Study Hacks Blog Posts from January, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Q & A: Studying with Kirstie Alley, Decoding the Quarter System, and Coping with Early Classes

January 30th, 2008 · 4 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I read a lot about improving study habits, but I have never come across anything that deals with the emotional aspect. Sometimes when studying I feel despair about whether I can learn the material, other times I feel guilty for putting work off. What are some techniques for taming emotions while studying?

Cal responds:

There are few words I hate more than “study.” (Among them: “ebullient.”) It’s ambiguous, and for most students it’s entangled in all sorts of emotional baggage. They feel guilty if they haven’t suffered enough in the library. Student life, for them, becomes a constant struggle — always trying to “study” more, yet always falling a bit short. It’s a lot like dieting. But with less involvement from Kirstie Alley.

The key to kicking the emotions out of the classroom is to focus on the specifics of the process, not the big, scary, abstract idea of “studying.” My suggestions:

  1. Never again use the verb “study.” Don’t say “I’m going to study.” Definitely don’t say: “I’ve been slacking off lately, tonight I’m going to make up for it by doing a lot of ebullient studying.” The word is meaningless. Banish it from your vocabulary.
  2. Always talk in terms of specific actions. Instead of heading to the library to study, try heading to the library to do something obnoxiously specific. For example: “I am going to go review the notes from lecture 1 to 5 and then type up a study guide chapter for each.” When you finish the specific action, you’re done. Even if you’re friends are just getting warmed up in their “woe is me,” I’m going to spend all night in the library routine.
  3. Focus on the process, not results. Don’t worry too much about your test grades. Use them mainly to gauge how well your study process worked. When you get your results, go back and review what actions you did to prepare. Ask yourself what you could have changed to have done better. Follow this new plan the next time around. The key is to focus on the process. Not you. And definitely not Kirstie Alley.

From the reader mailbag:

Perhaps you can write a post about the quarter system versus the semester system? UCLA and other schools are on a quarter system, and it’s very different from a semester system.

Cal responds:

Dartmouth was also on the quarter system, so I understand where you’re coming from. For the uninitiated: a term in the quarter system is short, meaning you only take around three classes. This means less assignments. Damn straight! On the other hand, the assignments are larger and the time between test and paper due dates is shorter. Oh…

To handle the compressed quarter system workload, keep in mind the following two tips:

  1. Break up big assignments. Some quarter-system assignments are too huge to be completed in one sitting. Be careful to review your assignments well in advance so you’ll know which ones need to be started early.
  2. Be very, very aware of all test and due dates. Time flies fast in a quarter system. It’s easy to lose track of the date and then suddenly realize that you have two forgotten term papers due in the next twelve minutes. Definitely put all major test and due dates on a calendar that you see every day. In general: Always be aware of where you are and what is coming down the line. This is also, of course, good advice for crossing railroad tracks. So keep that in mind.

From the reader mailbag:

What would you do if you had to take this one class that started at 8 in the morning? How would you get some studying done?

Cal responds:

First, I would question the morality of any college sadistic enough to offer a class at 8 in the morning. Second, I would investigate the feasibility of using a cardiothorasic syringe to inject coffee directly into my heart.

Actually, I get up at 7 — by choice — so I’m familar with this schedule. Here’s the thing: that block of free morning hours after your first terrible class is actually a great time to get some work done. You’re focused, things are still quiet, your idiot friends haven’t yet woken up and decided to dedicate their day to getting you to do idiot things. Get some good coffee. Find a quiet spot near that classroom. And knock off a big chunk of your daily workload.

Monday Master Class: Form a Productivity Junta

January 28th, 2008 · 6 comments

Franklin’s FriendsThe Junta

In 1727, Benjamin Franklin gathered a group of friends into an organization he called the Junta. They met regularly for conversation and to discuss ideas — letting off the type of intellectual steam that can build up when you are living in what was then a colonial backwater. It’s rumored that an organizing rule of the group was that no one could arrive with a fixed opinion. Everything was open to debate and persuasion. It was self improvement on steroids. A time to challenge their minds. A time to grow. A time to repeatedly say the word “Junta,” because it’s awesome.

Franklin was on to something. This model worked for him and his pre-revolutionary acquaintances. And it can work for you too.

