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

A Rap Star and a Rhodes Scholar Walk Into a Bar…

February 29th, 2008 · 7 comments

I’ve just published a new article in Flak Magazine:

On the Making of a Rap Song | Flak Magazine

In this piece, I follow a Manhattan-based rap musician through the creative process surrounding the creation of a new song. Here’s an interesting insight: the majority of the time spent working by the musician did not produce any usable output. He invests hundreds of hours listening and rapping and recording for every complete song that might make it out of his studio.

Something to keep in mind in your own quest to find your inner Rhodes Scholar. To be really good at something means, perhaps, having a very high quality threshold, and the willingness to cull all efforts that fall below it.

Guest Post: Implement a Mechanism-Based Lifestyle

February 29th, 2008 · 6 comments

Today I’m pleased to offer a guest post written by our good (and much cooler) friends over at Hack College. If you’re so inclined, check out the article I wrote for them: how I use “project queues” to stay focused. I think we can all agree: Nothing says Friday like co-located productivity fun!


When programming, there are two ways to design a system: the bottom-up mechanism-based approach and the top-down policy-based methodology. From my Operating System Concepts book:

One important principle is the separation of policy from mechanism. Mechanisms determine how to do something; policies determine what will be done.

… The separation of policy and mechanism is important for flexibility. Policies are likely to change across places or over time. In the worst case, each change in policy would require a change in the underlying mechanism.

The Backstory

(Skip this part if you’re not interested in the knitty-gritty of computers.)

In the world of operating systems, there are two ways to accomplish something: a mechanism-based approach and a policy-based approach.

One of the things that makes Linux so great is its mechanism-based approach. Linux provides small but powerful programs to do simple things: ls, grep, rm, cat, less, and ps to name a few. Most of these microprograms can be mixed and matched to accomplish more complex tasks. Better yet, these can be built upon; most graphical programs in a Linux environment secretly call these command line programs to do the dirty work.

On the opposite side of the fence (usually) is Windows. Many design choices were made based on policies. A good example of a policy based implementation is a graphical program whose data files cannot be read without using that program or worse, a particular version of that specific program. Data hiding is sometimes necessary in computing, but in a Word file? C’mon.

Modulate to Graduate

For the record, I’m aware of my improper use of modulate in this context, but who can pass up a good rhyme?

One of the key tenants of computer programs these days is modularity. That makes perfect sense in my brain, but then again I like looking at the source code for Linux in my spare time. For those who don’t drool over code, think of modularity as Legos; a larger system built by many smaller, stand-alone parts.

The way us non-robots can implement such procedure is to break down tasks in life to their simplest level. Just about every single thing you do should have a consistent method of completion. Does this sound automatronic? It is. But the idea is to keep simple things off your mind, similar to what GTD tries to accomplish.

A Trivial Example to Demonstrate a Larger Point

All of this thus far may be a little too pie-in-the-sky. Let’s work with a concrete example. First, let’s talk about the how of something trivially simple: getting a phone number.

For most students today, the mechanism is: enter the data into my cell phone. It’s little surprise that everyone does this: it’s become the simplest single way to deal with the how of getting a phone number. The mechanism-based approach works well when getting the numbers out of your phone too: copy the data onto my computer.

Okay, this is lame, you say. Let’s look at the other way, the policy-based way of handling such a task. Policy just answers the what: record a cell phone number so it can be accessed later. When you are faced with the daunting task of recording a phone number for later use of some celebrity or CEO (or both), you might choke. Do I write down the number on my PocketMod? Should I just take his card and leave? Should I type it into my phone? By the time you figure out a mechanism to support your policy, you’re already toast.

Assembling the Blocks

The phone number example is trivial, but it proves a point. Have your mechanisms in mind when moving through the world. Whenever confronted with a task for your GTD, a phone number of an attractive member of the opposite gender, or a homework problem, train yourself to have knee-jerk mechanism based reactions. Break the problem down into discrete tasks and move forward. Your life will never be the same.

But wait! There’s more! Little did you know, I was taking you on a ride throughout this post. I used a mechanism-based style of writing! I wrote this post in several, small chunks that could be separated and still remain in context! Feel had?

