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

A Study Hacks Vacation: I’ll Be Away for 10 Days…

May 29th, 2008 · 7 comments

France Bound…Wine

I’m happy to announce that I’m off to France for a 10-day vacation. If all goes as planned, I won’t even see a computer until Monday, June 9th.

The bad news for Study Hacks is that there will be no new posts until I return. This also means that I won’t be able to moderate comments, so, if you’re a first time commenter, or commenting from a computer not recognized by Word Press, your note won’t pop up until I get back to digital civilization.

I really look forward to an excellent summer of posting. I have a lot of exciting ideas in store. So go have some fun! I hope to return with a new tan, a slightly improved French accent, a terrible wine hangover, and, of course, some fresh insights on student life.

Au revoir!


The Art of Activity Innovation: How to Be Impressive Without an Impressive Amount of Work

May 28th, 2008 · 53 comments

The Power of InnovationImpressive

At the core of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy is the idea that if you really understand the psychology of impressiveness, you can, in effect, hack your image — making yourself outrageously impressive without having to become outrageously hard working.

I introduced two techniques for achieving this goal. The first, focus, stated that becoming very good at one thing was more impressive (and less time consuming) than becoming kind of good at many. The second technique, innovate, was more difficult to parse. It stated that any activity that made someone think “how did he do that!?” would yield rewards that were disproportionately large compared to the effort put in.

In this post, I dive into the details of this idea and describe both why the innovate factor is so strong and how you can achieve it.

Some Innovative Examples

Let’s begin with some examples. Below are three activities that generate the “how did he do that!?” response. Each is based, loosely, off of real students:

  1. A high school student who designed a technology-based curriculum recently adopted by several states.
  2. A college student who setup the U.N.’s first youth advisory council and led the effort to write a youth rights constitution adopted by the Arab League.
  3. A high school student who ran a web design company that involved the managing of a dozen contract employees and servicing 5-figure corporate contracts.

Each of these examples, most will agree, are impressive. These students, no doubt, will have many interesting opportunities afforded to them: they’ll get accepted to good colleges (relative to their grades) and have their pick of cool jobs. Lurking behind this reality, however, is an insistent question: why, exactly, do these activities command so much respect?

Some Non-Innovative Examples

To help answer this question, consider, as a point of comparison, the following list of more standard activities:

  1. A high school student who was the president of two student clubs and was a member of the varsity tennis team.
  2. A college student who did well in a double-major and also sat on two different student activity councils.
  3. A high school student who played trumpet in her state’s regional orchestra.

Compared to the previous list, these three activities probably did not elicit the same level of admiration. Certainly, these students are more impressive than the average schlub, but, on the other hand, we don’t imagine them necessarily breezing into top colleges or having their pick of post graduation jobs. Whereas the students in the first list might be called superstars, these latter students might be stuck with the moniker of “grind,” “hardworking,” or, pronounced, no doubt, with a note of disdain: “ambitious.”

Why do we judge these two student groups so differently?

If pressed, you would likely guess that impressiveness is a function of talent and hard work. The above examples, however, falsify this hypothesis. The activities of the second list require just as much hard work, and, in many cases, such as varsity tennis and regional orchestra, more natural talent than the activities of the first list. Yet, the first list strikes us as much, much more impressive.

Indeed, the real reason the first list is so much more impressive can be attributed to a little understood phenomenon…

The Failed Simulation Effect

When presented with a student biography we tend to oblige our instinct to mentally simulate the path that led to that student’s achievements. For example, when we hear about a student holding down two different club presidencies and a spot on the tennis team, we imagine the hectic, running from meeting to meeting lifestyle that supports that volume of tasks. We have no problem with this simulation. We know students like this. We feel that, with a high enough tolerance for pain, we too could be that busy. It’s hard work. But it’s not mysterious.

What happens, however, when presented with the story of a student who works with the U.N. and drafted a constitution for the Arab League? Our simulation apparatus fails. We don’t know how, exactly, one becomes a player in major international organizations.

The effect of this failed simulation: a sense of novelty and wonder.

And it is exactly this feeling that we end up interpreting as the sensation of being “really damn impressed.” In other words: The first three sample students elicit great admiration not because they are harder working or more talented than the second list, but because we cannot simulate the path they took to their achievements. This failure intrigues us. We don’t feel like we could have done the same. We don’t feel threatened. A sense of novelty and wonder sluices through our synapses.

