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

Monday Master Class: A Crash Course in Student Time Management

June 30th, 2008 · 26 comments

Productivity GlueClock

I dispense a lot of academic advice on this blog. I’ve dived into the details of note-taking and exam review and paper writing. Loyal readers can casually toss around acronyms like Q/E/C and Q&R, and chat lightly about focused question clusters and flat outlines. These strategies make the academic piece of college life easier. Underpinning this advice, however, and acting as the productivity glue that holds everything together, is the arguably most crucial component: time management.

If you can’t control your time, the smartest study strategies in the world won’t help you. As you might expect, I talk a lot about time management. (Indeed, an entire third of How to Become a Straight-A Student is dedicated to the topic.)

With this in mind, I’ve rounded up some of the best Study Hacks time management articles of the past year. If you’re having trouble keeping a handle on your schedule, hopefully you’ll find the help you need in the advice presented below.

A Study Hacks Crash Course in Student Time Management

Getting Things Done for College Students
The final article in a series that adapts David Allen’s GTD system to the specific demands of college life. This basic philosophy has provided the backbone of my task management system for at least four years now.

The Visual Panic Schedule
A simple technique for turbo-charging your time management during busy periods. It’s how I survive the end of the semester crunch.

The Auto-Pilot Schedule
The cornerstone of any efficient student’s time management system: fix your regular work to a regular schedule that frees you from having to think about when (or if) to do it. I can’t under-emphasize the stress reduction this approach provides.

Fixed-Schedule Productivity
Do you feel overwhelmed by all the work, and activities, and random crap that clogs your schedule? Read this article. The basic idea is to start with the workload you want, then ruthlessly cut, reduce, and cancel until you achieve it. Skeptical? It’s what has allowed me to work a 9 to 5, weekday-only schedule in one of the world’s most intense graduate programs.

Time Arbitrage
Not all time is created equal. This article teaches you how to rearrange your hours so that the activities that need the most attention get the spot in your schedule that can best provide it. Adopting this mindset can significantly reduce the number of hours you work without reducing the work accomplished.

Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work
This popular articles lays out the philosophy of pseudo-work: the hidden killer of student schedules. The core idea is simple: hours alone mean nothing. You have to factor in your intensity of focus. If you’re not managing your energy, and studying in long, fatigue-saturated, late-night marathons, you’re not really getting much done.

Don’t Use a Daily To-Do List
To-do lists by themselves are terrible time management tools. This articles introduces time-blocking, the only reasonable way for a student to plan his or her day.

A Time Management System for Students Who Are Terrible at Time Management And Tend to Hate it More Than Slow Torture Involving Electrical Current and Sensitive Anatomy.
An article from the early days that walks through a drop-dead simple system for students who are terrible at time management…but need something that’s better than nothing. I like to think of this as a solid first step toward a magic world of auto-piloted, fixed-scheduled, GTDCS super-studentdom.

Apply the Weakest Link Theory to Time Management
An important — though under-appreciated — article that focuses on a often overlooked piece of any time management system: how hard it is to restart after you fall of the wagon. (The savvy reader will appreciate the irrelevant, Malcolm Gladwell style, too long narrative-driven introduction. I believe it involves the space shuttle…for some reason.)

Dangerous Ideas: Getting Started is Overrated

June 27th, 2008 · 73 comments

The (Dangerous) Art of the StartThinking Man

Attend any talk given by an entrepreneur and you’ll hear some variation of the following:

The most important thing you can do is to get started!

This advice has percolated from its origin in business self-help to the wider productivity blogging community. You’ve heard it before: Do you want to become a writer? Start writing! Do you want to become fit? Join a gym today! Do you want to become a big-time blogger? Start posting ASAP! If you don’t start, you’re weak! You’re afraid of success!

Here’s the problem: I completely disagree with this common advice. I think an instinct for getting started cripples your chance at long-term success. And I suggest that, on the contrary, you should develop rigorous thresholds that any pursuit must overcome before it can induce action.

Allow me to explain why…

The Origin of the Cult of the Start

If you talk to an accomplished speaker, especially one with a focus on entrepreneurship, he’ll tell you his “get started” message is crucial. Indeed, one of the biggest frustrations faced by speakers in this circuit is how often they meet young people who are psyched to start a business, but then allow, over time, for their enthusiasm to fade without ever taking action.

