Years and the first day of classes, head back early enough so that you have a full day to do nothing but finish up your work.


Having work due right after Christmas break sucks. But with clever strategies, the suckiness can be reduced to a manageable level. As usual, the big picture ideas are simple: have a plan, work in chunks, and avoid distractions. Otherwise, have a happy holiday. Just don’t mix the egg nog with the Wii. Trust me. Bad things will happen…