Let me explain…

From Colonial Philadelphia to Your Dorm Room

I want to make a bold suggestion: Find two or three friends who might also enjoy the type of productivity hacks discussed on this blog. Next: establish your own Productivity Junta. Meet once a week. Over coffee or beer. (Though not both…I’ve tried, the flavors don’t mix.) Discuss the problems, concerns, and successes you’ve been having with the technical aspects of being a successful, well-balanced, low-stress college student.

Specifically, address the following three issues (motivated strongly by the Straight-A Method Framework):

  1. Stress and Productivity: Are you completing the work you need to get done without too much stress or guilt?
  2. Study Strategies: Have you found sufficiently efficient study strategies for the classes you’re taking?
  3. Secret Aspirations: Are you making progress on the big, ambitious, grand projects that you day dream about in your moments of optimism?

For each topic, allow every member of the Junta to answer the following crucial questions:

  1. What worked toward answering this question positively?
  2. What didn’t work?
  3. What can I do to have more of (1) and less of (2)?
  4. Why is there no more of that intoxicatingly quaffable beer-coffee mixture left?

The Junta Effect

The idea is simple. Gather some like-minded friends and discuss the gunk between the tire tread details of student productivity. Gripe about failures, learn from successes. Easy stuff.

The effect, however, is profound. By working through the technical details of your student life with others, you’ll be surprised by how many otherwise overlooked truths will shake loose. An idiotic study habit acting as an engorged leech on your free time. A big project that you’re afraid to start.

Best of all, however, is knowing that you’re not alone. By sharing your stresses and then working with others to reduce them is a liberating experience. It’s also an excuse to discuss over-complicated time management strategies. Which, as any regular productivity blog reader will tell you, is like crack to us.

Let Me Join You

I feel so strongly about the Productivity Junta idea that I want to help you get going. Here are my two extra special offers:

  1. If you form a Junta, e-mail me the big questions or concerns that arise in your first meeting. I’ll respond with my own thoughts and commentary.
  2. If you’re in the Cambridge, MA area, let me know! I am happy to attend a gathering of the first Cambridge area Junta to contact me.

I know it might be uncomfortable at first to involve others into your concerns of productivity, stress, and studying. But once you make that step, you’ll wonder how you ever survived on your own.

Also, the word “Junta” impresses chicks. Ask Franklin.

Weekend Links: E-mail Bugs, Slacker Freshmen, and the Mythology Behind Good Will Hunting

January 27th, 2008 · Be the first to comment

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

Links. Lots of Links. Did I Mention Links?

The Straight-A Method: A Simple Framework For Conquering College

January 25th, 2008 · 27 comments

Advice, Advice, Everywhere…The Straight-A Method

Students often ask me how they should sift through all the advice on this blog in order to implement a simple system that will work for them. Here’s the truth: Almost all of the strategies I present here, and in my books, are motivated by a simple yet powerful underlying framework I call the Straight-A Method. This framework is based on four central pillars: knowledge, control, strategy, and balance. Each describes a high-level goal you should strive to maintain as a student. If you can satisfy these four goals — regardless of what specific strategies or systems you use — then you’re all set. Your college experience will be outstanding.

In this post I describe the four pillars of the Straight-A Method. As you read, ask yourself what strategies or habits, if any, do you have in place for satisfying each goal.

Pillar #1: Knowledge

You must collect and regularly review all of your obligations as a student. This includes both the academic (e.g., test dates and assignment schedules) and the administrative (e.g., application deadlines and demands from extracurricular involvements). Taking stock of everything that is on your plate can be forbidding, but it is also crucial for maintaining control over your life.

Some past posts relevant to this pillar:

Pillar #2: Control

Control the hours in your day. Do not let them control you. Plan out, in advance, when you are going to work and what you are going to accomplish. Doing so builds an accurate understanding of your time — how much you have and how long things really take. This awareness is the foundation of low-stress, efficient scheduling.

Some past posts relevant to this pillar:

Pillar #3: Strategy

Never “study.” The word is ambiguous and it’s tied up with too many emotional connotations about what school work should feel like (tiring, boring, painful). Instead, think in terms of specific actions. Seek out and squash inefficiencies. Ruthlessly evaluate and tweak your techniques after the fact. Always be improving.