Leveraging the Failed Simulation Effect

Understanding this subtle mental effect allows you to maximize the impressiveness you reap from the effort you expend in activities. The key, we now understand, is to push activities into a realm where most people cannot easily imagine the steps that got you to your destination. Here’s the good news: such pushes are a function more of planning and creativity than of hard work.

From my experience in deconstructing the paths taken by these types of students, I can identify three steps that will help you get to this impressiveness sweet spot:

  1. Enter a Closed World and Exceed Expectations. The first step is to get involved as an insider in a world that interests you. This might mean landing an internship, or shadowing someone, or joining a relevant club. Once there — and this is key — tackle the opportunities given to you with vigor. Complete them fast. Go slightly above and beyond. In such entry-level, non-full time situations, the people above you will be pleasantly surprised that you are getting things done. You will soon be rewarded for this.
  2. Package Insider Connections. After you’ve proved yourself in this world, you’ll begin to notice interesting opportunities that only an insider, like yourself, would know about. Look for an opportunity to lead a project that would be available only to someone on the inside. Leverage your insider knowledge to its fullest extent.
  3. Escalate. The solo project from (2) will defeat most people’s simulation apparatus as it was built upon connections available only to insiders. In this final step, leverage this effect, and the good job you did your past project, to shake loose an even more un-simulatable project. Repeat this process a few times, with each iteration ramping up to an even more insider-supported, harder to simulate project.

Case Studies: How The Three Example Students Applied These Steps

Let’s examine how these three steps were applied by the sample impressive students at the beginning of the article.

Case Study #1: The high school student who wrote the curriculum.
She satisfied step (1) by taking a student internship at a well-known technology company. She then satisfied (2) by getting involved — and following through — on an internal project involving the application of the company’s technology to educational settings. Finally, (3) was satisfied when she volunteered, as her main intern project, to package up these findings into a full curriculum. By doing a good job and following through, she got the company to pitch the curriculum to their school partners; several picked it up.

None of this required any more effort than the standard high school summer job. But because it leveraged opportunities only available to someone working inside the education department of a technology company, it appears, to an outsider, to be un-simulatable — “how do you get states to adopt a curriculum you wrote!?” — and thus really damn impressive.

Case Study #2: The college student who worked with the U.N. and Arab League.
Attending school in the middle east, this student met up, by coincidence, with an old friend who had started an international youth activism network. To satisfy (1), he agreed to start a chapter of the organization in his own neck of the woods. He pushed the chapter to meet regularly and grow. By doing so, he met some important contacts and identified some important youth issues in the middle east. To satisfy (2), he made a lateral move to start his own organization focused solely on middle east youth issues. By attending conferences, and making phone calls, people got to know him. Finally, to get at (3), he leveraged this status and his connections to get invitations to help lead relevant initiatives at the U.N. and the Arab League. No mystery. He ran a youth organization in an under-represented region. These international bodies wanted to work on these issues. It was a natural fit.

This was hard work. But no more so than the running of any large club. Because, however, it dealt with an insider world — a vibrant sub-culture of international youth activism — it yielded rewards — involvement with the U.N. and Arab League — that, to an outsider, seem absolutely inexplicable.

Case Study #3: The high school CEO.
I’ll come clean: this story is based on the company I started in high school with my friend Michael Simmons. Mike and I knew how to design basic web sites because we were, well, nerds. Hoping to make some money, we stumbled across a local guy who ran a business directory web site for the Princeton area where we lived. To satisfy (1), we setup a little deal to help small business he listed build simple web sites. To satisfy (2), we leveraged the portfolio and experience this provided us to strike out on our own. One of our key insights working with the business directory was that it was easy to find sub-contractors that would, for a cut of the fee, tackle most of the time-consuming tasks of designing web sites. We landed a few clients and made some money. Finally, to satisfy (3), we leveraged the fact that our company looked like a big deal to hire a CEO, print some fancy marketing materials, buy suits, build up our team of sub-contractors, and, most importantly, raise our fees.

The company was fun. We never had more than one or two clients at a time. And our responsibility was mainly keeping them posted while our sub-contractors did the work. Looking back, Mike and I estimate the time we spent was roughly equivalent to being the president of a student club. The rewards, however, were so much higher. Because we leveraged the insider knowledge gained by working with a local web portal, we were quickly able to get to a point that foiled most people’s simulation apparatus.

