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

Debunking the Laundry List Fallacy: Why Doing Less is More Impressive

March 14th, 2008 · 31 comments

Clinging to the Laundry ListThe Human Peacock

Earlier this week I gave a talk at a Boston area high school. I decided this venue would provide a good opportunity to test out my new Radical Simplicity Manifesto. The students were generally receptive. But it became clear to me that there was still wide skepticism regarding one of the central tenets of the manifesto: the laundry list fallacy.

As you may remember, the laundry list fallacy claims that the longer your list of accomplishments, the more impressive you become. For the students at this high school, many of whom had just completed the college admissions process and were currently awaiting, with exhausted anticipation, the results of this struggle, the rejection of the laundry list fallacy did not come easy.

As one young woman asked, in response to my presentation: “Right. But do you think I did enough to get into Dartmouth?”

Unexpected Bedfellows

How can I be sure that the laundry list fallacy is indeed a fallacy? I’ll admit: I conceived of the concept based on intuition and anecdotal experience. I was pleased to discover, however, that over the past several years, the scientific community has been reinforcing this idea with mathematical and experimental rigor.

To better understand this unexpected support, we must turn our attention to an unlikely source: a pair of economists, working alongside a Bureau of Labor statistician, who, starting in 2002, waged a campaign to change the way we think about bragging.

Too Cool for School

In 2002, economists Nick Feltovich and Rick Harbaugh, in collaboration with statistician Ted To, set out to answer a simple question: Why don’t the smart kids raise their hands more in school?

To address this social anomaly, they turned to the field of signalling theory. Originally developed by evolutionary biologists in the late 1970s, and since expanded to a variety of fields, from sociology to economics, signalling theory studies systems in which agents send costly signals to convey value. It can provide insight into problems as diverse as the peacock’s plumage to men’s fascination with sports cars.

In classical signally theory, agents send costly signals to transmit desirable traits. Because the signals are expensive, only the most fit agents can afford to send them. Accordingly, the signals are honest. That is, if you receive a braggadocios signal (think: the peacock with the outrageous plumage) you can trust that the sender is worth bragging about (only a fit peacock can afford to grow such an extravagant display).

In this new paper, however, the authors added a twist: a side channel that sends extra signals about the sender with a probability based on sender’s fitness. In other words, miss peacock will likely hear some rumors on the street about the prowess, or lack thereof, of her potential suitors.

The Peacock in the Classroom

When Feltovich, Harbaugh, and To applied this model to the classroom, they defined the side channel to convey extra information about the intelligence of the students. The smarter you are, the higher the probability that people will hear, through the grapevine, about your abilities.

Once this crucial extra element was added, it turned out that the best strategy for the smartest kids to communicate their intelligence was to not answer many questions in class. When you deconstruct the mathematics of the result, the finding follows a graceful logic. The medium ability students have to signal their ability through answering questions. If they don’t, and the side channel does not happen to convey positive information about their skills (a definite possibility as their skills lie only in the middle of the range), then they will be indistinguishable from the low ability students — a bad fate.

The top students, however, with their high probability of the side channel saying good things about them, are best off not answering questions. They make this decision exactly because the medium ability students can’t risk it. In other words, only a student who is truly confident about his skills can afford to avoid constantly trying to show them off.

They named this strategy: countersignalling. And the more they looked, the more it popped up.

Beyond the Classroom

The researchers went on to validate this concept in the lab: putting real students in real scenarios, and paying them for successfully conveying value. With actual money on the line, the cash-strapped student’s behavior soon converged to the countersignalling approach predicted by the math.

Soon, more behaviors were examined and then explained by this framework. In a job interview, for example, it turns out that if you’re a top candidate, it’s best not to brag about your good grades. Similarly, for a new professor, the better the school where you teach, the less need you have to emphasize that you have a PhD.

