Study Hacks Blog Posts from February, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport - Part 2

Fixed-Schedule Productivity: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

February 15th, 2008 · 184 comments

My Schedule Should Be Terrible…Schedule

I should have an overwhelming, Malox-guzzling, stress-saturated schedule. Here’s why: I’m a graduate student in a demanding program. I’m working on several research papers while also attempting to nail down some key ideas for my dissertation. I’m TA’ing and taking courses. I maintain this blog. I’m a staff writer for Flak Magazine. And to keep things interesting, I’m working on background research for a potential new book project.

You would be reasonable to assume that I must get, on average, 7 – 8 minutes of sleep a night. But you would also be wrong. Let me explain…

For Some Reason It’s Not…

Here is my actual schedule. I work:

  • From 9 to 5 on weekdays.
  • In the morning on Sunday.

That’s it. Unless I’m bored, I have no need to even turn on a computer after 5 during the week or any time on Saturday. I fill these times, instead, doing, well, whatever I want.

How do I balance an ambitious work load with an ambitiously sparse schedule? It’s a simple idea I call fixed-schedule productivity.

Fixed-Schedule Productivity

The system work as follows:

  1. Choose a schedule of work hours that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

This sounds simple. But think about it for a moment. Satisfying rule 2 is not easy. If you took your current projects, obligations, and work habits, you’d probably fall well short of satisfying your ideal work schedule. Here’s a simple truth: to stick to your ideal schedule will require some drastic actions. For example, you may have to:

  • Dramatically cut back on the number of projects you are working on.
  • Ruthlessly cull inefficient habits from your daily schedule.
  • Risk mildly annoying or upsetting some people in exchange for large gains in time freedom.
  • Stop procrastinating.

In the abstract, these all seem like hard things to do. But when you have the focus of a specific goal — “I do not want to work past 5 on week days!” — you’d be surprised by how much easier it becomes deploy these strategies in your daily life.

Let’s look at an example…

Case Study: My Schedule

My schedule provides a good case study. To reach my relatively small work hour limit, I have to be careful with how I go about my day. I see enough bleary-eyed insomniacs around here to know how easy it is to slip into a noon to 3 am routine (the infamous “MIT cycle.”) Here are some of the techniques I regularly use to remain within the confines of my fixed schedule:

  • I serialize my projects. I keep two project queues — one from my student projects and one for my writing projects. At any one moment I’m only working on the top project from each queue. When I finish, I move on to the next. This focus lets me churn out quality results without the wasted time of constantly dancing back and forth between multiple efforts. (As also discussed here and here.)
  • I’m ultra-clear about when to expect results from me. And it’s not always soon. If someone slips something onto my queue, I make an honest evaluation of when it will percolate to the top. I communicate this date. Then I make it happen when the time comes. You can get away with telling people to expect a result a long time in the future, if — and this is a big if — you actually deliver when promised.
  • I refuse. If my queue is too crowded for a potential project to get done in time, I turn it down.
  • I drop projects and quit. If a project gets out of control, and starts to sap too much time from my schedule: I drop it. If something demonstrably more important comes along, and it conflicts with something else in my queue, I drop the less important project. If an obligation is taking up too much time: I quit. Here’s a secret: no one really cares what you do on the small scale. In the end you’re judged on your large-scale list of important completions.
  • I’m not available. I often work in hidden nooks of the various libraries on campus. I check and respond to work e-mail only a few times a day. People have to wait for responses from me. It’s often hard to find me. Sometimes they get upset at first. But they don’t really need immediate access. And I will always respond within a reasonable timeframe and get them what they need. So they adjust. And I get things done.
  • I batch and habitatize. Any regularly occurring work gets turned into a habit — something I do at a fixed time on a fixed date. For example, I write blog posts on Sunday morning. I do reading for my seminar on Friday and Monday mornings. Etc. Habit-based schedules for the regular work makes it easier to tackle the non-regular projects. It also prevents schedule-busting pile-ups.
  • I start early. Sometimes real early. On certain projects that I know are important, I don’t tolerate procrastination. It doesn’t interest me. If I need to start something 2 or 3 weeks in advance so that my queue proceeds as needed, I do so.