Crowd Wisdom: What’s Your Most Innovative Study Hack?

February 28th, 2008 · 9 comments

Share Your Innovations

Every week I preach the gospel of hacking your study habits. Enough about me. Let’s hear about you! I want to know your most effective, innovative, and unconventional study hack.

  • Simply e-mail me your favorite homegrown study hack. I’ll choose the most compelling examples to post next Wednesday.

The winners will receive fame, glory, and the satisfaction of potentially helping thousands of their fellow students. Also: I’ll send you an awesome t-shirt featuring a big smiling picture of me, giving a thumbs up and saying “Straight-A Students Do It On Schedule. ”

I look forward to hearing your strategies!

Q & A: Strategic Drinking, Mission Impossible, and the Tale of the Rhodes Scholar Who Failed Freshman Calculus

February 27th, 2008 · 7 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

You’ve mentioned in your book and on your blog that “energy level” is important when it comes to studying. This is certainly true. Can you give more details about how different things affect energy level? I am really curious. My own main observation is that alcohol is bad. I like to “have fun,” and that’s what I did last night. But today I have to pay the price: I’m sitting in the library, unable to get started on a paper I need to write.

Cal responds:

Alcohol is bad? Blasphemy! But you’re on to something about the drinking. You have to be strategic. If you need to work the next day, don’t rage. If you need to rage, get your hard work done first. Eating habits, of course, also play a big role in maintaining high energy levels. I’m no expert here, but here are a few simple things that work for me:

  1. Don’t skip meals.
  2. Eat only real food (i.e., things your great grandmother would recognize).
  3. Avoid processed food (i.e., white flour, sugar, anything with more than five ingredients).
  4. For lunch and dinner try to fill half the plate with plants.
  5. Drink lots of water.
  6. Exercise. Even if only briefly and in your room.

And of course, at least one day a week, ignore all of this so you don’t go crazy with nacho-lust. (Note: much of this advice came from two influential books: In Defense of Eating and The Power of Full Engagement. Check them out.)

From the reader mailbag:

My econometrics class has a reputation for being the one undergraduate econ course you simply “grin and bear”: the problem sets are rarely helpful and the grading on tests is all or nothing (no partial credit). What are your suggestions on succeeding in a seemingly impossible course?

Cal responds:

Hard is relative. To a math major, econometrics would seem like any other upper-level math course. Because of the subject matter, however, it sounds like many non-math types take the course. They are not used to the study style that works in this context and, instead, attempt the standard cram strategy — which will fail. Soon it develops the reputation of being “impossible.”

So how do you study for tricky math-style courses? Your need to be able to reproduce, from scratch, the proofs (or solutions) to basically every major sample problem reviewed in class and on the problem sets. Not just reproduce, but really understand what you’re doing. You can’t do this the night before. You have to attempt to keep up with the material as it’s presented, using office hours and asking questions to fill in gaps in your knowledge. That’s the hard part about math. Unlike an English essay, remembering a little bit from a frantic night before skim-job doesn’t help. You either really understand how something works or you don’t. So make sure you are understanding as the course proceeds.

If possible, befriend a math nerd in the class. He’ll know what’s up.

From the reader mailbag:

Have you ever encountered a student who had a rough start in his first year, but later on in his final three years became better: earning good grades, for example, or getting involved in interesting research opportunities?

Cal responds:

Absolutely. One of the Rhodes Scholars I know best, for example, did poorly in freshman year calculus. By the time she graduated, however, she had published some interesting mathematics research and — talk about poetic justice — even co-authored a chapter with her professor for a calculus textbook.

Another example: I had a non-exceptional first year. I had good grades but not the type that would turn heads. All of my free time was devoted to crew. Either training or partying with my teammates. By my sophomore year, I had to leave the crew team due to a heart condition. With a lot of free time to fill I began to clean-up my study habits and take on some more interesting extra-extracurriculars, including, notably, writing and undergraduate research. The rest is history.

In other words: now is a perfect time to start planning some big moves.