These speakers counter this effect by drilling the importance of starting. “Do anything!”, they yell. “Send one e-mail, check out one book, register one domain name!” The theory is that even the smallest action can overcome some mythical initial resistance, and help build an inescapable momentum toward business nirvana.

But is getting started right away always the best option?

Survivor Bias

In his convention-busting book, Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb preaches the danger of survivor bias — a common fallacy in which we emulate people who succeeded without considering those who used similar techniques but failed. Taleb uses the example of The Millionaire Next Door, a popular finance guide in which the authors interviewed a large group of millionaires. As Taleb points out, the habits of these millionaires — accumulating wealth through spartan living and aggressive investments — should not be emulated unless one can determine how many more people followed a similar strategy but failed to hit it big.

Perhaps a more poignant example would be to find and interview the 10 people in the country who had the biggest and fastest overall increase to their finances in the last year. Guess who would dominate this list? Lottery winners. Ignoring the survivor bias, one could conclude: the people who get richest fastest all invested heavily in lottery tickets, so that’s what I should do too!

The same, of course, can be applied to an entrepreneur, or anyone, really, who had success in a glamorous pursuit. To the winner, their path seems straightforward. It was just a matter of putting in the time and the results followed. To someone in this position, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch people denying themselves similar success simply because they’re afraid to get started.

But the survivor bias lurks…

For every successful entrepreneur, or writer, or blogger, or actor, there are dozens of others who did get started but then flamed out. Some people lack the right talents. For many more, the pursuit, once past that initial stage of generic, heady enthusiasm, simply lost its attraction and their interest waned.

The Saturation Method

I have observed many people who have had long-term success in an impressive pursuit. I have also observed many people who went after such successes yet failed. I hope by combining both outcomes — success and failure — I can identify a predictor of the former that will remain free of the taint of survivor bias.

In short, I’ve noticed that people who succeed in an impressive pursuit are those who:

  • Established, over time, a deep emotional conviction that they want to follow that pursuit.
  • Have built an exhaustive understanding of the relevant world, why some succeed and others don’t, and exactly what type of action is required.

This takes time. Often it requires a long period of saturation, in which the person returns again and again to the world, meeting people and reading about it and trying little experiments to get a feel for its reality. This period will be at least a month. It might last years.

Steve Martin’s Diligence

Steve Martin noted that the key to becoming really good at something (so good that they can’t ignore you), is diligence, which he defines as effort over time to the exclusion of other pursuits. This is why people who ultimately succeed in a pursuit go through such a long period of vetting before they begin — if you’re not 100% convinced and ready to tackle something, potentially for years, to the exclusions of the hundreds of interesting new ideas that will pop up along the way, you’ll probably fizzle out well before reaping any reward.

The Art of Not Starting

This reality brings me back to my original point: try not to get started. If you translate every burst of enthusiasm into action, you’re going to waste time. More dangerous, you’re going to hobble your chances of succeeding in any pursuit, as the constant influx of new activity prevents you from achieving a Steve Martin-style diligence.

My advice: resist starting. Spend lots of time learning about different pursuits, but put off action until an idea begins to haunt your daydreams and refuses to be dislodged from your aspirational psyche. Then, and only then, should you reluctantly take that first step, one of what’s sure to be many, many more before you get to where you want.

Related Posts

Book Review: A Brief Guide to World Domination

June 25th, 2008 · Be the first to comment

Chris at Liberian Election

The Manifesto Arrives

If you read last Friday’s interview with Chris Guillebeau, you may remember that he planned to release a free eBook titled: A Brief Guide to World Domination. Early yesterday, the manifesto became available. And I highly recommend it.

At a high level, I must admit, the guide hits the standard, commencement-style post-grad high notes:

  1. Don’t restrict yourself to conventional paths.
  2. Follow your passions.
  3. Give back to the world.

These glossy ideals will be familar to anyone who has ever attended a graduation ceremony. You’ll hear the standard quotes…

e.g., “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.”