In Conclusion

I apologize for the length of this article, but the subject of activity innovation is tricky. It is also, I must admit, one of my favorite issues to explore. If you’re looking to make an impact in this world — and you want to do so without suffering a steady stream of stress-induced panic attacks — you need to look beyond the standard exaltations to simply “get started!” and “work hard!” and “follow your passion and it will all work out!” Instead, think carefully about how impressive achievements really come about. When you know what you’re doing, you will be surprised by how soon you can get somewhere that earns serious admiration.

Monday Master Class: The Study Hacks Guide to Note-Taking

May 26th, 2008 · 11 comments

Note the Importance of NotesNotes

Taking notes is arguably the most important step of the student academic process. Both in class and while tackling a reading assignment, your notes represent the primary filter between the raw information hurtling at you and what you’ll later attempt to review, learn, and, eventually, regurgitate on a test or paper. I am surprised, therefore, by how many students never give this step any serious consideration: they’re content to simply jot down information in whatever random fashion suits them at the moment.

I shudder at the thought of the unnecessary pain this induces.

In this post, I describe some of the most important note-taking strategies to grace the digital pages of Study Hacks. Take a look. If you master this step, you’ll enjoy significant improvements to your academic life.

A Study Hacks Crash Course on Smart Note-Taking

Why Most Students Don’t Understand the Real Goal of Note-Taking
A classic article from the early days of Study Hacks. It lays out my core philosophy on how to take notes well. You can use its “Three Laws of Reduced Study Time Note-Taking” as a general framework for the construction of your own customized note solution.

Part 2 in 60 Seconds or Less (or, The Q/E/C Note-Taking Method)
Another classic article. It summarizes the main philosophy driving Part 2 — Quizzes & Exams — of my book How to Become a Straight-A Student. What makes it relevant to this post is that it describes the famed Question/Evidence/Conclusion note-taking system that I first introduced in my book and now reference all the time here on Study Hacks.

Accelerate Q/E/C Note-Taking
A technical article that describes how to use Word short-cuts to accelerate Question/Evidence/Conclusion note-taking on your laptop.

Rapid Note-Taking With the Morse Code Method
A steamlined note-taking variant for long reading assignments that need to be completed in a short amount of time.

The Art of Pseudo-Skimming
An even more streamlined note-taking approach for articles that only need to be reviewed, not mastered, before class.

How to Read Hard Readings
This post introduces “strategic pre-processing” as a technique for conquering outrageously dense and complicated reading assignments.

How to Take Notes on Power Point Slides
Technical tips for taking efficient notes on lectures that are driven by Power Point slides. Take a look at the readers’ comments, which introduce some interesting twists on my advice.

The Problem with Passion

May 24th, 2008 · 10 comments

Greetings from Annapolis

You may have noticed there was no Friday blog post. I’m still on the road and have limited computer access. I still wanted, however, to leave you a brief note. Yesterday I was roaming a Barnes & Noble, and, naturally, I gravitated to the graduation table to check out the latest crop of student advice guides. I discovered that no fewer than four new books were centered on the following idea: the key to being happy after college is to identify your passion then go do something that fulfills it.

Here’s my problem with this concept:

  • Passion is generated by extended exposure to something that becomes an important part of your life. It’s not some magic score assigned to each job that describes, with great accuracy, how happy you’ll immediately become if you follow that path. (In reality, it’s really just a fancy word for general occupational fulfillment.)
  • As a recent graduate, you have not yet been exposed to any job long enough for you to know what might fit well with you and lead, down the road, to the type of general fulfillment people dub passion.
  • How, then, are you, as a newly minted graduate, supposed to identify a passion?
  • Conclusion: Passion-centric career planning reduces to well-intentioned guess-work — typically based on some rough — and highly limited — idea about what types of jobs seem like they should be passion-inducing.

Herein lies the advantage of lifestyle-centric planning: It gets you started down the right path without requiring you to have an expert-level knowledge of a large number of potential careers. It also relieves you of the stress of trying to identify some magical perfect job that will maximize this fuzzy metric. And finally, guess what? If you’re living a lifestyle you really like, pretty soon you might just start to describe yourself as “passionate.”