Monday Master Class: The Art of Pseudo-Skimming

February 25th, 2008 · 10 comments

The Tale of Two Reading StylesWords

Most college students are quick to learn the difference between skimming and reading. The former has you move your eye quickly across the page, picking up the occasional observation or idea. The latter has you actually read and process every sentence, and then try to record in your notes the salient arguments. We skim when the assignment is not too important. We read when we know we’ll later be tested on the material.

In this post, I want to teach you a third technique. One that occupies the middle ground between skimming and reading. It retains the comprehension benefits of reading while attempting, as much as possible, to achieve the speed of skimming. It’s a technique known to most upper-level humanities students; the key to taming massive reading lists without going insane. Different people call it different things. I use the term: pseudo-skimming.

It works as follows…

Pseudo-Skimming Basics

The core of the pseudo-skimming technique is to tackle the assignment paragraph by paragraph. Specifically, there are two types of paragraphs: important and filler. You only need to read the former; these hold the information that will come up in class discussion or make it onto an essay exam.

A general rule: the longer the reading, the higher percentage of filler paragraphs. This is good news. If you can identify which paragraph is which, and focus on reading only those that are important, you can significantly cut down your reading time without losing the important info missed by skimming.

The key is figuring out how to do this identification on the fly.

The Staggered Pace

The rhythm of pseudo-skimming is one of jogs and sprints. As you enter a new paragraph, you slow and read the first sentence. You ask: “what is this paragraph about?” If you get the sense that there is probably not much new meat here: abort! Jump to the start of the next paragraph, and ask the question again. Otherwise, stay the course, and actually read the damn thing.

There is a real art to this technique. You must intuit an answer to the importance question with a minimum of time. The more you read in the class, the better you’ll become at this. To help buff your skills, here are a few types of common filler:

  1. A long background story. Once you recognize the importance of the story (e.g., yet another example of the artists fighting!), you can keep aborting paragraphs until the story is over.
  2. Asides. If the author conducted a lot of historical research for the article, she can’t help but throw a few bits of extra information and explanations here and there. You’re not a historian. Skip!
  3. Exceptions. Professional scholars worry about being definitive, so they liberally sprinkle in exceptions and caveats to their arguments. If these run long, start aborting the paragraphs.
  4. Extra details. For a given idea, it is often sufficient to capture a few good pieces of evidence that supports it. If the author continues, in future paragraphs, with more details than you need, start skipping.

The Feel of Pseudo-Skimming

Once you catch the hang of pseudo-skimming, reading careful assignments takes on a different feel. There are relatively long stretches of you engaging the text, paragraph after paragraph, at a slow pace, internalizing the information. Then, suddenly, you are bounding from topic sentence to topic sentence, skipping paragraphs at a rapid rate. Wait! An important point! The pace slows again. And so on…

It may take a while to master this technique. But once you recognize the motivating idea — even for important readings not every paragraph needs to be read — you’ll find that the most beastly assignments suddenly seem a lot more manageable.

The Secret Your Neighborhood Rhodes Scholar Doesn’t Want You To Know

February 22nd, 2008 · 21 comments

The Rhodes Scholar FactorThe Secret

Here’s a non-controversial statement: Rhodes Scholars are pretty damn impressive. Take, for example, Benjamin. I drew his name at random from the 2008 winners of the scholarship. According to the official press release:

Benjamin…is a senior at Yale majoring in philosophy and political science. Elected as a junior to Phi Beta Kappa and winner of Yale’s Lyman Prize, he won the North American Parliamentary Debate Championship as well as academic prizes in English, humanities, writing and public health. He has a number of published articles in legal and medical publications, and interned in the Newark Mayor’s office.

Clearly, when you have a bio like this you can more or less write your own ticket after graduation. But how does this help us mere mortals who don’t expect, any time soon, to pull a North American Parliamentary Debate Championship out of our respective asses?

I’ll let you in on a secret. Having worked extensively with Rhodes Scholars for my various writing projects, I’ve noticed: there is a crucial lesson hidden behind their kick-in-the-groin, neck-snapping resumes — a lesson that can help any of us get a leg-up in the post-graduation scramble.

