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

On the Beauty of Doing Less

July 30th, 2008 · 12 comments

A Fable of OverachievementRelaxed Students

I received an interesting e-mail yesterday from a rising sophomore at a top 10 university. He described his high school years, modestly, as “pretty busy,” noting that he was, among other things, a magazine editor, president of the National Honors Society, a nationally ranked debater, and the recipient of a 2300+ score on the SAT — the standard snapshot of a student who gets into a top school. (Remember, of course, that just because it’s standard, doesn’t mean that it’s the only way.)

What makes the story worth telling is that this particular student was one of those lucky few who are born with both the talent and, more importantly, the organization gene that allows him to pull this off without much stress. As he puts it: “My social life was fine; I wasn’t a socialite, but I still had amazing friends.”

Not surprisingly, when this student arrived at college he picked up where he had left off, signing up for activity after activity, like a drowning man gasping for air. He even admits picking up my books at a Borders and thinking: “great, now I can get even more done.”

Then something changed.

Unlike the other case studies you’ve heard here before, this student didn’t have a breakdown; there was no moment of defeat in which it all became too much. His conversion was much more personal; not driven by problems in his current life, but a sudden desire for a new one. I like the way he describes it, so I’ll defer to his words:

[I came to] realize this summer: more isn’t necessarily better—even if you can do it. There is a beauty in doing little, doing it well, and choosing the few things that mean a lot to you. Less clutter in your life helps you focus. There’s more time for reflection and self-development—things that are more important than being an editor for a magazine. There’s also more time for spontaneity.

[Busy] students (like me last year) need a reminder about what college is for. They come in with the same high-school mentality and that outstanding-resume momentum. Rather, college is for personal development. It’s for pursing what you want, or at least learning what that is and for understanding and becoming who you are.

A bold sentiment lurks in these words. Here is a student who was an effortless overachiever. He changed not to solve a problem but instead to answer that big hairy metaphysical question that lingers in the shadows during our craziest moments: what’s the point of life if you’re not going to live it?

I’ve spent months detailing why doing less does not mean you have to become less impressive (see, basically, every article here). But this student offers a fresh take on the conversation. He doesn’t care about impressiveness (though he’ll certainly still exude it). He cares about living a life worth living.

What would happen if, like this student, you put aside your 10-year plan and ignored that insistent drive to constantly be proving to some non-existent audience that you are worthy of their respect. What if, instead, you built a student life around beauty — the simple beauty of a person who actively enjoys his place in the world.

Do you really think this would scuttle your shot at success or happiness in your future? And if it did cut off some options, would the trade be worth it? There’s no right answer here. But it’s certainly an interesting meditation for a lazy summer morning.

(Photo by adatcio)

A Forbes.Com Reporter is Looking for Students to Interview

July 28th, 2008 · Be the first to comment

Looking for a Few Good Sources

A reporter I know at is writing an article on college students, stress, and the importance of having a life outside of classes and activities.

She’s looking for the following two types of students to interview:

  1. Students who are so busy that they don’t have much time left for relaxation or a social life.
  2. Students who used to be too busy but have since reformed their behavior.

As you know, I think these issues are really important, as evidenced by my frequent articles on the topic. If you’re interested in being interviewed by this reporter please contact me and I’ll pass along your information.

I highly recommend it. Not only is it cool to be in a magazine, but you’ll also be helping to spread awareness about these issues.


Monday Master Class: Conquer Cramming with the Same Day Rule

July 28th, 2008 · 8 comments

Bad Problem, Worse MetaphorStudent Studys

Are you a procrastinator? Not necessarily a psychologically-scarred, can’t start work if your life depended on it because you resent your major and are crushed by the weight of your parent’s expectations-style deep procratinator, but instead someone who tends to wait just a little bit too long to get started on big assignments? The type that ends up getting your ass kicked by built-up work at the end of every term?

Many students are in your same boat.

Today, I want to give you a simple rule that will turn your academic rudder and point this boat back towards shore. Where the shore, in this instance, represents the promised land of not procrastinating, and my introduction represents how to construct a terrible, strained metaphor.

A Common Scenario

Here’s the scenario. It’s October 5th, the semester is young, you’re in your art history class marveling at how much better dressed everyone in the room is than you (something about art history students always make me feel, by comparison, like I was dressed by a rabid pack of color-blind monkeys). The professor hands out a sheet describing your big scary original research paper due at the end of the semester.

Your instinct is to immediately lose the sheet and then forget about the big scary original research paper until a few weeks before it’s due. At this point you’ll start diligently adding it to the very top of your to-do list, perhaps accented by several stars for emphasis, and then promptly do nothing. Finally, with a week to go, panic kicks in and you’ll dash together the type of sloppy of paper that makes professors sigh loudly then reach for that bottle hidden in their bottom desk drawer.

I want you to resist this urge. I want you to instead do do something so stunning, so unexpected, that it may take a moment for you to regain your senses: I want you to get started on the assignment the same day it’s assigned.