Some past posts relevant to this pillar:

Pillar #4: Balance

Above all else: stay happy. Otherwise, what’s this all for? This means, among other things: Aggressively socialize. When in doubt about whether or not to attend an event: go. Don’t be satisfied with a few good buddies, put in a serious effort to build a cadre of life-long friends. Engage your mind. Crave inspiration. Take on a grand project. Remember: College is a playground for your mind and spirit. Play hard.

Some past posts relevant to this pillar:

The Science of Procrastination: Researchers Tackle Willpower and our Ability to Control it

January 23rd, 2008 · 44 comments

The Willpower MysteryWillpower

We all know the feeling. Some days, you have a project you know you need to work on, but find it impossible to summon the energy needed to close your e-mail and get to work. It seems so simple. Click the “X” in the corner. Open the word processor document. Start typing. But you might as well be considering knocking off a quick triathalon. Your leaden, sluggish, no-motivation mood overwhelms.

On other occasions, however, you welcome the challenge. Time to work? No problem!

What gives?

Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist from Florida State University, has been studying this question for over a decade. In a recent paper, published in the Journal of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Baumeister reviews what his work, and similar studies by others, have revealed about that elusive trait we call self-control.

In this post, I summarize the main findings of this research and conclude with some practical tips for re-aligning your daily habits to leverage the conclusions.

The Strength Model of Self-Control

In a seminal 1994 paper, Baumeister introduced a hypothesis that overturned the established thinking on willpower. He proposed that self-control might depend on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.

Up to this point, most scientists assumed that self-control was a behavioral mode; a cognitive schema activated under certain conditions and not under others. This approach, for example, might blame fear of failure for your procrastination. The mental loop of failing prevents the juke box of your mind from flipping over to that ever-popular record: “productive work.”

Baumeister disagreed. And he challenged this notion with a simple experiment:

  1. Two groups are given a task. The first group gets a task that requires self-control (e.g., memorizing sequences of numbers). The second group gets a neutral task.
  2. Next, both groups are given a task that requires self-control. Their performance is measured.

According to the cognitive schema hypothesis, the first group should have the appropriate scheme activated in the first phase and therefore perform better in the second phase. In the experiment, however, the opposite occurred. The group that performed a neutral task in the first phase outperformed the other group in the second phase. This fit Baumeister’s theory. The first group had depleted a resource that the second group did not.

Chocolate, Radishes, and Ego Depletion

Subsequent experiments reinforced this limited resource hypothesis for a variety of traits related to self-control. One of the most interesting studies presented three groups with a plate full of both chocolate and radishes. The first group was told only to eat the radishes. The second group was told to eat chocolate. The third was allowed to eat whatever they wanted.

Next, they were all given an unsolvable task. The radish group gave up after around 8 minutes. The chocolate and no rules groups, on the other hand, both lasted closer to 20 minutes.

The term ego depletion was coined to describe this “state of diminished resources following exertion of self-control.” Further experiments helped rule out other potential contributing factors. Through careful controls, for example, researchers were able to show that these depletion effects did not come simply from subjects getting bored with the task or developing a belief that they were not good at it.

No matter what angle they attacked it from, the same conclusion arose: Self-control is a limited resource. After a while, your tanks will run empty, like a marathoner’s muscles failing in the 20th mile. This cannot be avoided.

Improving Ego Depletion

Even though ego depletion is a reality, you shouldn’t give up hope. Following our athlete analogy, through practice and control over your environment you can still work to reduce and delay these effects to a significant degree.

Here are the strategies that Baumeister, and others, have found to be effective:

  1. “Just as exercise can make muscles stronger, there are signs that regular exertions of self-control can improve willpower strength.” Studies show, for example, that introducing a small number of targeted, regular self-control activities in your daily routine — such as “spending money or exercise” — can generate improvements in unrelated areas such as “studying and household chores.”
  2. “When people expect to have to exert self-control later, they will curtail current performance more severely.” If you spread work out over more days, you’ll be able to accomplish more in each sitting.
  3. “People can exert self-control despite ego depletion if the stakes are high enough.” This is how you are able to get through those all-nighters. However: “there are levels of depletion beyond which people may be unable to control themselves…despite what’s at stake.” Which is why the paper you finish at 4 am sucks something fierce.