Why This Works

You could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work. Between e-mail, and “crucial” web surfing, and to-do lists that, in the age of David Allen, grow to lengths that rival the bible, there is always something you could be doing. At some point, however, you have to put a stake in the ground and say: I know I have a never-ending stream of work, but this is when I’m going to face it. If you don’t do this, you let the never-ending stream of work push you around like a bully. It will force you into tiring, inefficient schedules. And you’ll end up more stressed and no more accomplished.

Fix the schedule you want. Then make everything else fit around your needs. Be flexible. Be efficient. If you can’t make it fit: change your work. But in the end, don’t compromise. No one really cares about your schedule except for yourself. So make it right.

Q & A: Dealing with Killer Classes, Notes in the Age of Note Packets, and Avoiding the Deadly Grind Syndrome

February 13th, 2008 · 10 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I registered for a class that sounded completely awesome. I didn’t have the pre-requisites, but I thought it would be okay. It’s not. I can’t drop it. And I’d like to wrench at least a B out of this bastard. Aside from hounding the TA, what other actions can I take?

Cal responds:

I’ve definitely been there before. First, as a current TA, I highly recommend that you don’t hound your teaching assistant. It will make him cranky. Which doesn’t help your cause. What you can do, however, is the following:

  1. Meet with the professor. Explain you are really interested in the material but are worried about its difficulty. Ask for advice on how best to keep up.
  2. You’ll probably have to spend more time on assignments than normal. That’s the price you pay for taking the course. So man up and just schedule the extra time. This means, among other things, re-reading portions of articles and doing background research on readings. (See here for some guidance.)
  3. Go to office hours regularly to get crash courses on the most confusing subjects.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when confused in class. Use the following format: <this is my interpretation> + <this is what confused me> + <this is what I want to be clarified>

The course might still suck. But these systems will prevent you from stressing about this suckyness. You are confident that you’re doing the best you can with what you have. No need to worry about it any more.

From the reader mailbag:

I was wondering if you had any tips about how to process information given in a classes with note packets. My accounting professor gives us his (extremely elaborate) notes for each chapter we’re covering. So far I’ve been using them to jot down notes in the margins next to the applicable topics. Is this optimal?

Cal responds:

No. Random margin notes are not enough. It’s too easy for you to zone out during lecture. And this means you’ll have to learn the material from scratch come studying time. Something to avoid.

Instead: pretend like you don’t have the note packets. Take notes from scratch. Later you can use the packets to fill in holes in the occasional spot where you missed something important. But by taking detailed notes you are learning the material on the fly. This is the single most important activity you can do to reduce the hours needed to review later.

From the reader mailbag:

I have many friends who sit at their table in the library, from 8:00 am until lunch, then take a 1 hour break, then return to work until 9:00 pm. These people are all toppers of their class. I understand it may not be needed for other subject areas but I think it’s essential in medicine to be studying for 16 hours a day. I usually manage sitting for only 20 minutes at a time after which I become restless. What should I do?

Cal responds:

You assume they are the top students in your class. But they’re probably not. If there’s one thing I learned from studying straight-A students in the real world is that they often are not who you expect, and they often study a lot less consecutive hours than you think is necessary for high performance.

Here’s my advice: Forget the grinds. All they’re demonstrating is that: (a) they have a high tolerance for boredom; and (b) they have terrible study habits.

Instead: Focus on your situation in the absence of all the emotional baggage and guilt that surrounds schoolwork and how much of it you should be doing. Ask these questions: What exactly do you have to learn? What is the most efficient method to accomplish this? Lay out a system that answers these questions in a way that seems tolerable, then trust it. From my experience, you’ll probably find that the best answers don’t involve sitting like a zombie for 16 hour stretches.

Monday Master Class: The 5 Most Useful Study Hacks Articles That You Never Read

February 11th, 2008 · 4 comments

Golden OldiesThe Archives

I get lots of student e-mail. I enjoy this. It keeps me connected to the real world scholastic struggles that you guys face. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that there are a small number of older Study Hacks articles, usually from the summer or early fall, before my readership really grew, that I find myself recommending again and again as a potential answer. This leads me to believe: (1) these articles answer unusually common problems; (2) not many people have seen them.