Allow me to explain…

The Same Day Rule

This rule is one of the most effective procrastination defusers I’ve yet to encounter. It’s formalized as follows:

For every medium to large size assignment, do some work toward its completion the same day that it’s assigned.

It should be serious work; at least a half-hour. But it certainly doesn’t have to eat up your whole evening. The logic here is simple. Big assignments scare us so we resist starting. As we all know, once you get started, the scariness diminishes and it’s easier to make progress. The same day rule takes advantage of this reality and pushes it to its extreme.

A few implementation tips:

  • You can adjust the rule to require that you get started within a week. For example, I used to leave my Saturdays free from regular work like reading assignments and problem sets. When given a major project, I would, at first, use some time on Saturday to start making progress. There was something nice about it being the only task for the day (other than killing a hangover.)
  • The best first steps involve planning. You can’t, of course, start writing a research paper the day its assigned. You can, however, gather some books or sketch out the type of sources you need to make progress.
  • The best first steps end with the identification of the second step. If you want to reap the full benefit of this rule, make sure you end your first small piece of work having clearly identified the next small piece of work. At this point, the big scary project has been reduced to a tiny little next action that you’re happy to act upon.


It’s a simple piece of advice. But one I still use. Not only does it take away the fear of large assignments, but there’s something about starting so early that gives you a little jolt of self-satisfaction. Like some sort of academic junkie, you’ll begin to crave this jolt, and might just find yourself cured of your procrastination habit altogether. At very least, your shiny ‘A’ might impress all those well-dressed bastards who think they’re so much cooler than you.

(Photo by xb3)

Is Low Stress Med School Admissions Possible?

July 24th, 2008 · 27 comments

Note to Readers: I’m hitting the road this afternoon for a four-day trip. Because of this, I’m posting Friday’s article one day early so that you’ll get a full three pieces this week. Please excuse me if I’m slow to moderate comments or answer e-mails in the near future, my computer access will be limited. Enjoy your weekend!

Med School Mania

Crazy Medical StudentStudents looking to medical school are often some of the most overworked, overstressed students on campus. It has become accepted wisdom that going pre-med is one of the toughest academic paths you can follow.

But does it have to be this way?

Over the past few months, I’ve heard from a variety of students who have recently gone through the med school admissions process. I also had the privilege of talking with someone who could offer an insider view of how the admissions decisions are made at an elite medical institution (which will remain nameless). In this article, I have two goals. First, I want to draw from these conversations to identify the factors that really matter for med school admissions. Second, I want to discuss how to design a low stress schedule that still maximizes these key areas.

Following the standard Study Hacks approach, my goal is not to offer hidden shortcuts, but, instead, to help you eliminate the waste and inefficiency that makes what could be a reasonable journey unnecessarily hard.

What Matters for Med School

To the best of my understanding, the following factors are what matter for a med school admissions decision:

  1. Where you went to school.
  2. Your G.P.A.
  3. Your MCAT score.
  4. Evidence that you have a real interest in medicine and a good understanding of what the lifestyle entails.

That’s it. Keep this in mind: med school is not college. The admission decisions do not come down to who has the more extravagant (and punishing) collection of extracurricular activities and the hardest possible combination of majors. For most schools, if you have high grades and MCATs, and a solid collection of relevant activities, you’ll get in. A big goal of this article will be to free you from the degenerate mindset that if you’re not suffering on your way toward med school then you’re doing something wrong.

How to Accomplish these Goal with a Minimum of Stress

The happiest med-school bound students I’ve met, have followed, more or less, the following advice:

  1. Major in whatever you want. Just make sure you also take the required pre-med courses.
  2. Spread out your pre-med courses to avoid killer terms.
  3. Don’t participate in any time-consuming extracurricular activities during the school year. Just do light things that you find fun and that relax you without eating up your time. (Worry not, we’ll return to when you can do extracurriculars in points 6 and 7.)
  4. Make your courses your main focus. If you find yourself working late the night before exams, you have too much on your plate. Cut back on activities and spread out hard courses more to keep your schedules more manageable.
  5. Definitely do not double-major in biology or chemistry and something else hard. This will make avoiding killer semesters almost impossible. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to avoid majoring in biology or chemistry all together. For someone who is not naturally drawn to these subjects, taking the required pre-med courses is easier than taking the required pre-med courses plus all the other courses needed for those particular majors. A lot of pre-med types feel like they are so supposed to have punishing course loads. This is not true. Go out of your way to avoid it.
  6. Every summer, focus on something that exposes you to the real world practice of medicine. This is perhaps the most important point underpinning this low-stress philosophy: isolate med school related extracurriculars to the summers. The resulting stress reduction is intense without reducing your impressiveness.
  7. If you’re competing for spots in the best possible med schools — those in which all applicants have top GPA’s and MCATs, here’s the secret to making your extracurricular pop: organize your own program. Often this entails taking an experience from earlier summers than adapting it somewhere new. For example, perhaps you intern at a clinic one summer, then the next summer you organize a similar internship program at a different clinic. Another insider tip: consider a senior thesis on a topic involving community-level health issues. This provides the rationale — and makes it easier to find student funds — to launch a pilot program or gather firsthand experience. Under no circumstances, however, should you try to pile up a large quantity of vaguely related extracurriculars during your school year. I know this is your instinct. I know this is what you think got you into college. But med school is not college! Such an approach will saturate your schedule in stress, and it still won’t provide more impact four summers of focused, medicine-related, self-initiated work.
  8. Start studying for the MCAT very early. Get to the point that you can score high without breaking a sweat. These are really important. Much more so then the things that cause pre-meds the most stress (i.e., too many majors, too hard course loads, too many unnecessary extracurriculars.) Take advantage of this reality by putting your focus here, where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.