The Most Important Piece of Career Advice You Probably Never Heard

May 21st, 2008 · 74 comments

Some Advice for the RoadGraduation

I’m leaving this afternoon to attend a college graduation: my second in three weeks. As you might imagine, graduating is on my mind, and, I would guess, on many of your minds as well. To celebrate the season I thought I would turn my attention to some advice for finding your way after college.

I want to share with you the unique law I use to guide my life. It’s a twist on the standard graduation inducements, but it seems, from my limited experience, to work the best of the various strategies I’ve watched my peers try on for size in their first years out of college.

The advice goes like this:

Fix the lifestyle you want. Then work backwards from there.

That’s it. Notice, I’m not talking about “avoiding taking yourself to seriously” or “always finding ways to give back.” I didn’t mention “the importance of a sense or humor” or why you need to “follow your passion, not money.” These are all reasonable words of wisdom, but they don’t necessarily direct you to a life that you’re happy to live.

My advice does.

Defining Lifestyle

What do I mean by lifestyle? Roughly speaking: a detailed feel for what your day to day existence would be like. Some questions to consider when imagining an ideal lifestyle:

  • How much control do I have over my schedule?
  • What’s the intensity level of my job?
  • What’s the importance of what I do?
  • What’s the prestige level?
  • What type of work?
  • Where do I live?
  • What’s my social life like?
  • What’s my work life balance?
  • What’s my family like?
  • How do other people think of me?
  • What am I known for?

Using these types of questions to guide you, construct an image in your mind about the ideal future you. Notice, specific jobs don’t need to enter the equation. They can if they help you visualize, but they aren’t necessary. Add little details. Really get a sense for what this lifestyle would feel like. If the image makes you happy and gets you excited about the possibilities for your future, then you’ve hit on a good match.

Example Lifestyles

There exists an infinite variety of possible lifestyles. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Power Broker: You live in a big city in a nice apartment. You climbed the ladder fast in a difficult business. You wield power. You’re good at what you do. You’re well respected. Your job is intense but you are super-organized so it doesn’t drive you crazy. You’re surrounded by good, loyal friends, and when you have fun, you have fun hard.
  • The Serial Entrepreneur: You live in a nice San Francisco townhouse. You’ve started several businesses. Some more successful than others. You tend to alternate between an intense year or two growing a business followed by some extended time off for intense relaxation. You’ve got a network of good friends across the country and a bar down the street that you visit every Friday night to catch-up with your closest buddies. You use your off time to develop extreme hobbies and indulge in grand, hopelessly ambitious and wildly fun projects.
  • The Virtual Voyager: You live in your dream house in a cozy community-oriented town, surrounded by natural beauty. You work virtually for several technology companies; setting your own hours. Three or four light days a week is enough to take care of your expenses. You and your family spend a lot of time outdoors, barbecuing with the neighbors, and, in general, enjoying small town life. You travel a lot for the sheer adventure of it.

Working Backwards

Once you’ve developed a detailed, visceral sense for your ideal lifestyle, use this image to guide your early career decisions. It’s a rough guide, to be sure, but it can still prove surprisingly useful.

Imagine, for example, that you’re faced with two options as graduation approaches. One is an elite project manager position at Microsoft and the other is acceptance to some good computer science graduate schools. Both are interesting and challenging. What do you choose? The power broker would go for the Microsoft position. The serial entrepreneur, on the other hand, would go for grad school — a perfect place to develop her first marketable technology.

The Power of Lifestyle-Centric Career Planning

Starting with a dream lifestyle — as oppose to a dream job — opens up more creativity. When thinking only about jobs, you’ll find yourself considering the same artificially-narrow menu of options troubled over by most talented college grads (banking, consulting, law, non-profit…) A lifestyle, on the other hand, provides much more flexibility — letting you discover potential paths previously hidden from your planning process.

The main advantage, however, is that, in the end, the whole point of worrying about your career is because you want to feel good about your life. By cutting to the bottom-line — what would make me feel best? — and then working backward from this answer, you are maximizing your odds that you’ll actually get somewhere worth going.

As with any graduation season advice, take this with a grain of salt. This is what I have seen work, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that will. It can’t hurt, however, to take a moment to ask yourself: what lifestyle would suit me best?

You might be surprised where the answer leads you.