With this in mind, I slogged back through the archives to pull out the five most important articles from the golden age of Study Hacks. Are you currently struggling with something in your student life? There’s a good chance you might find an answer lurking below.

(Did I miss a classic that you love? Let me know…)

Use Focused Question Clusters to Study for Multiple Choice Tests
One of the most glaring omissions in Straight-A is that I didn’t address fact-based technical courses — life sciences, anatomy, intro psych — the type of subjects that have you learn a lot of technical details, but feature few big ideas or sample problems. This article extends the classic quiz and recall method to efficiently handle notes that contain a large number of facts, systems, and details.

The key concept: Clustering rapid fire questions into one large question that fits into the q-and-r framework.

The Straight-A Gospels: Pseudo-Work Doesn’t Equal Work
I often preach that not all work is made equal. A focused hour in the morning is not the same as hour 12 of an all-night study marathon held in-between pong games in a dank corner of your frat basement. (In case you were wondering.) But what exactly is the difference? And which hours are better than others? This article lays out the key philosophy that informs all of my rants about structuring your study time.

The key concept: A simple formula, work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus. Everything else I’ve said on this subject all starts with this one idea…

Getting Things Done for College Students
This article has been a hit with the web’s thriving community of productivity junkies. But it was posted way too early to have made much of an impact for my student readers who need it most. The article is the culmination of a month long series of posts on the e-mail newsletter that preceded this blog. It starts with David Allen’s wildly successfully Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system and identifies where it breaks when applied to the college lifestyle. It then fills in these gaps with some more undergrad-focused goodness. The result is an advanced system for the student looking for some real fine-tuned control over an advanced schedule.

The key concept: Class assignments cannot be handled within the standard GTD next action framework.

Part 2 in 60 Seconds or Less
Fans of Straight-A know that Part 2 covers quizzes and tests. Much of the advice from this section has made it onto this blog (quiz and recall, question/evidence/conclusion, mega problem sets…) The information, however, can be overwhelming. In response to this concern, I wrote this article, which breaks out the main ideas motivating those crucial chapters.

The key concept: Think of studying as an industrial process. Input comes in, something happens, outputs comes out. How do we minimize the costs on that second step?

Follow a Sunday Ritual
Of all the advice I’ve posted on this blog, this gem, from early September, generates the most fan mail. I’ve lived by this habit since my sophomore year at college and now couldn’t imagine life without it. Actually, I could. It would be really stressful.

The key concept: Develop a Sunday ritual for catching up, getting organized, and preparing for the upcoming week.

Weekend Links: A Single Note Card, Being Happy, and Fighting Deathly Schedules

February 10th, 2008 · 2 comments

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

Links That Win More Than Barack Obama

Case Study: How I Plan to Study for my Art History Seminar

February 8th, 2008 · 5 comments

Eating My Own Dog FoodA Plan

At MIT, one of the requirements for getting a doctorate in computer science is that you have to take two graduate-level courses outside of your subject. They call this your “minor.” Most of my peers satisfy the requirement by taking a pair of math or engineering courses. In other words: they’re lame. In my quixotic quest to be less lame, I decided to study art history.

I just started the second of the two courses I needed to take. It’s a seminar that focuses on some issues in contemporary art. It meets once a week, for three hours. It requires around 150 – 200 pages of reading per class, all of which is serious academic writing, usually of a cultural studies flavor, and often nearly impenetrable to me. Some example titles:

  • “DADA ist politisch”
  • “Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture”
  • “The Affective Topology of New Media Art”
  • “A Collection of Perfectly Useful English Words Rearranged in a Way That Defies Human Comprehension But Will Probably Earn the Author Tenure.”

My Game Plan

Clearly, I need to get my act together if I’m going to thrive (read: survive) in this class. Fortunately, I do have a little experience when it comes to identifying good study skills. So, as is my habit, I created an efficient study system to help me tame this academic challenge.