…coupled with some brief, insight-free anecdotes of the type required by law to be included in any piece of self-help literature. (“Bob hated being a lawyer, but then he quit to become a professional woodcarver and loves it!”)

Where Chris really begins to pick up speed, however, is when he shifts from the general to the specific. Unlike many aspirants to the Tim Ferriss throne, Chris actually lives the life he preaches, and his approach introduces some new and exciting practices into the broader conversation. Ultimately, it is the practical tips that separate the work from standard “be the change you want to see in the world” fluff, and make it an essential read.

For example, early on, Chris introduces an intelligent deconstruction of the prevailing paradigm that you either serve yourself or serve the world. Drawing from personal experience, Chris walks the reader through the possibility of compromise — a position forged, no doubt, from extensive practice in the art of leading a non-conformist lifestyle in a reality of bills and student loans payments.

I was most excited, however, by the the final part of eBook, which describes a “Toolkit for World Domination.” Chris’s advice on the power of a catchy story and the need to build a small army, among other examples, struck me as both shockingly original and intuitively sound. (If anything, the discussions here are too short.) This is exactly the brand of tactics I hoped to glean from A Brief Guide — battle-hardened strategies extracted from years of struggling to keep his unusual lifestyle alive.

In the end, I think Chris is on to something interesting here. His philosophy begins with The Four-Hour Workweek, then injects a social conscious, removes the shady Internet businesses, and gives the whole thing a cleansing bath in new media, social networking-powered goodness.

I recommend starting with the free guide — skimming the generic and dwelling on the novel — then continuing to Chris’s blog, where there’s much insight to be gained from his growing collection of war stories born of his daily skirmishes against the conventional.

[Update: I recommend that you check out Swaroop’s excellent reflections on Chris’s approach and how it applies to his own unconventional life.]

Monday Master Class: Conquer Complicated Material with the Mini-Textbook Method

June 23rd, 2008 · 12 comments

TextbooksComplicated Concepts

A reader recently asked me for some study advice. He was facing an exam in a course with unusually complicated material. The concepts were numerous, and tricky to understand, and connected to each other in non-obvious ways. It was clear that there was too much information to be efficiently handled by standard quiz-and-recall, so I referred him to my favorite under-appreciated study technique: the focused cluster method.

This was still, however, not enough. As the reader was quick to observe, there was so much material connected in so many different ways that even creating a quick rapid-fire question for each key point would soon spiral out of control. There would be way too many review questions.

Fortunately, I had another technique to suggest — an approach I call the Mini-Textbook Method. It’s slower than quiz-and-recall and focused question clusters, but, for complicated classes like the one haunting this reader, it’s arguably one of the best ways to conquer the material.

It works as follows…

The Mini-Textbook Method

When faced with a course with large volumes of complicated material, reduce your notes to a collection of textbook-style chapters. Write these like a real textbook. That is, use complete sentences and logical explanations. (You don’t, however, have to waste time on making the writing “good” or, even, grammatically sound. It’s only for you.)

Your goal should be to reduce and synthesize. A good rule of thumb is to have at most one succinct chapter per each week of notes.

Things you might include in the sample chapter:

  • A high-level description of the concepts covered in the chapter.
  • A list of definitions.
  • Good, succinct descriptions of the big ideas, theories, or frameworks.
  • A discussion of how the different elements from the previous item connect or compare and contrast.

The chapter writing process itself provides a powerful review, as it helps you construct a structure that transforms copious notes into coherent and compact form that is easier to review.

The next step of the process is to construct a chapter prompt sheet for each of these chapters. On the prompt sheet, record a basic outline for the chapter.

Finally, to review, do the following. For each chapter consider the corresponding outline. Load up your favorite word processor, and, using only the outline as a guide, attempt to type, from scratch, a new draft of the textbook chapter. Don’t peek at the original chapter.

Note, your goal is not to reproduce the exact wording of your original chapter. Indeed, every time you attempt a blind writing it might read much different. The key is to make sure you coherently explain all the ideas, definitions, connections, and discussions listed on your outline.

After your done, check your result against the original chapter; just like in the quiz-and-recall method, go back and try again later if there are areas where you had trouble.