Monday Master Class: How to Build a Knowledge Vault and Avoid Wasting an Entire Semester’s Worth of Work

May 19th, 2008 · 23 comments

If a Course Ends in the Forest, and No One is Around to Remember it…Vault

Across the country, college semesters are winding down. Final exams: over. That massive research paper: handed in to your professor and exiled from your nightmares. In your near future: blissful, relaxing nothingness.

But something doesn’t feel quite right…

You just dedicated five hard months of mind-melting concentration to conquer a full course load of difficult subjects. If you’re like me, you are probably already feeling that hard-fought knowledge starting to slip away. By June you’ll have a hard time even remembering their names. All the work will go to waste. And this just seems like a shame.

In this academic year-end post, I want to offer up a simple system that helps make sure that you get some lasting value out of your courses.

The Knowledge Vault

The basic idea: During the first week after your courses end — that is, before you start forgetting everything — enter the most important ideas, insights, and resources into a long-term system that you can later easily reference. I call such a system: a knowledge vault. There are an infinite number of possible variations for constructing such a vault; here, I describe just one to get you thinking.

What to Track in the Knowledge Vault

You generate hundreds of pages of notes and papers and readings during a typical course: way too much material to be usefully stored and looked up again later. So how do you pare this pile down to the most important nuggets? Focus on the following:

  1. People. What important figures did you come across in the course? This could include, for example, important political figures from a history class or an influential philosopher from a philosophy class. You will want to capture in your system, for each such important person, 2 -4 sentences that captures who they are and what — at a very high level — they did or thought.
  2. Ideas. What were the major ideas that popped again and again in your class? Did a certain Marxist framework, for example, keeping slipping into your anthropology lectures? What are the major points describing the idea? Again, 2 -4 sentences.
  3. Books. Did any books (or articles) prove particularly influential to you? If so, title, author, and a — surprise! — 2 – 4 sentence description will work wonders.

(For the sake of simplicity, I will use the generic term “info-nugget” or just “nugget” to refer to each individual person, idea, or book that you want to store.)

How to Store the Knowledge Vault Information

Each class will generate its own collection of info-nuggets. The obvious question is how to best store these data. Numerous formats will work. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Index Cards. For the old-fashioned at heart: buy three plastic index card storage boxes, one each for people, ideas, and books. Store one info-nugget per card. Record at the top: the nugget’s title, the course number, and the semester you took it. The description goes below. Looking up info is as simple as flipping though a box full of cards.
  2. PBWiki. For the less old-fashioned, use a free wiki service like PBwiki. True to its name, it makes setting up a private wiki as easy as constructing a PB&J sandwich. You can construct a separate page for each of the three main categories. Within each category you can create sub-categories if you feel like getting advanced with your organization. Bonus points: share the wiki with several classmates and have them add their own info-nuggets, creating a truly massive collection of knowledge.
  3. Database. The most tech-savvy might consider building a custom database. Each row can store, in addition to the description itself: type of entry (person, idea, or book), title of entry, course number, course date, and, perhaps, some extra descriptive tags. You can then pass the database advanced queries to sort out exactly what you are looking for (e.g., show me people or books from classes taken in the year 2007 that involved science.) Free web services like Zoho make the construction of such databases easier than you might suspect.
  4. Gmail. The poor man’s database. (Or should it be the “especially clever man’s database”?) Construct a separate label for each of the three nugget categories. To add an entry, e-mail yourself a message with the nugget title in the message subject. In the body of the e-mail, include the course number and course date as usual. Once received, label the message with the appropriate label and archive it. Later, to search through your nuggets, type “l:<relevant-label-name> <various search terms>” into the search bar, and then let Google work its magic.
  5. [Update at 5:51 PM] Two readers wrote in to suggest two additional storage apps that have worked well for them. These were: Evernote and Google Notebook. I don’t have direct experience with either, but they both come highly recommended by these students.

The Advantages of a Knowledge Vault

There are several advantages to maintaining a knowledge vault through your college career. The first is short term. As David Masters discussed in a recent interview, the most engaged students are constantly integrating material between courses. You’d be surprised how often, when working on a paper in one class, you’ll discover that some person, idea, or book from a previous class will provide a whole new insight. It saves time and makes you look exceptionally smart.