I thought it might be interesting to share this system with you — providing insight into how Mr. Study Hacks himself swallows his own advice-flavored medicine. My system for this class works as follows…

(1) Timing

Judging from the last seminar I took, these readings will require a lot of time to dissect. My current plan:

  1. I will put aside 7-8 hours per week for reading. It’s a lot. But knowing, in advance, how much time is really needed to gain a decent understanding makes the needed scheduling easier.
  2. I assume these reading hours will have to be realized in three chunks if they’re going to achieve an optimal focus level. I’m assigning two chunks, semi-permanently, to Friday and Monday morning. The third chunk can float — I’ll place it in the most convenient scheduling hole for the current week.

(2) Note-Taking Logistics

I’m fanatical about reducing wasted time in my note-taking process. I’ve learned from experience that almost any type of extra work — re-formatting notes, creating a separate file for definitions, transferring files between computers — can cause friction that will, over time, grow in intensity until it ends up singeing my entire system. For this class, my friction-free note-taking plan:

  1. I will take notes for each reading in Google Docs to obtain location independence.
  2. I will have a Google Docs folder defined for each week, making it clear exactly where each doc should be placed and where each can be found. I will have a naming convention for each note document. This sounds superfluous. But it matters. The more decisions you can eliminate, the better.
  3. Before each class, I will print the notes for the assigned readings. I will attach a blank piece of paper to the front of each printout. I will have a plain manila folder for each week’s course. In this folder I will place my printouts. In class I will take notes on the blank sheet attached to the reading being discussed.
  4. After class, these folders get placed in a plastic inbox I have on my shelf in my office. Therefore, each week, a new folder is added that contains both reading and lecture notes for the readings for that week.

(3) Note-Taking Strategy

My approach for taming these beastly readings:

  1. I will consistently deploy the system described in my recent article on tackling hard readings. If you recall, this system involves looking for existing commentary on an article before reading it yourself.
  2. For the notes themselves, I’ll stick to the tried and true Question/Evidence/Conclusion format. Processing and extracting conclusions is exactly what class discussion demands.

(4) Research Paper Strategy

The course culminates in an original research paper. Having written a similar paper in a similar course last year, I have added the following rules to my paper research strategies:

  1. Start the background research early (i.e., building an understanding the basics of my topic). Push hard on it right away. This step usually takes longer than I expect. I will use my simple excel-based research database. Perhaps something more advanced like Zotero would give me more power. But I don’t want to learn something new when something simple works.
  2. I will explore several thesis ideas in depth. Again, this needs more attention and needs to be done sooner.
  3. Once a thesis is identified, I will spend the bulk of my time diving as deep as possible. Seeking out untapped primary sources where possible — interviews, datasets, etc. That’s what can help make research pop from “a student’s chore” to “interesting in its own right.”

Pulling it Together

Once the strategy is put into action, the course should proceed on auto-pilot. And that’s the way I like it. Three times I week I sit down to tackle readings. There is no mystery on how I do this or how long I stay at it. These questions are already answered. It’s a habit. A minimum of decisions made. A minimum of will-power required. Just follow the system. Week after week.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

The goal is to emerge on the other side, relaxed, low stress, and a lot more knowledgeable about contemporary art. We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out. In the meantime, however, I will keep you periodically posted on how my system reacts and evolves in action.

What study systems have you deployed for the new semester?

The Art of Speaking: “There is a special circle in hell for those who use laser pointers,” this and other advice from a master speaker.

February 6th, 2008 · 38 comments

How to SpeakWinston Speaks

Every January, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period, Computer Science Professor Patrick Henry Winston gives a famed lecture titled: How to Speak. During this perennially popular event, Professor Winston walks his audience through a series of tips and strategies, developed and honed over decades, for mastering the art of speaking. I attended his lecture for the first time this year, and was not disappointed.

The crowd was literally at capacity. Every seat filled. Every step filled. The ground surrounding the podium filled. And a crowd spilling out into the hallway straining to hear. Having arrived early, I was able to snag a desk an thus take copious notes. In this post, I draw from these notes to present to you, in detail, the secrets behind the Patrick Winston Method.

The Formula

I = f(K,P,T)

Your Impact is a function of your Knowledge about speaking, Practice, and Talent — in decreasing order of importance. Winston’s advice focuses on your knowledge about speaking. This is the easiest way to gain the biggest increases in your impact.

How to Start

Some advice for starting your talk.