(This last prediction was verified in an elegant experiment in which professors in the California public university system were called late at night so their voice mail would pick up. Sure enough, the better the school, the less likely you were to hear: “You’ve reached Doctor…”)

Debunking the Laundry List

These results shed powerful insight on the laundry list fallacy. Consider your resume. Each item is a signal. In addition, you have a side channel conveying extra information about your ability. If you’re applying to college or graduate school, this might include your recommendations. But it also covers intangibles, such as the type of awards or honors you’ve received or the impression left in an in-person meeting.

Countersignalling theory predicts that the best strategy for the best candidates is to have a short resume. If you have many items, this will brand you as a medium ability candidate desperate not to be mistaken for a lower ability candidate. Only the top applicants have the confidence to trust the side channel.

Applying Countersignalling

These studies point toward a few conclusion for maximizing your impressiveness:

  1. Don’t send mediocre signals. An easy way to represent yourself as a medium ability candidate (be it for college, grad school, or a job) is to present a laundry list of activities none of which are all that difficult to achieve; e.g., club memberships, a summer program, a two-week mission trip. None of these signals convey a particular impressive trait, and the list as a whole makes you seem like someone desperate to differentiate yourself from the low ability candidates. The top people don’t have this worry.
  2. Send a small number of strong signals. The real world is messier than what math predicts. Help the reviewer follow a high ability story line by having one or two activities that are really impressive — that is, required an desirable trait, like creativity or deep values, and not just persistence. Seeing a small number of excellent things, and no low-value bragging, will convey a strong sense of confident ability.
  3. Prime the side channel. In the formal model, you have no control over the side channel. In the real world, you do. Be interesting. Make people like you. Actually convey the traits that you want the channel to communicate. If you’re a high school student, for example, this means you should actually be a curious, nice, energetic person that engages the class material. Teachers notice this, and admissions officers admit that such traits easily come through in the recommendations.

In Conclusion

This philosophy, like most, is riddled with exceptions and caveats. But the general point is clear. Less is more. Not just for your health and sanity, but also for the power of value you communicate.

The Radical Simplicity Manifesto: Doing Less and Living More at College

March 11th, 2008 · 54 comments

The Overwhelmed MassesSimplify

One of the most cited statistic in college mental health circles comes from a major study conducted in 2004 by the American College Health Association (ACHA): 94% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do.

Browsing their most recent data, it’s obvious that this trend continues. In their 2006 release, for example, the ACHA identifies stress as the number one source of academic trouble. They found that around 34% of college students report that stress has significantly reduced their academic performance in the last 12 months.

These are two indicators, among many, of a larger truth: The modern undergraduate is overwhelmed, overworked, and overstressed.

Toward a Solution

How do we address this problem? There certainly exist big picture answers, such as those that focus on restructuring the higher educational system. But I’m interested in short-term solutions: ideas students can activate right now and receive immediate, stress-reducing results.

It is with this goal in mind that I developed, over the past few months, the following new approach to college life…

The Radical Simplicity Manifesto

This manifesto espouses a single goal: simplicity. It asks you to cut loose all extraneous obligations; to construct a college life built around a manageable load of fascinating classes and a small number of extracurricular activities that hold real meaning; to schedule less than you have the time to handle.

Revel in free time. Use it to relax; to socialize; to explore new intellectual horizons. Reserve the right to spend an entire afternoon reading some random book you stumbled across in the business library. Spend time having pretentious, overly serious conversations with friends over cheap liquor and pirated Coltrane MP3s. Do all of this even if it means looking slightly less impressive on your resume. Do it because life is short, and young life is even shorter.