Why This Works

For classes with a large volume of complicated, interconnected material, the advantages of this method are two-fold. First, condensing the material into textbook chapters reduces the amount of information to review. A synthesized chapter will be more succinct than a long multi-page list of the type of rapid-fire questions used in a technique like the focused-cluster method.

Second, typing the sample textbook chapter can prove quicker than trying to explain things out loud.The reason: it’s easier to express complicated ideas by typing rather than speaking. With typing, you can edit sentences, and go back and rearrange your structure as needed. When speaking, on the other hand, if the concepts are tricky and connected in intricate ways, you’re prone to getting tripped up.

Use With Discretion

This technique might be overkill in many situations. For upper-level classes, however, writing your own textbook from scratch, though somewhat slow, might still be the fastest way to actually master the material.

Disruptive Thinkers: Chris Guillebeau Wants to Teach You the Art of Non-Conformity

June 20th, 2008 · 10 comments

A Marathon on a Cruise ShipChris with Desmond Tutu

My first encounter with graduate student and blogger Chris Guillebeau, was an article he wrote about running a marathon…on a cruise ship. He did this for no real reason; it just seemed interesting at the time. My next encounter was an essay posted on Zen Habits about arriving in a small Macedonian town, at 4 am, with nowhere to stay, and subsequently wandering into a all-night street party.

Then I noticed he has traveled to 83 countries and plans one day to visit all 198. He also maintains an excellent blog, The Art of Nonconformity, and he will be releasing on Tuesday a free PDF manifesto titled The Art of World Domination — something I’m eagerly waiting for.

With all this in mind I knew I had to meet Chris (pictured above, chatting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu). He was nice enough to answer some questions about his life philosophy and what it means to become a nonconformist student.

Can you talk about your experiences in college and then the unconventional path you followed afterwards?

“I started college when I was 16, and finished in about two and a half years. I wasn’t incredibly smart or anything; I just registered for lots of classes at multiple schools and then transferred everything at the end to graduate. I’m not sure I would recommend that method to others, since my focus was definitely on completing my degrees instead of learning, but it worked for me.”

“When I was 20 I went to graduate school and needed a way to make some money. I started selling random stuff on eBay (this was 1999, the early days of online auctions) and ended up building a small wholesale business that later expanded to consulting and design projects. I wish I could tell you it was strategic, but it was initially motivated by a strong desire to avoid working for someone else.”

“By far the most important life change I made was moving to West Africa in 2002 to volunteer as an aid worker. I spent four years working with government leaders and villagers in nine different countries there, and the experience affected me profoundly. I came back to the U.S. in 2006 to return to grad school, but I have spent every break since then traveling to as many places around the world as possible.”

What advice do you have for a college student who is wearied by the “traditional” options before him?

“My advice is pretty simple: you don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to. This includes parents, professors, and even peers. If you’re wearied by the system, you have to decide exactly how wearied you are. Most people complain about the traditional paths but don’t bother trying to make their own. If it bothers you enough, you’ll probably find something else sooner or later.”

I’m interested in your notion of how to become “remarkable.” Could you describe your philosophy here?

“It begins with the observation that most people are what I call unremarkably average. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean they are bad people; it’s just that they do what everyone expects them to and they kind of amble through life. A remarkable person is not innately special– rather, to become remarkable (or noticeable), we really have to find our own way somehow.”

“By the way, I’m not interested in telling people how to live their lives. What I’m interested in is showing that there are alternatives out there and you don’t have to be like everyone else.”

What’s the one misconception, commonly held by college students, that you would most like to dispel?

“I just finished a master’s degree at the University of Washington, and during that time I got the chance to hang out with a lot of other students, both graduate and undergraduates. I would never say this is universal, but I did notice that a number of students tend to think that the school has a responsibility to find them the job of their dreams after graduation. There is inevitably a lot of disappointment when this doesn’t work out, and I think it’s far better to take personal responsibility for your own plans from the beginning.”

What are some specific things a college student could do right now to transform their life from conformist to nonconformist?

