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

On the Role of Study Advice in the Age of Grade Inflation

June 13th, 2008 · 6 comments

Dartmouth’s Three ValedictoriansGraduation

Earlier this week I was surprised to read that Dartmouth College, my alma mater, graduated three valedictorians this year; all three students having earned perfect 4.0’s.

There was a time, not too long past, when this would have been unprecedented. My class’s valedictorian, for example, did not have a 4.0. In the years leading up to my graduation, records indicate that a student achieved a 4.0, at most, one out of every two or three years.

Now we have three such students all at once.

Grade Inflation

Chatting recently with a Dartmouth Professor, I suggested that perhaps the three simultaneous valedictorians were due to an exceptionally smart class. He was sad to report that, in fact, it was much more likely attributed to grade inflation.

In recent years, he noted, the median grade of Dartmouth classes had risen to an A-. A 4.0 G.P.A. — once the hallmark of exceptional academic achievement — has been reduced to just slightly above average.

This observation sparked a natural question: as more and more schools fall under the thrall of grade inflation, what role does study advice play? That is, if everyone can get an A, why sweat the details?

Beyond the G.P.A. Metric

After some reflection, I have an answer to propose. First, however, I should note that grade inflation, in its most severe forms, is still somewhat confined to the Ivy League and comparable schools. (Or so I hear, correct me if this is no longer true.) As several professors have told me, the rise in grades at these institutions is not, as many curmudgeons love to declare, due to increased complaining by over-ambitious kids. It’s caused more by a lack of meaningful differentiation among students’ performance.

At the risk of oversimplification: slackers don’t get into Dartmouth. Everyone works hard (enough). Everyone does pretty well. (Even the most hardcore frat rats these days are kept on task by their fear of the Lehman Brother’s resume screen.) Professors get nervous dividing up the class into A’s, B’s, and C’s, because, honestly, there just isn’t all that much difference between many of the ‘A’ kids and those in the ‘C’ bin.

My point is that the problem I’m addressing here might not be a problem for you. If it is, however, I propose the following:

Make lifestyle quality a more important metric than grades.

If the median grade in your classes is an ‘A-‘, your grades no longer serve as a useful measure of your performance as a student: work reasonably hard and you’ll get the highest possible score — even if your habits are less than optimal.

Good study advice, however, can still have a profound impact on another, arguably equally important metric: your lifestyle quality. Though you may be able to consistently knock out ‘A’ papers through marathon writing sessions and ace exams with all-night cramming, that is still a lousy, stressful existence.

My modest proposal is that for the grade inflated among you, turn your attention to making your student life as enjoyable as impossible. Try, for example, to maximize:

  • Your free time.
  • Your intellectual engagement.
  • Your adventures.
  • Your relationships.
  • Your time spent doing things that ten years from now you’ll never ever admit having done.
  • Your general enjoyment of life.

Here is where good studying hacking still plays an important role — even when top grades don’t require top effort. The difference between a few targeted hours of work most days, and a hectic, over-scheduled, always late, up all night work schedule, is worth more than just the grades your receive at the end of each term.

In other words: improve your study habits not just so you can score higher, but, in addition, to construct a life your happy to live.

Debunking Parkinson’s Law

June 11th, 2008 · 33 comments

Rewriting Science…The Good Professor Parkinson

The phenomenal success of Tim Ferriss’s recent book, The Four-Hour Work Week, brought to prominence a distressing trend that has been recently plaguing the self-help community: citing rough summaries of scientific principles as evidence for unrelated how-to advice.

The principle, in particular, that I’m interested in here is Parkinson’s Law. Informally, the law states:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This was the opening sentence of the humorous essay Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955. The essay went on to explain the results of a study of the British Civil Service. (Click here for an expanded version of the essay published in Parkinson’s eponymous book on the subject).

Unfortunately, as we’ll see, in modern usage the study itself has been discarded in favor of this one sentence opening — a tendency that obscures its true meaning.