The Rules of the Radical Simplicity Doctrine

Adopting such a lifestyle can be hard when you’re surrounded by hordes of over-scheduled zombies. The type of time management and organizational philosophies preached on this blog are a good start. But you need to go farther. Below are four simple rules that will help you achieve this magic balance:

  1. One Major.
    There’s an increasing belief among students that the more majors the better. At some schools, double majors have become the standard. Anything less seems like slacking. Even worse: triple majors are quickly becoming the new double. This is ludicrous. Choose one major. Something that interests you. Something you can focus on and really grow to understand and appreciate.
  2. One Extracurricular.
    Find one extracurricular activity that is meaningful to you. Join it early in your college career and stick with it. If your focus is graduate school, you should probably make this activity involve research. That’s it. No running 13 clubs while starting your own business and tutoring on the side in between your non-profit work. You can certainly join other clubs, and volunteer, and get involved with other things that seem interesting. But these other activities must all be non-obligatory. That is, things you can do when you have time, but impose no obligations on you when you’re busy. In other words: only one activity should be granted the privilege of being able to demand your time and attention.
  3. One Hard Class.
    Map out the classes you need to take for your major and for your general requirements. Note which ones are unusually time consuming. Work out your schedule so that you don’t have to take two or more of these hard classes during the same semester. A balanced course load is the single easiest way to transform your terms from killer to stimulating.
  4. One Course Load.
    Another popular trend is to tack on extra classes. At MIT they use the word hardcore to describe this behavior. The idea is that if you’re not doing something unusually hard, then you’re somehow being lazy. I repeat my earlier claim: Nonsense! Never take more than the normal course load for your school. The key, once again, is to do a little advanced planning with your course selection.

The Laundry List Fallacy

The hype surrounding college admissions — among other factors — has inculcated a whole generation of students with the misguided idea that the only way to be impressive is to have an overflowing list of accomplishments. The idea is that once the list grows to a certain length, it’s size alone will covey great talent. And, even worse, without this patina of talent, you’ll be relegated to the loser’s lot in life.

Here’s the problem: Trying to apply this approach to college life leads to the type of statistics that opened this post. College is not high school. The classes are hard. The activities are demanding. Attempting the load you managed in high school will bury you at college.

More importantly: more is not (all that) more impressive. Here’s what you really need to open just about any post-graduate door:

  1. Good grades in a major you enjoyed and really engaged. (This attention is noticed by the professors and often results in numerous complementary accomplishments that come for free, such as awards, grants, and excellent recommendations.)
  2. One activity to which you showed great commitment and followed to challenging, cool places. (Quality trumps quality. And, once again, by becoming really good at one thing, numerous complementary accomplishments will shake loose for free.)

That’s it. The triple major, the pumped up course load, the 5 different club leaderships: doesn’t add much. In fact, in some cases, such super-scheduling might make you seem less desirable — like some sort of manic grind still trying to get approval from his overbearing parents.

I want to avoid tumbling into complete naivety. In some contexts, doing a lot does actually make you look more impressive. I’m happy to admit this. But as argued above, it never makes you look a lot more impressive, and it is certainly not worth the sacrifices. A slightly smaller font on your resume is a poor trade for four exciting years.

In Conclusion

Simplify. Use the rules above as a guide, and ask yourself: what could I not be doing? Once you reduce what you have to do, you can start doing the things you decide, in those wonderful moments of college spontaneity, that you really want to do.

I’ll close on the note that this manifesto is still new: something I’m working on and curious to watch grow. It raises interesting questions, and invites, in me, guilt (how closely did I eschew to this approach?) As always, I want your feedback.

Monday Master Class: Choose Your Hard Days

March 10th, 2008 · 2 comments

“Occasionally I end up setting aside one full day where I just lock myself
in my room with some food and grind through it.”

Jeremy, a straight-A student from Dartmouth

Sometimes it PilesAdministrative Day

The Straight-A Method preaches that you should know all of your upcoming obligations and have control over the hours in your day. Combined, these tactics help keep your schedule manageable. But college has a hidden evil streak. Sometimes the Due Date Gods collude to ensure you enter a period of extreme busyness.

When this happens, there is no avoiding the dreaded hard day. Sometimes relaxation and balance has to take a backseat to simply grinding through that work that just absolutely has to get done. (Though, hopefully, even this grinding is being done in focused chunks with sufficient breaks, good food, and in silent, isolated locations on campus.)