  1. Don’t start with a joke. The audience is not accustomed to you or your speaking style yet. Humor will be difficult at this point.
  2. Do start with a menu. Tell them exactly what you’ll be speaking about and in what order.
  3. Do provide an empowerment promise. Explain why your audience will come away from the talk better than when they entered.

The Big Four

A collection of four heuristics that make a talk work.

  1. Cycling. Deliver ideas first in brief, then in detail, then in summary. To use the lingo of artificial intelligence: let your audience load the schema, then fill in the details, then let them know what’s worth indexing for future reference.
  2. Verbal Punctuation. Provide a mechanism to help people who “fogged out” to easily rejoin the talk. For example: “We have just finished talking about the first heuristic, cycling, I am now going to talk about the second heuristic for helping to make your talks more interesting…”
  3. Near Miss. When explaining an idea, also describe other ideas that are close but not quite the same. This will help people understand what the important points are that define your idea.
  4. Ask Rhetorical Questions. Don’t make them too easy. Don’t make them too hard. Wait 6 seconds for an answer.

The Tools

Four tools that can make or break your presentation.

  1. Time and Place. If it’s in your control: mid-morning is the best time. Choose a location that will look full with your expected audience size. Make sure it is well-lit. Don’t let them turn down the lights. (“It’s easier to see slides in a light room then to seem them through closed eyelids.”)
  2. The Board. A blackboard lets you draw natural graphics that highlight your points. It also paces you. The speed of writing matches the speed with which people process information. Use a logo that captures the main point and that you can return to. (“I once saw a Sloan professor lecture for a whole hour about a triangle; it was amazing!”) It also provides a target. The best thing to do with your hands? Point at things on the board.
  3. Slides. Don’t use anything less than 24-point type. If you can’t fit the information at this font size then you have too much. Follow these four rules:
    1. Don’t read the slides! “A special circle in hell for those who…”
    2. Don’t stand far away from the screen. This requires divided attention from your audience.
    3. Have one meaningful picture per slide. If it’s found in Microsoft’s clip art gallery, it’s not meaningful.
    4. No pointers. Laser or otherwise. These are distractions. You’ll play with them. They’re annoying. Stand by the screen and point with your hand or refer to visual anchors on the slide.
  4. Props. When possible, use a prop to illustrate an idea.

Special Cases

Three specific types of talks. (Notice, the first two are specific to academia, but the advice is none-the-less generalizable to other arenas).

  1. Oral Exams. Some strategies:
    1. Show your hand early on. Within five minutes have explained what you did and why it’s important.
    2. Situate your results in time, space, and field. That is, explain the trajectory over time of your area of concentration, where else people are working on the same problem, and the consequence of your result for the field.
    3. Practice. Ask your friends to listen to your talk. Tell them to try to make you cry.
  2. Job Talk. Here is what they want to see in a candidate:
    1. Has a vision.
    2. Has done something about that vision.
    3. Don’t finish with a conclusion slide. Instead have a contributions slides. Something that spells out clearly what you did.
  3. Getting Famous. If you want to become a world class speaker, try to deploy Winston’s Star. A five-point checklist of things to make your talk extra memorable:
    1. Symbol. Some icon that makes your ideas easy to hold on to.
    2. Slogan. A simple linguistic handle for your ideas.
    3. Surprise. Make people say: “did you see that talk…”
    4. Salient. Have an idea that really sticks out.
    5. Story. Tell stories that engage the audience.

How to Stop

Some things to keep in mind about concluding a talk:

  1. Deliver on your promise made at the beginning. Remind them what it was and summarize how you satisfied it.
  2. Tell a joke. They know you now. And if they leave happy they will assume the entire talk made them happy.
  3. Call for questions.
  4. Don’t thank the audience. It makes it seem like they did you a favor by listening to your boring babble.
  5. End with a salute. Compliment without thanking. (i.e., “You’ve been a great audience, I hope you learned a lot about how to give a great talk.”)