“Well, the fact is that most people are conformists, and I don’t necessarily think everyone should change. But for those who want to do something else, I think it starts with clearly understanding what it is you really want and how you can cause that to happen. Then, you have to think as well about how you can help improve the lives of others, because most people are not ultimately satisfied with a life focused only on themselves.”

“Once someone knows what they want and how they can help others, the plan of attack is to start taking it step by step. One thing that helped me in college, both undergrad and the grad program, was always asking the question, “Is there another way to do this?” If your advisor is sending you in a direction you are uncomfortable with, I’d push back a little, or suggest an alternative, or just get a new advisor. There are usually multiple ways of accomplishing any goal, including academic goals, and it has greatly helped me to think a lot about the alternatives instead of just doing things they way everyone else does.”

Interesting Posts from The Art of Non-Conformity

Q & A: Beware of “Ducks” at Stanford, Forget About Your Senior Year G.P.A., and Become Interesting to College Admissions Officers

June 18th, 2008 · 5 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I’ve just finished my first year at Stanford University, and I’m not at all happy with my academics. My main concern is science. I’m a pre-med student. I was very enthusiastic about Organic Chemistry, among other classes, before taking the mid-terms and finals (and not doing well on them). I was wondering if you had any specific tips towards such science courses?

Cal responds:

Though I can’t tell for sure what’s going without actually knowing you, your e-mail smells to me of a standard study skills mismatch problem. It’s common for ambitious, smart students to arrive at a school like Stanford and assume that by simply putting in the hours — starting early and spending plenty of time on assignments — the good grades should follow. At these top schools, however, time alone is not enough: your study habits must match the classes. This is tricky to get right at first. It took me, for example, about a year to find a standard toolbox of study hacks worked pretty well.

My advice: run a post-exam post-mortem on your most recent finals. This should suggest some new note-taking and review tactics for your to deploy at the start of the next semester. Treat this as an experiment. After you get back your first graded assignments of the new semester, conduct another post-mortem, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and make further changes.

I want to share one additional warning. A common complaint I’ve heard about Stanford, in particular, is that many of the students are “ducks” — they try to appear calm on the surface while their feet are paddling furiously below in the water to keep them afloat. In other words, be careful that you’re not taking on an overly punishing course load or too many activities just because it seems to be “standard” for your Stanford chums — they might be faking their serenity.

From the reader mailbag:

I have heard that the GPA is relatively unaffected by low grades in one’s final year. Is that true or is it an urban myth?

Cal responds:

Who cares!? Take a reasonable course load. Don’t have too many activities. Sign-up for classes that interest you, give them the attention they deserve, and, in general, enjoy life. Your GPA will do just fine, regardless of how it’s calculated.

(All of this being code for: “I have no idea how that calculation works…”)

From the reader mailbag:

Would you find starting a ping pong team at my high school to be interesting? Would colleges feel the same?

Cal responds:

My general rule of thumb: if your main criteria for participating in a high school activity is that you think a college will find it interesting, then, almost always, they won’t. The best way to get a college to think you are interesting — which is much more important than many students understand — is to actually be interesting. Cool stuff has a way of shaking loose from there.

Among other things, becoming interesting might mean that you:

  • Meet interesting people;
  • do interesting things just for the hell of it;
  • read interesting things solely for the thrill of motivation;
  • take crazy trips;
  • be spontaneous;
  • and, above all else, make a feeling of engagement and excitement the number one quality you seek in your daily life.

Though if you’re really good at ping pong, I know someone who would love a match…

Monday Master Class: How David Scored a 4.0 With 0.0 Notes

June 16th, 2008 · 34 comments

A Note from DavidBroken Pencil

I recently received an e-mail that caught my attention. It was from a reader named David, and it outlined a set of unorthodox study habits he had used to tackle his final years of university. One habit, in particular, shone through: he doesn’t take notes.

To quote David:

I changed my attitude on note-taking. Basically, I don’t.

Just to keep things interesting, I should also add that David scored six perfect A’s at the end of the first year of his no note-taking experiment, and, by the way, he also had a kid; three weeks before final exams. So before you complain that you’re short on time just remember this: he has much, much less free time available than you.

Could You Go Note-Free?