How do we best handle these occasional unavoidable pushes? Control them…

The Choice is Yours

When you spy a confluence of due dates lurking on the horizon, plan your hard day(s) in advance. Make sure they aren’t consecutive. If possible, place them near something exciting or relaxing (e.g., the day before a big party, or the day after a long-planned ski trip). Tell everyone you know about your schedule.

The advantages are as follows:

  1. By planning the day instead of being forced into it, you feel more energized and in control as oppose to tired and abused.
  2. Your advanced planning allows you to spread out the hard days in such a way that minimizes their impact.
  3. By telling your friends, you’re more committed to actually following through with the planned work.
  4. Once you’ve placed that day on your schedule, you experience stress relief from the knowledge that your workload is about to face a major reduction.

A Tactic of Last Resort

I should make it clear: the best strategy for hard days is to avoid them all together. But when even your most conscientious scheduling fails to keep up with the load, a strategically planned grind fest can make a big difference with a minimal impact on your stress levels.

Dangerous Ideas: Action is Overrated

March 7th, 2008 · 20 comments

The Simple Six Letter Word That Determines SuccessRock Star

A few weeks back, Brian Clark, of Copyblogger fame, posted an intriguing article on Zen Habits. It was titled: Punk Rock Your Life: The Simple Six Letter Word That Determines Success.

The essay got some attention; eventually earning 1090 digs and 92 comments. I can see why. Like any timeless advice fable, it presents a simple message built around a compelling, illustrative story. Clark describes a Sex Pistols concert held in 1976 in Manchester, England. In attendance at this concert where a surprisingly large number of then unknown musicians who, inspired by the innovation on display, went on to become famous. Clark draws a clear conclusion:

So, what’s the six-letter word that determines success in life? Action.

Is that correct? The answer, I believe, is more complicated…

Beyond Action

Ask yourself the following: Do you anyone who tried to become a professional musician? Most people do. Did they succeed? Most such aspirants do not. (It’s a brutal business.)

Now ask yourself this: Did they work hard? Most likely, you answered “yes.” So why did the failed musicians you know not succeed when the inspired Sex Pistols fans did? There are several possible answers. Luck could play a role. Also talent. Maybe different levels of hard work. But none of these factors, alone, seems to provide the full story. On a closer examination of the hundreds of success stories I’ve witnessed or told, I’m starting to arrive at a new truth: Action cannot generate success unless it’s focused on an incredibly productive path.

Let me explain…

Punk, Not America Idol

Allow me a modest proposal. The reason those Sex Pistol fans became successful punk musicians is because they discovered a productive path on which to apply action. Here was a new type of music with the potential of making a big splash in that social context. By virtue of their age, where they lived, their political views, and their social circles, these musicians were uniquely qualified to be an early promoter of this genre that had explosive potential. All that was missing was taking the action to get there. Those that did made it big.

Consider, on the other hand, if I was to watch an episode of American Idol and get inspired and proclaim: “This is great! I want to do this!” Who cares. No amount of action is going to make me into a pop music star. Ditto if I wanted to become a great cage fighter or literary novelist. These paths would not be productive for my particular situtation.

Steve Martin Knew It

On reflection, this approach of identifying a productive direction for your action is embedded in our recent discussion of the Steve Martin Method. When he says “be so good they can’t ignore you,” you could substitute “relevant,” “new,” “necessary,” or “original” for “good.” Indeed, this is exactly what Martin did. He didn’t become good at the style of comedy currently in vogue. Instead, he invented a new style so compelling that it could not be ignored. Because he was a young, smart, well-educated comedy writer during a time of great social change, he was in a prefect situation to make this happen.

Applying to Your Life

I’m still working out some of these ideas, and can’t, at this point, distill this brainstorm into concrete advice, or even provide strong definitions of key concepts like “productive path.” I do think, however, that something important is brewing here. I will be revisiting the concept soon.

In the mean time, let me know what you think. How does this match or clash with your own experience? How does one best take advantage of this reality of big achievement? I’m interested to dive deeper.