Another advantage is long-term. The vault helps you stay in touch with what you learned in college. When someone mentions a name that sounds familiar, you can quickly determine what you know about that person. When struggling to figure out a complicated problem in your life, you can turn back to the big ideas from your college career to see if any might prove useful. Similarly, providing book recommendations becomes a snap when you have a list of the most interesting books that you have read.

A final, somewhat stealthy advantage, is that just taking an hour or two to record, with just a few sentences the most important information from your courses, does wonders for cementing this information in your mind — even if you never explicitly seek it in your vault down the road.

(The alert reader might have noticed that maintaining the vault during the semester might aid exam review and paper prep. I agree with the alert reader. Keep this in mind as a new term dawns.)

In Conclusion

This might not be for everybody. It’s extra work and doesn’t necessarily provide immediate tangible benefits. But if you do try this technique, in the long run, you’ll be happy to have captured the benefits of all those hours of hard thinking. In other words: you’ll get your money’s worth from your education.

Disruptive Thinkers: David Masters Thinks Studying Should Be Fun

May 16th, 2008 · 6 comments

Can College Work Be Fun?David Masters

David Masters, a student, self-described “part-time peace activist,” and blogger, has an appealing worldview: life should be creative and playful. Here’s where it gets interesting: David doesn’t let students off the hook. He argues on his thoughtful blog, Be Playful, that undergrads should enjoy their academic efforts. Indeed, studying should even be, dare I say it: “fun.”

After hearing this claim I knew I had to interview David. There is something downright Zen about his take on student life, so, considering our recent conversations, I thought we should poke around a bit and see if we can’t figure out what makes this fun-loving student tick.

First things first: the major. What’s your advice here?

Choose a subject that you love and that you’re passionate about rather than focusing on what gives you the best career prospects. I chose a combined major of Theology and Social Sciences for two reasons: I love searching for meaning, and I’m passionate about social justice and making the world a better place. [ed. Daniel Pink would agree.]

What does it mean to connect your classes to everyday life?

Making your studies meaningful to you means that they become a part of who you are; it also makes studying a joyful experience rather than a slow drudge, because you can see how what you are studying makes an impact on you (or the world) right now.

For example, in my Political Theology class we’ve been learning about how the state maintains its power through violence. It’s interesting to apply this idea to news about different countries, like how China has been treating pro-Tibet protesters, and how America shows off its power through the war on terror.

I’ve heard you mention an interesting trick regarding the bibliography for a paper…

When choosing books to read for a writing assignment I try to make sure that the majority of books in my bibliography aren’t on the course reading list. Choosing books that aren’t on the reading list makes your paper stand out to the professor; it will be different from the pack and will read as more independent and creative.

You claim you can make studying more like play. Let’s say it’s a typical day for David. What does it look like?

This may initially sound like a contradiction, but the key ways in which my studying is playful is that it is structured and focused. Sports and games, though playful, are very structured, and it is this structure that allows for great feats and achievements.

I know the best time for me to study is in the morning, so I study then. I read the assignments, and I work on the paper. I prefer working at the desk in my room, so my notes are handy to compare different ideas; if I’m in the library, I’ll find a quiet corner desk near to the shelf I’m researching. I like to be done by 4pm to have time and space to socialize and relax.

I guess what is different is the way in which I engage with my studies. When I read through the assignments, the most important thing I am looking for is new concepts, or old concepts seen in a new way, and connections to other things that I have read, and I’ll mark up these. [ed. Scott Young would agree.]

What’s the biggest mistake you see your fellow students make in how they approach their academic lives?

Failing to be organized and to structure their study. I guess many students see this as freedom, but in my mind, they’re a slave to deadlines. Having a structure means that you can work at your own, relaxed pace, and you don’t feel guilty or worried about unknown looming deadlines, because you know exactly what’s coming up.

Any final unexpected nuggets to share with us?

I think one of the best things that students can do is to contribute to the world in some way. It’s best to choose just one thing to give your time to, so you don’t end up over-scheduling yourself.

I loved the Study Hacks story of Tyler and how he applies what he learned in his past studies to make a different to the world doing cancer research.

Advanced Student Stress Relief: The Activity Vacation

May 14th, 2008 · 12 comments

Reviving The Walking DeadActivity Vacation

I meet a wide variety of students in my capacity as a professional advice giver guy. The type that most concerns me, however, are those who are completely overwhelmed. Having worked closely this fall with several students in this state, I have learned an important lesson: extraordinary stress cannot be eliminated by extraordinary organizational strategies.