In addition, the following activities or behaviors have also been shown to to “moderate or counteract the effects of ego depletion”:

  1. Being in a state of positive emotion such as humor.
  2. Having a detailed plan before beginning the task.
  3. Cash incentives.
  4. Replenishing glucose. (Subjects given lemonade did better than those given an identical tasting, sugar-free substitute.)

The Implications for You

The main conclusion I draw from these analyses: you must treat your daily work like a competitive athletic event. Your self-control is a muscle. If you don’t tend to it through rigorous training and careful schedules of use, you’ll perform well below your potential.

The following practical tips can help you re-align your work habits to this reality:

  1. Spread out your work. Marathon sessions, spread over many consecutive hours, will prove impossible to sustain unless you have a looming deadline. If you want to avoid falling into a pattern of doing all of your work in panicked all-nighters, start early and work in small chunks.
  2. Have a plan. The more specific your plan the easier it will be to finish the task. Never again head off to the library with only the vague intention to “study.”
  3. Practice self-control throughout the day. Many students balked at my advice to “make your bed” in my first book. But there was, it seems, a method to my madness. The more daily practice you get with exerting small doses of self-control — from waking up at a regular time to getting to the gym — the easier it will be to summon your willpower during important projects.
  4. Eat good meals. You might feel heroic skipping breakfast or pushing through with your work until 9 before grabbing dinner, but the lack of food energy will tank your ability to actually accomplish hard work during these times. Taking 20 minutes to grab an energy-rich meal might save you hours on your total workload.


In the final accounting, the best advice is to pay attention to your own body. Observe when you get tired and when you are able to get a lot done. Experiment with your habits in an effort to increase the time you spend in the latter state. Above all, this research should make one thing clear: the worst strategy is to have none at all. If you work only when you feel like it, or deadlines demand, and just let the day roll past, you’re likely to spend more time than you’d like battling an empty willpower reserve.

(Hat Tip: Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times Blog Post)

Crowd Wisdom: The Worst Part of the College Admissions Process

January 22nd, 2008 · 10 comments

Share Your Wisdom

I’m working on a post about the college admissions process. I need your wisdom to help pull it together. Specifically, here is my question for you:

From your experience, what part of trying to get accepted to college was the most time-consuming and/or caused you the most stress?

Some example answers:

  1. Taking a course load that my guidance counselor would describe as “very difficult.”
  2. Trying to keep my GPA in the top 10% of my class.
  3. Trying to build an impressive extracurricular resume.
  4. Attempting to deduce what the hell “passion” means.
  5. My convoluted plot to kidnap the admissions director and replace her with a meticulously constructed, realistic looking robot programmed to sway the decision in my direction.

I’m interested in your insights. You can either shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment on this post. If you could, mention where you went to high school and where you currently attend college. All answers, as always, will remain anonymous.

Monday Master Class: How to Use Time Arbitrage to Maximize Your Productivity Profit

January 21st, 2008 · 26 comments

The Wonders of ArbitrageArbitrage

In this article, I explain how to apply the well-known concept of arbitrage to the hours in your daily schedule. By taking advantage of the different values of these hours to different types of work, you can use time arbitrage to maximize your “productivity profit” — which describes the value you extract from the day in terms of both work accomplished and relaxation achieved. (We are at our best when we balance both.)

If you’re already comfortable with the concept of arbitrage, skip down to the section titled Time Arbitrage. Otherwise, continue on with the next section where we’ll cover the basics…

Arbitrage Basics

Arbitrage is a simple concept. In finance it describes the simultaneous purchase and sale of assets that generates a profit due to a difference in price. For example, let’s say that at this moment my most recent book costs $10 in Hanover because Dartmouth students are all brilliant and the advice is generally not needed. In Cambridge, however, it costs $20, because Harvard students need all the help they can get. If I put phones up to both ears and buy 100 copies from the Dartmouth Coop while selling 100 copies to the Harvard Coop, I’ve just made myself a tidy $1000 profit.

Arbitrage Beyond Money

The concept of arbitrage can be extended beyond finance. For example:

Geoarbitrage: Tim Ferriss has been recently promoting the concept of geoarbitrage. The basic idea: consider a task, like doing research for a freelance article, that requires 5 hours. If you’re being paid $1000 for the article, and it takes 10 hours total to finish, then the task of research is worth $500 to your editor. Assume, however, that a virtual personal assistant in Bangalore will do the same research for $10 an hour. You can now “buy” the asset (5 hours of research) for $50 in India and then “sell” it to your editor for $500, making a profit of $450.