Crowd Wisdom: Your Best Study Hacks Revealed

March 5th, 2008 · 13 comments

The Crowd SpeaksThe Crowd

Enough about me! Last week I asked you to share your most effective and unusual study hacks. You sent in some clever strategies. Below are five of particular interest. Hopefully these will help stimulate your own thinking toward the sheer variety of approaches that are possible for mastering your academic environment.

I’m sad to report, however, that I don’t actually have t-shirts, as promised, that feature a smiling picture of me with the caption “Straight-A Students Do It On Schedule.” Although I thought this was infinitely clever, I was informed by Julie that, in fact, it’s infinitely not.

HACK #1: Study in Character
Submitted by jlb

Faced with a tough academic challenge? Imagine a character that would handle it well. Then tackle the challenge in character. Reader jlb admits to being a procrastinating perfectionist. But it when it came to earning his PhD in the classics, he invented: The Efficient Classicist. When ever it came time to work, he first asked “what would the efficient classicist do?”

As jlb recalls: “I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I knew exactly how an efficient classicist would behave, and I stuck to it. Inventing this fictional character helped me to get beyond my limiting ideas about myself.”

HACK #2: Memorize by Connecting to the Unforgettable
Submitted by Vincent

When faced with a straight memorization task, as in a Latin or foreign language class, don’t resort to rote review. Instead, connect each word to a strong visual that ties to both the word itself and its meaning. Not just any visual, mind you, but outrageous, unforgettable visuals. Use sex, drugs, booze, the thought of crazy old Mrs. Hannigan naked — whatever will stick out in your mind.

Reader Vincent describes how he learns Latin words 8 seconds at a time: “To learn “procella” (Latin for “storms”), for example, I imagine Hilary Clinton fervently making a speech on a stand as a “pro” (I mean pro as in an advocate) for “cellars” (of lots of beer) while thunder (”stormy conditions”) strikes in the background. When you do this two to three times a week, it becomes second nature.”

HACK #3: Quiz-and-Recall Using Idea Maps
Submitted by Dominic

When facing a class that presents a large amount of detailed information, using quiz-and-recall method on the raw facts can become overwhelmingly boring; not to mention that it becomes easy to miss the bigger picture connections and ideas that will help you on an advanced test. Try this instead: organize the information into idea maps that connect the information to bigger concepts which in turn connect with each other. When studying, try to reconstruct the idea map from scratch.

As reader Dominic explains: “During an exam, the first thing I do for each problem is to ask: ‘what part of the idea map does this belong to?’ Usually the problem’s core concepts then become clear. Ever since adopting and refining the above strategy, I have received nothing lower than an A in my advanced biology classes.”

HACK #4: Visualize Your Way Into a Flow State
Submitted by David

We work best when hit that magical moment of flow where everything else in the world drops away and your concentration is at its peak. Reaching this state, however, can be tough when you’re in a crowded study lounge, surrounded by over-caffeinated pre-meds loudly debating whose recent panic attack was most spectacular.

To combat this, head to a library that is quiet and that has nothing to do with what you study. This reduces stress and helps you relax. Once there, visualize yourself levitating in the air and looking at the back of your own head. This exercise, when enacted in a calm environment, helps you fall into a flow state.

As reader David explains: “I do this visualization exercise and it allows me to immediately enter the flow state. Having a relaxed environment just reduces the temptation to focus deadlines or upcoming tests and instead concentrate on accomplishing what needs to be done.”

HACK #5: Meditate Your Way Into a Flow State
Submitted by Michael

Not big on visualizing? Reader Michael (of the University Scholar blog) recalls a recent study by Dr. Heidi Wenk-Sormaz that demonstrates how 20 minutes of meditation produced better results on a subsequent concentration task than 20 minutes of relaxing or working on another problem. Take advantage of these concentration-boosting powers of meditation. Consider a quick 10 to 20 minutes of getting your zen on before class, before studying, before working on a paper, before a big test, or, even if you’re just having a hard time getting your motivation amped up.