After a certain point, a schedule becomes too full: smarter to-do lists and more efficient review tactics, like a band aid on a sucking chest wound, will help slow down the bleeding, but miss the larger problem.

What does work? In this post I offer a simple prescription for those students who feel they are just a small step away from tumbling into a stress-fueled breakdown. It’s a devious little bastard of a tactic that I call the activity vacation.

The Activity Vacation

This strategy is simple. If you feel overwhelmed by everything you have to do as a student, commit yourself to the following: during the next semester you should be involved in exactly zero extracurricular activities. That’s right: nothing. No school newspaper. No volunteering at the hospital. No eco-rep position for your dorm or activity council for the student government. Revel in the luxury of answering every request that comes your way with a sonorous “nooooooooo.”

But that’s not all. Not only should you cut every extracurricular activity from your life for this one semester, but you should also choose the absolutely most interesting possible slate of courses. (If your custom-designed triple major doesn’t provide you this flexibility, consider also cutting out one or two of those majors!)

How to Cut Activities Without Burning Bridges

There is some subtlety to temporarily cutting activities out of your schedule. A couple rules to help prevent lasting damage:

  1. If the activity is one of the most important activities in your life and represents something that you really enjoy and that you want to focus on and build up to become a real skill during your college career, then politely inform the relevant parties that you need to take a break for one semester to focus on your academics and that you look forward to returning during the semester that follows. This is college, not the Navy: they’ll understand. (Important Caveat: Do not apply this rule to more than one or two activities! Focus, focus, focus…)
  2. If the activity does not fit the above criteria, cut it for good. This is a time sink. Remember the laundry list fallacy: more is more stressful, not more impressive. The activity vacation is a good excuse to do some house cleaning.

The Benefits

The activity vacation provides three powerful benefits:

    1. Immediate stress reduction: Your schedule is open and your courses are manageable. You have plenty of time to get things done. You can sleep. You can read. You can watch dumb TV. You can get a girlfriend and master guitar hero (preferably in that order). Life is good…
    2. Re-engagement with your academic side: When you’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to develop an antagonistic relationship with your courses. They become the demon bastards that keep forcing you to stay up all night. You grow to resent them. And after this, your quality of life takes a turn for the worse. No fun! By instead adopting a slate of courses that you really enjoy, and then, and this is crucial, giving yourself the time to actually engage them, and get into the material, and do extra research and connect the assignments to other things you care about, you’ll rediscover that intellectual spark that can make college so enjoyable.
    3. Discovery of the serendipitous: A common theme on this blog is that a lot of the most powerful (and non-time intensive) accomplishments arise, in part, from exposing yourself to randomness. The lack of regular activities during your activity vacation gives you the free time to seek out the random and interesting; e.g.:
      • Meet interesting people.
      • E-mail random bloggers, read random books, and go to random talks and conferences on campus.
      • Hang out in the media room in the library and browse random magazines.
      • Write lists that use the word “random” as many times as possible.
      • Pitch a freelance article.
      • Learn how to write a screenplay.
      • Hang out with people who are smarter than you.
      • Audit interesting courses.
      • Choose a course you love and start reading about cutting edge research or publications in the field. Chat about these with your professor.

If you want a role model in this regard, consider freshman Ben Casnocha, who recently posted a list of his notes from the 14 different speakers he went to hear speak this spring.

But Wait! If I Drop Activities for a Semester I’ll Never Get Into Medical School!

Sigh. I think we’ve covered this territory before; i.e., here and here and here and here and here and here and, of course, here.

Cue The Zen Valedictorian

I hope you didn’t think you’d get away with a major idea article that didn’t tie back to the Zen Valedictorian! You know better. But this is, in fact, a key hidden benefit of the activity vacation. Because it’s temporary, you’re more likely to give it a shot. Once in your vacation, however, you are, in essence, trying on the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle for size.

I’ll bet that once you’ve tasted what student life could be like, and get a glimpse, from your randomness exposure, of the type of cool, focused, innovative, and low time-intensive activities that you could be doing instead of your standard stress-inducing slag heap of boring extracurriculars, you might just become a permanent ZV convert.

At the very least you’ll learn to chill. A worthy goal.