Allow me to elaborate…

The Law of Complementary Accomplishments

Imagine, for a moment, that we can label every line item on your student resume with two scores: impressiveness and effort. The former captures how impressive it is to the average observer and the latter captures how much sweat you invested to get it.

Many Rhodes Scholars take advantage of the following law:

Once you accomplish something of a non-trivial impressiveness and effort score, you can achieve many complementary accomplishments that have similar impressiveness scores but require very little additional effort.

Consider Benjamin, our sample Rhodes Scholar from above. He did something very impressive and that required a lot of effort: being a top student in his class. But that generated for him, with little additional work, many of the complimentary accomplishments which makes his bio seem so full; e.g., Lyman Award, Phi Beta Kappa, “numerous academic prizes in English, humanities, [and] writing.” These were a consequence of being a great student; not separate endeavors requiring comparable amounts of separate work.

How Juice Up Your Own Student Bio

How do you take advantage of the law of complementary accomplishments in your own student life? Consider your resume. If most of the major items on it required a lot of independent effort, then you are probably wasting time. Consider, instead, focusing on just one thing. Push at it until you are as good as possible. Go beyond where most of your lazy friends would normally be satisfied to stop.

Once you begin to be recognized for being good at it, start looking for complementary opportunities that this goodness suddenly makes available. For example:

  1. Scholarships or fellowships that might now be easier to win.
  2. Cool internships in similar fields.
  3. Relevant awards.
  4. Related mini-projects that you can now make happen.

For example, in college I put a lot of work into undergraduate research. This one application of effort yielded the following complementary accomplishments with little extra sweat on my part:

  • My name on several peer-reviewed publications.
  • High honors in my major.
  • Two different research-related scholarships.
  • Induction into a well-known research society.
  • A summer spent on campus being paid to research.

Each of these boasts a high impressiveness score, but required little additional effort. I put a serious amount of time into my undergrad research and these compliments begin to shake loose almost of their own accord. It would have been impossible to build up a list of the same length and impressiveness if each item had to be started from scratch.

It’s All About The Efficiencies

This law is a key component in achieving the Rhodes Scholar Effect — the shake of disbelief where the interviewer or admissions officer thinks: “How the hell did she do all of this?”

By leveraging the law of complementary accomplishments, you are achieving this effect without killing yourself. The effort required to do one thing really well (and then reap all the freebie complementary accomplishments) is less than what’s require to do two or three mildly impressive things. The latter route, of course, being the one followed by must students who are trying (but failing) to stand out from the crowd.

So stop working hard on so many things. Focus. Then make sure you take advantage of everything this focused accomplishment grants you for free.

Also, if you get a chance, win a National Debate Championship. That helps, too.

Would Lincoln Have Become President If He Had E-Mail?

February 20th, 2008 · 27 comments

The Allure of the Internet (Hat Tip: Academic Productivity)

(Hat Tip: Academic Productivity via why that’s delightful via OmniBrain via … via elephantitis of the mind)

Lincoln’s Focused Childhood

I watched a documentary last night on the childhood of Abraham Lincoln. (Which is exactly the type of insane excitement you can expect at the ‘ole Newport household.) What struck me was Lincoln’s focus. The tale is classic: every night, by candlelight, the young man would read into the twilight hours: seeking to understand hard thoughts and develop his own. The ambition this knowledge sparked kicked off his famed political journey.

Lincoln, of course, was not alone. I recently read, for example, biographies of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Both had a similar self-instigated scholarly dedication to mastering hard ideas and developing their own views of the world.

Here’s my question: would this have been possible in the age of the Internet?

The Era of Focus is Ending

Recent research reveals that the average office worker checks his e-mail 30 to 40 times an hour. I shudder to think what the results would be for a college student, working on an assignment with e-mail, gchat, twitter, and Facebook all standing at the ready.

Some companies, such as Intel, are even going so far as to instigate e-mail free days. The reason:

” [interruptions] prevent us from thinking carefully for any unbroken stretch of time.”

The effect: hard thinking doesn’t get done.

“After all, it’s much easier to fire off 10 e-mails than to sit down for an hour and think hard about how to turn around your division’s performance.”