Social Arbitrage: Keith Ferrazzi introduced the idea of social arbitrage to help explain the world of inter-personal networking. Assume you have two good friends. One is the CEO of a major tech company. The other is a freelance writer. Assume the writer is working on an important article about the tech industry. The cost to your friendship to ask the CEO to chat with the writer is small. It’s only slightly annoying — requiring maybe 20 minutes of the CEO’s time. The benefit to your relationship with the writer, however, is major. The connection will be key for him to complete his article (earning him money and respect). Therefore, you can “buy” the favor for cheap from the CEO and then “sell” it for much more to the writer. The introduction yields a large net gain to the overall strength of your network.

Time Arbitrage

Time arbitrage concerns the hours in your daily schedule. As with any arbitrage system, we need a notion of value. For time: value can be defined as the amount of productive work or relaxation accomplished during the interval. We also need a notion of buyers and sellers. In this context: the buyers and sellers are activity types.

Scheduling your day, therefore, can be seen as a market in which you are buying and selling hours to and from activities with the hope of making money through value differences. To understand what value differences you have to play with, we have to define the different activity types and how they value time.

  • Concentration Activities:These includes studying, reading, working on a problem set, or anything else that demands concentration. Earlier hours are worth more than later hours for these activities. You have more energy earlier in the day and can therefore better concentrate. In addition, isolated hours are worth more than consecutive hours. That is, an hour surronded by non-concentration activities is worth more than an hour in the middle of a marathon session. Too much consecutive concentration and your mind begins to tire. (See this post on pseudo-work for a more detailed discussion on the importance of energy and focus in completing demanding tasks.)
  • Mechanistic Activities: These include errands, producing flashcards, tracking down sources in the library, or any other activity that does not demand concentration to complete. All hours are worth the same for these activities.
  • Relaxation Activities: These include any activities meant to relax yourself and generate contentment. For example, dinner with friends, going to see a talk, pulling together a pong game, web-surfing or watching TV. Later hours are worth more to these activities. Early in the day it’s hard to fully relax because you know you have more work left to do later. In addition, consecutive hours are worth more than isolated hours. Little bursts of relaxation don’t relax you as much as being able to really let go for a while.

Becoming a Time Arbitraguer

Here’s an exercise. Look at your schedule for yesterday. Map out how you spent your free hours. Label each of these hours with the appropriate activity type from above.

Now, imagine you’re an arbitraguer. You want to buy up the time from the day and then sell it back to activities in a way that maximizes your profit. The key here:look for inefficiencies. Find places were activities own time that is of low value to them. Buy it on the cheap. Then sell it to activities that value it much more. For example:

  • Perhaps you dedicated pockets of free time in the early afternoon to relaxation activities, like surfing the web and watching TV. (This is the typical student mantra: “I’ll work later, when I have more consecutive hours of free time.”) You can buy these hours at a low price because relaxation does not value early isolated chunks of time very much. Next, resell the time to concentration activities, like working on a reading assignment. The latter will pay quite a bit more for these same hours.
  • Maybe your night was spent in a marathon of concentration activities, like studying for a test. Buy these hours on the cheap and sell them to relaxation activities. Again, generating a tidy profit.
  • Once you’ve sold your high-profit late and early hours, sell the remaining chunks to the mechanistic activities. All time is worth the same to these activities, so they can be used to fill in the holes left after you maximize the value generated by selling hours to the concentration and relaxation activities.

Living the Time Arbitraguer Lifestyle

The example activities given above were specific to college students, but the three main activity types — concentration, mechanistic, and relaxation — are applicable to all walks of life. In the business world, for example, concentration might cover working on a new marketing idea, mechanistic might cover answering e-mails, and relaxation might cover time with family. The valuation formulas still work.

The key is to understand that all hours are not made equal. When you begin seeing your free time in terms of the different value it brings to different activities, and you develop a thirst for maximum productivity profit, you’ll be surprised by how much more value you can wring out of each day.

Weekend Links: Martini Your Way Through Your Dissertation, Don’t Sweat Your Inbox, and Turn Off the Internet

January 19th, 2008 · One comment

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

A Backlog of Burnished Bits of Advice Bombs