In this post, I want to briefly describe David’s note-free studying method. It won’t work, of course, for all class types, and certainly not for all student personality types, but, if something about this decidedly Zen Valedictorian style approach sparks a glimmer in your eye, it’s worth taking out for a test drive.

David’s Note-Free Study Method

We’ll let David explain the system in his own words. I’ll occasionally interject my commentary to keep things appropriately over-intellectualized.

I recorded every lecture and occasionally wrote down a few points if I thought they were important enough. This meant I was paying full attention in class: unconcerned with taking everything down. This is key: I could engage fully, and even if I forgot the details, I absorbed the big picture.

A great insight lurks here. The idea of paying attention fully — complete engagement, no energy expended on typing notes or remembering some point that sounded important — seems novel compared to the standard college classroom experience. But imagine the effectiveness with which you could absorb big ideas if your full attention was harnessed to the cause?

When it came to review, I didn’t have to wade through piles of notes, stripped of their context, and try to make sense of them. I had one sheet for each class, onto which I added a few-lines of abstract for any important texts we used that week: names, dates, and main arguments.

Now comes the cool part…

My technique was to take a quick look at one such sheet, and then listen to the lecture on an mp3 player as I went about my business — walking to work, washing dishes, drying diapers, even, on occasion, in the pub. Much of my studying was spent in the garden or walking by the river — no stress, no effort. But as I listened, it went in. Things the lecturers stressed once or twice began to leap out as important on re-listening.

This is worth reiterating: he studied in the pub! And also in the garden, and while doing chores, and while walking by the river. David has taken our tentative adventure studying concept and pushed it to a new level of comprehensiveness. You simply glance at a one-page summary and then re-experience the lecture, listening carefully. By the time a test arrives: you’re an expert.

Trouble-Shooting the Note-Free Studying Method

Some common objections that we can easily address:

  • My class has a lot of material that has to be memorized!
    Separate the memorization from the big-idea ingraining. You can flashcard or focused-cluster the material to memorize and save the listen and think approach for the big idea learning.
  • I’ll never remember the important little details if I don’t write them down!
    That was David’s fear too. However, he was surprised by how the combination of listening to the lecture carefully the first time, plus one or two subsequent careful listening — with a few notes jotted down for the main arguments and sources — really stuck the material in his mind. You might want to try adding a quiz-and-recall element to the process. Every 10 minutes or so, stop the recording and try to summarize the main points, out loud, hopefully without startling your pub mates.
  • Is this different from stealth studying?
    Yes. It’s similar in spirit, but stealth studying still has you take classical Q/E/C notes. I think of note-free studying as a cool variation of the stealth method — one that goes where I was too afraid to go before.
  • This technique will never work for my science/econ/anatomy/math class!
    You’re right. It won’t. Save it for liberal arts classes that center on papers, essay exams, and big, interesting ideas.
  • I don’t have time to listen to full lectures more than once!
    Think critically about how much time is taken up by the studying this method replaces. Also remember: David has a baby…


The technique is not for everyone. But it’s cool. And it highlights just how much flexibility you have when you reject standard study conventions and start experimenting for yourself. David’s a great example of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy in action: reject a deferred rewards approach to school; demand a good life now; then squeeze as much as possible out of the time you spend working.

Weekend Links: An Ideal Life, Summer School, Young People Jobs and the Problem with Work/Life Balance

June 15th, 2008 · One comment

My Goals for Life | Scott Young
A great case study for the lifestyle-centric career planning concept we’ve been discussing: Scott Young lays out the key pieces for his post-college ideal lifestyle.

Offer Summer Classes to Yourself — Then Attend Them | Grad Hacker
The good folks over at Grad Hacker lay out a case — and a strategy — for taking advantage of the summer to bone up on the random subjects you’ve always wanted to know about, but never thought you had the time to master.

Some Careers are Better to Do Young | Ben Casnocha
Ben discusses how some jobs are better to do young, while others are not.

Dr. Stewart Friedman on “Time Bind” vs. Psychological Interference and More | Time Ferriss
Tim interviews business guru Stewart Friedman about his hot theories regarding forming a happy life. Among other insights: balancing work and play is out, integrating the two is in. You may hear more about these ideas here in some upcoming posts.