If the Internet is robbing us of our ability to sit and concentrate, without distraction, in a Lincoln log cabin style of intense focus, we must ask the obvious question: are we doomed to be a generation bereft of big ideas? Will we lose, over time, like some vestigial limb, our ability to focus on something difficult for extended stretches? As a graduate student, I’ve had to put in place what are, in essence, rigorous training programs to help pump up my attention span. It’s a huge struggle for me. Somehow, I imagine, if Lincoln was in my position, he wouldn’t be having this same problem.

Moving Forward

This post is more a meditation than a plan of action. There is no magic answer; just an important thought we should struggle to answer. History’s great figures have been those who were willing to put in those long, hard hours of difficult focus on the difficult questions of their age. Do we have that ability in us And, if not, how do we start the process of gaining it back?

I’m interested in your thoughts…

Monday Master Class: Rapid Note-Taking with the Morse Code Method

February 18th, 2008 · 40 comments

The Fast and the CuriousMorse Code

I’m currently taking a graduate seminar that assigns demanding articles of demanding length. Being somewhat busy, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve recently been working to squeeze every last ounce of speed out of my note-taking habits. This has led me to a new note-taking approach I call the Morse Code Method. It’s engineered to be fast. Blazingly fast; yet still be able to support the type of detailed comprehension needed to survive a three-hour, 10-person discussion-based seminar.

It works as follows…

Brain Drag

Forget time for a moment. Your worst enemy when tackling a reading assignment is that weighty, sleep-inducing brain-drag that starts to grow over time, making concentration increasingly difficult. What brings this on? A big factor is halting your reading momentum. If you cease forward movement with your eyes so you can, for example, underline a few lines, or draw a bracket next to paragraph, or, dare I say it, highlight a sentence, it will require a large energy burst to get started once again. Too many such stops and starts and your brain will be fried.

The Morse Code Method is based on the following idea: you should never stop reading until you’re done with the entire article.

One continuous pass is the fastest, most energy-efficient possible way to get through a reading. It’s also the least painful.

The Dot-Dash Notation

This begs an obvious question: if you don’t stop your reading momentum, how do you make note of the important points? The answer is to deploy the following notation:

  1. If you come across a sentence that seems to be laying out a big, interesting idea: draw a quick dot next to it in the margin.
  2. If you come across an example or explanation that supports the previous big idea: draw a quick dash next to it in the margin.

From experimentation, I’ve learned that these dots and dashes are small enough that you can record them without breaking your reading momentum. In the end, your article will be a sequence of dots and dashes (like a Morse Code message!), effectively breaking down the reading into a useful sequence: big idea!, support, support, big idea!, support, support, support…


Once you’ve finished reading the entire article, it’s time to take notes. Review the sentences that you dotted and dashed. For the dots that still strike you as important, paraphrase the main idea in your notes, in your own words. (The paraphrase is key: it forces you to processes the idea in your brain, not just reproduce it like a photocopier). For each of the following dashes that still strikes you as important, paraphrase the example or explanation in a bullet point.

Go quick. Don’t worry about typos. Ignore fancy formatting. Just get the ideas down. As fast as possible.


Now for the final step. This will only take you an extra couple minutes, but it’s the crucial boost that will transform you from “reasonably familiar with the readings” to “class star”:

  • Reviewing what you just recorded in your notes, think for a moment about the following: What is the main question being asked in the article and what’s the conclusion the authors point toward? Record the question and conclusion in your notes.

Now you’re done. Don’t skip this last step! It is here that you pull out the big picture ideas that will form the core of class discussions, papers, and exam essay questions.

How This Compares to Classic Q/E/C Note-Taking

Fans of Straight-A might wonder how the Morse Code Method compares to the classical Question/Evidence/Conclusion approach. The answer: it’s a variation. By having you read the article before identifying a question and conclusion, the Morse Code Method better handles complicated articles with subtle arguments. Also, by having you actually read — not just skim — every sentence, you’re better prepared for more detailed discussions. When deciding what tactic to deploy, choose based on the needs of the class.