Monday Master Class: How to Peform a Post-Exam Post-Mortem

February 4th, 2008 · 19 comments

Dweck’s Chemistry StudentsPostmortem

In her recent book, Mindset, Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck describes a study that followed a group of college students through a difficult pre-med chemistry course. As is common with pre-med courses, most of the students did poorly on the first exam. The real division occurred after those first low grades were returned. Some students got spooked. They assumed the low grade indicated lack of ability. As the semester continued they compensated by increasing their study hours, but not changing how they studied. Their resentment for the subject grew. Their grades, alas, did not.

The second group had a more optimistic mindset. They went back and examined what went wrong on the first exam, made some fixes to their study habits, and then continued with their improved strategy. Not only did they score better on the subsequent exams, but they were all around more happy with the pre-med program in general.

The Rosetta Stone

If you look past the big-“c” Conclusions of this study, you’ll find a tactical gem buried in the narrative — a piece of study advice I’ve been promoting for years: the best guide for how to study for a class is the first exam.

Think about this for a moment. The first exam reveals the exact relationship between the material presented in class and the type of questions that you’ll be asked to answer about it. After your get your first exam back, you have, in essence, been granted the Rosetta Stone for your class. You now know exactly how to study for the exams that follow.

The details work as follows…

The Post-Exam Post-Mortem

After you get back your first exam, set aside 15 or 20 minutes to soak up its lessons and adjust your habits accordingly. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What did I do right? What note-taking and study strategies served you well on the exam?
  2. What was a waste of time? Which strategies took up time but did not help?
  3. What did I miss? Where were you caught off guard? What type of question were you not prepared for? What type of material did you miss in your review?

Next, lay out, in detail, the rules for the study system that you’ll follow for the remainder of the semester. Make sure this system includes the tactics you listed in your answer to (1) and excludes the tactics mentioned in your answer to (2). (This sounds obvious, but many students get so comfortable with certain study rituals that they have a hard time abandoning them, even after they’ve identified them as not helping.)

Most important, think hard about your answer for (3). Then ask yourself what’s the most efficient habit you could add to your study arsenal that would fill in those gaps. Add this to your system.

Case Study: MIT Kicks Me in the Ass…Then I Kick Back

In an old Monday Master Class article, originally posted in July, I walk through the tale of a post-exam post-mortem that saved my ass here at MIT. Here’s the bullet-point summary (see the original post for more detail):

  • I studied hard for a course in distributed system design. The course relied on academic papers, several per week, that we reviewed in class. I used quiz-and-recall to make sure I knew the main structure, pros, and cons, of each of the systems studied.
  • Then the test came. I froze on the first question. It was asking for nitty-gritty details; i.e., what would happen to this performance plot if 5% of the processors failed? My high-level quiz-and-recall questions had not prepared me for these down in the dirt detailed prompts. The clock was ticking…
  • I didn’t know how to answer these questions. So I did poorly. Afterwards, it took me about an hour of pacing to wear off the negative energy of the experience. Later that same day, I sat down and began to tweak my study system. I asked myself what went wrong. And then looked for answers.
  • By the end of the day, I had a new strategy. For the remainder of the semester, I would focus on the tables and graphs included in the papers we reviewed. If I could do a quiz-and-recall lecture on each of these figures — explaining what it showed and why — then I should understand the correct level of detail for the subsequent exams. Better yet, this system was efficient. These figures, it turns out, capture all the salient details of the paper. They provided natural, targeted questions for learning the right level of material.

It turned out that I wasn’t the only student to do poorly on that first exam. Most of them, however, did not adjust their study habits for the final, and ended up doing poorly there as well. In comparison, my strong final grade, plus strong problem set performance, earned me an “A.”

Trust Your Conclusions

A good percentage of the e-mails I get from students are instigated by a bad exam. They are worried that they are in danger of taking a turn for the worse academically. I love these e-mails. Having completed one exam makes the polishing of your study system easy. It’s hard to guess how to best study at the beginning of a class. But once you have some feedback you can get specific.

Let your first exam guide you. Learn its lessons, and those that follow will go much more smoothly. And if you can, avoid taking the grad-level distributed system design course at MIT. It’s tough.


Weekend Links: Self-Knowledge, Less Info Clutter, and Disturbing Photos

February 2nd, 2008 · Be the first to comment

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

A Collection of Links Stronger than Tom Brady’s Ankle