As Michael notes: “Meditation is easy. You don’t need to find a meditation center or sign up for yoga. All you need to do is sit comfortably, on your knees, in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor and focus on your breathing.”

Monday Master Class: You’re Not Smarter Than a 5th Grader (When it Comes to Starting Your Paper Research)

March 3rd, 2008 · 4 comments

Humble BeginningsScaffolding

The last paper I wrote was a research paper for an art history seminar. When I began the process, I had a suitably erudite topic in mind. I was going to examine a particular piece of installation art and make some interesting connections to information theory; the standard fare of big complicated ideas that form the backbone of these types of papers.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t start my researching looking at these big complicated ideas. Instead, I went back to the basics.

Way back…

The Return of the 5th Grade Research Paper

My first step was to find a handful of basic books about the artists in questions: one was written by their son (it was a husband wife team), and the other two were exhibition catalogs. I then used these high level sources to reconstruct the basics of their life story. Piece by piece — asking the simple questions:

  • Where did they get started?
  • What were there first works?
  • What were their jobs?
  • Where did they live?

I captured all of this information in a carefully dated time line (captured in a table titled “basic chronology” in my paper research database.)

This should sound familar. The technique I used here was exactly how I was taught to research in the 5th grade. You find the big, basic overview sources and carefully write down the facts.

As we move through college we accumulate a disdain for such 5th grade simplicity. Good papers deal with complicated ideas. Facts are boring. Intricate arguments in obscure journal articles and cleverly titled monographs are where to find the real action!

So why did I bother with the remedial time line?

The Importance of the Fact Scaffolding

There was a time when I did not build these basic information time lines — which I now call fact scaffolding. This technique is actually one I learned later in my undergraduate career, as I began to research how straight-A humanities majors consistently churned out top papers.

My early papers suffer due to this omission. They suffer for two reasons:

  1. Lack of Confidence: No matter how complicated your argument, if you’re hazy on the basic facts structuring the events, or people, or ideas in question, it shows. You begin taking exaggerated side-steps around the potholes of your knowledge. On the other hand, when you know, in detail, the storyline on which your argument is located, this understanding shines through. Read a good non-fiction book. Notice the ease with which the author makes asides or little comments (e.g., “interestingly, he had heard similar arguments back in his undergraduate years at Oxford under…”) that give you confidence that he knows what the hell he is talking about.
  2. Undirected Research: Research is hard when you don’t know the world in which you’re searching for your ideas. My early papers miss and misuse all sorts of sources because I was diving in head first without first taking the time to see where I was. Once you know the story, you know both where to look and what you are finding.

Building a Fact Scaffolding

There is no magic method here. Instead, just a simple rule: before you begin your paper research, build a high-level understanding of the people, events, and ideas that are relevant to your topic. And here’s a crucial addendum: Date everything carefully! There’s nothing worst than getting halfway through your paper and not knowing which event happened first or the order in which ideas were first presented — these small bits of information can have a huge impact on your argument!

A few thoughts to help you get started:

  1. Grab Beginners Books: You’ll grapple with the hard stuff later. Right now, you’re in 5th grader mode. Find a textbook or suitably easy introduction to the topic. In the beginning: the more simple, the better.
  2. You Can Use Wikipedia: I’ve written before about avoiding Wikipedia as a cited source. Here, however, is one place where it is really useful: getting a quick, very high-level overview on the topics you will later be researching in more detail. It’s especially useful for pinning down quick bios on people.
  3. Don’t Forget Ideas: Fact scaffoldings are not just about people and events. They also can include ideas. What are all of the schools of thought relevant to the one you’re studying in detail? Summarize each. At a real high-level: how are they different? Who promoted each? What are their relevant time lines?

In Summary

The idea is simple. Put aside a few days at the beginning of your paper writing process to master all of the fact-based information surrounding your topic. Only then should you dive into the deep research on your big ideas. The confidence and insight of this strong foundation will support a powerful paper.