The Misuse of Parkinson

Parkinson’s Law is widely cited in Ferriss’s book and in countless blog articles as evidence that when given a task, a human will fill whatever time was alloted for its completion. The conclusion: a feeling of busyness shouldn’t prevent us from reducing the time we set aside for work. In other words, they take the opening sentence from Parkinson’s essay and then interpret it literally.

The reality, however, is more complicated…

Inside the Civil Service

If you read deeper into Parkinson’s work, you soon discover that he is not making a general claim on how humans procrastinate. He is, instead, summarizing a rather rigorous statistical proof he devised to explain observations of a very specific context: the British Civil Service. Parkinson, it turns out, was intrigued by the following paradox: the number of people employed in the British Colonial Office bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire imploded — an event that decreased the amount of work available.

Parkinson’s Law is not a catch phrase, but instead a statistical model devised by Professor Parkinson to describe the factors that control the growth of bureaucracy. It’s central conclusion: growth is independent of the amount of work to be done.

Among the non-work related growth factors he identified were:

  1. The tendency of slightly overworked officials to hire pairs of subordinates to relieve the strain — the pair being necessary to prevent any one from usurping the original official’s functionality. The added work capacity here far outstrips the demand.
  2. The well-known ability of officials to create work for those below them.

Parkinson Doesn’t Care About Your To-Do List

In light of Parkinson’s full findings, the adage that “work expands to fill available time” takes on a new meaning. To Ferriss, and other how-to writers, it’s interpreted, as mentioned, to mean that individuals will procrastinate and drag out tasks to fill an arbitrary work day. To Parkinson, however, the adage was meant to highlight a truth about large bureaucratic organizations: growth can be unrelated to work.

Parkinson would be amused at best, and confused at worst, to see his conclusion applied to self-employed, blog-reading, high-tech entrepreneurial types struggling to maintain a work-life balance. It’s a worthy cause. But certainly not one that concerned the good Professor.

Finding New Relevance for Parkinson

At the risk of suffering the same sin I just urged you to avoid, I suggest, tentatively, that there is still some modern value to be mined from Parkinson’s work. When you forget the famous one sentence summary, and dive, instead, into the guts of his study, the following more profound conclusion shakes loose:

Well-established work cultures can harbor irrational behavior. Beware!

In the civil service, this meant employee growth can occur even as work demands decrease. For a college student, on the other hand, this could refer to the irrational belief that physical suffering — in the form of all-nighters and long study marathons — is the key metric for proper test preparation and paper writing.

This isn’t logical. As Study Hacks readers know, a little pre-planning and some efficient review techniques can eliminate the need for such suffering all together. But a strong work culture — as Parkinson observed — can exert surprising strength on your behavior.


To conclude, be wary of any writer, myself included, who uses a brief high-level summary of some scientific principle as justification for any manner of unrelated ideas. What lurks beneath the fortune-cookie headline invariably provides richer insight.

I Want To Hear Your Story…

June 10th, 2008 · One comment

[Update: I wasn’t clear about this in the original post, but I am excited to hear about not just college experiences, but also high school and graduate school experiences. Just shoot me an e-mail if you have something interesting to share…]

Experience-Based Advice

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big believer in experience-based advice giving. This philosophy maintains that most advice devised in an experiential vacuum — constructed only to sound cool — fails to provide much utility to real people. To counter this, I try with this blog, and through other avenues, to keep in constant contact with real students, their issues, and, most importantly, their attempts to solves those issues.

Are You a Zen Valedictorian? Tell Me About Yourself…

With this in mind, I want to hear from you. Specifically, I am looking to chat with students who have integrated parts of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy into their life. I want to learn more about the realities of this approach to the college experience.

For example, do you…

  • Have a more relaxed and happy student life than many of your friends, but do just as well (or better) academically?
  • Have a story about radically simplifying your life and reaping benefits?
  • Have some activity your involved with that’s really innovative and interesting?
  • Have a unique take on student life? The meaning of life? Or how to be happy?
  • Have a “conversion tale” to tell? For example, realizing that a million club memberships isn’t helpful or that a lot of the work your friends do is just because they feel that’s how students are supposed to behave.

If any of this applies to you, please e-mail me. I want to hear more about your experiences and thoughts on college life.

Monday Master Class: How to Accomplish Big Things This Summer Using the 3×3 Method

June 9th, 2008 · 6 comments

Summer ArrivesSummer Sun

I returned yesterday from the dry, mid-70s weather of Provence, to be greeted by the hazy humidity of a Boston heatwave. As I sat shirtless in my dark apartment (lights are hot!), a box fan blowing at full intensity, the message couldn’t be clearer: summer has arrived!

For students like us, summer is a great time. Mainly because the intensity level of our lives plummets. For those of you taking courses, the vibe is more relaxed than the normal school year. For those who are working, the general wonderfulness of being able to be done — no late night reading, no looming exam deadlines — every day, at 5 sharp, is probably still sinking in. For those lounging on your parent’s couch: we’re insanely jealous.

Time to Get Some Things Done

To me, the best part of this slower pace of life is that it provides the time needed to make big progress on big projects. I’ve written many times before on how to keep your attention focused on a small number of projects to ensure consistent progress, but summertime projects are fundamentally different. Life becomes so simple, that many of the mechanisms described in these past articles — mechanisms invented to handle the chaos of life during the school year — are rendered unnecessary.

In this post, I describe a simple technique, dubbed the 3×3 Method, that I deploy only during this season, to make sure that I don’t just get things done, but, instead, accomplish the crap out of really big things.

The 3×3 Method

This method can be summarized as follows:

Finish three big projects during each of the three months of summer.

My preferred implementation is deliciously low-tech. At the beginning of each month of summer: I print out a document that lists three project names, and, for each, a quick description of the completion criteria. I print this document then hang it on the bookshelf next to my desk at my office at MIT. This ensures that I see it every day.

Notice the following:

  • There are no complicated rules for what work I do on what days and when.
  • The autopilot schedule of the regular school year has been deactivated and replaced with something much more bare bones, covering only the essentials, like blog posts.
  • Though I still capture to-do’s in my gmail based GTD system, I am much more lazy in reviewing those next action lists. I don’t want to get too caught up in minutia.

Living the 3×3 Method

When faced with a small number of projects and a lot of time, your mind turns out to be a fantastic scheduler. For example, I tend to fall into a rhythm where I alternate, day by day, between two of the projects. Once the first of the two projects finishes I substitute the third into the rotation. I sometimes will go 3 or 4 days in a row focusing on the same project when I’m near completion and want to get it done.

What’s important is that these rules don’t need a fixed, complicated work schedule. Your daily work habits will vary depending on your projects and your mood. As long as you maintain the general rule that all three projects need to be completed by the end of the month, the rest has a way of working itself out.

Choosing the Projects

There is a bit of an art to choosing appropriately sized projects. If they’re too small, you won’t get enough done. If they’re too large, you’ll be frustrated by lack of completion. Chop up things into a size that you think, with relatively consistent effort, will allow three things to be easily completed among your other summer obligations.

I also tend to vary the size of the projects, with some of the three being larger than others. I’m not sure why. The variety just seems to make work easier.

For example, on my list for June (which is starting 10 days late due to my vacation), I have the following three projects:

  • A specific chunk of my dissertation. I had to draw an arbitrary line in the sand and decide which collection of chapters seemed reasonable to complete in 20 days.
  • The final draft of a long-form profile I’m writing for Flak Magazine. I’ve been interviewing the subject since February; time to get this done.
  • The annotated table of contents for a new writing project. I can’t talk about it yet, but you will know more, I promise, by the end of the summer.


Why three projects? I don’t know. That’s just what has always worked for me. Any less, and the projects tend to get too large, which causes my motivation to falter, which, in turn, causes me to not finish things. More than three, on the other hand, and I destabilize the relaxed vibe I like to ride during the summer months.

By all means: experiment. If, for example, you have one big thing you’ve been eager to conquer, then make this the 1×3 method. Or, if you have some crazy bucket list burning a hole in the pocket, do more. The ultimate observation behind 3×3 is to take advantage of the simple summer lifestyle to simply get some major things done.