Why This Works

This approach generates what has been identified to me as the ideal med school applicant: someone with high grades, high MCAT scores, and a solid collection of relevant medical activities. The key, however, is that you can accomplish these goals without having to have your semesters overflow with multiple hard courses and demanding activities. Or so I hypothesize…

As usual, I conclude by turning things over to you guys — the real experts. What are your insider tips for finding a relaxed path into med school?

(photo by Okky Pyykko)

Dangerous Ideas: College Extracurriculars Are Meaningless

July 23rd, 2008 · 44 comments


Microsoft Doesn’t Care About ClubsThe Jacko

In college, I spent a lot of time writing. I started as a humor columnist for the student newspaper and a staff writer for the campus humor magazine – the venerable Dartmouth Jack’O Lantern, whose previous staff members include Dr. Seuss (Dartmouth class of ’25). I eventually worked myself up to become editor-in-chief.

My senior year, a few months after reaching the apex of college humor writing career, I interviewed for a competitive project manager position at Microsoft. After surviving the resume screen and two rounds of interviews at Dartmouth, I was flown out to Redmond, where I went through six more rounds of interviewing.

Guess how many times my impressive, time-consuming extracurricular activity was discussed?

Zero times.

I didn’t mind, because I didn’t expect it to be mentioned. I had worked on the Jacko because, from an early age, I had an unhealthy obsession with the tradition of Ivy League humor magazines. I wrote for the Jacko because I loved it. It had no effect on my job hunting.

A Dangerous Idea

This article proposes a dangerous idea: Outside of a few exceptions, college extracurriculars are of minor importance to your efforts to find a job after graduation. There is no benefit to be gained by suffering through an overwhelming load of activities at the college level.

Below, I briefly explain, to the best of my understanding, the role activities play in the job hunting process. I’ll then cover graduate and professional school admissions, and conclude with a recommendation for how to better integrate extracurriculars into your college life.

How to Get Hired

For many jobs, the hiring process proceeds as follows:

  1. Your grades, where you went to school, and to a lesser extent, your major, are used to decide whether or not you’re someone they might want to hire.
  2. If you pass the above screen, you’ll be interviewed. If the job is in finance, consulting, or is at a famous tech firm like Microsoft or Google, there will be a formal series of interviews to test your ability to think on your feet. If it’s a smaller firm, the interview will be more informal. The goal is to see if you can express yourself well, seem like a good person, understand their business, and, in general, are not a jerk.
  3. A hiring decision is made.

What role do activities play in the above? A minor one.

As mentioned in my story, the mega-firms don’t care. They’ll rely on their own battery of brutal interrogations to test your mettle. For other companies, your activities, at best, add a little bit of personality color. It’s nice, but not nearly as important as your grades, where you went to school, and your interview performance.

For example, it helps to have done something outside of classes, as the absence of any activities will make you seem boring and anti-social. It might also give you a bit of a boost to have a leadership role in a club, because this shows that you can manage people. Google, I’ve heard, likes people who did something quirky, because they think this makes their workplace more innovative.

But there are minor nudges: like having a good handshake, or making good small talk at the beginning of an interview. The key point is that having a huge slate of demanding activities — unlike, for example, when applying to college — does not make this nudge stronger.

(Certainly, there are some exceptions. If you want to be a journalist, it matters that you work yourself up to an editorial position in your campus paper. This is tough. Similarly, if you’re at Harvard, and want to write for The Simpsons, put your focus on the Lampoon. But I’ll assume if you’re going for one of these types of jobs you already know what you need to do.)

Other Factors that Count

Other factors, of course, are also important to get hired. Many industries like to see relevant work experience. If you want to be a banker, for example, it’s important that you try to intern in the field during your summer breaks. Similarly, if you want to work in development, intern at your college’s development office.

And to be honest, a large number of you will likely find your first job either through a personal connection or a previous internship with the company. Again, your activities don’t enter the equation.

Graduate and Professional Schools

What about graduate school? As we’ve discussed before, all that matters for graduate school is that you did research. The professors who make the decisions don’t care about non-research related activities. I was at MIT for a year before my advisor figured out I had written a book.

For medical school, you do need to prove that you know what medicine is really about, and you are not just applying because your mom likes the idea of a doctor in the family. This means some sort of involvement in medicine-related fields — be it research, internships, or volunteering. Many applicants do this during their summers.

For law school, it’s all about having high enough grades and LSAT scores.

The Implications

Remember this mantra: college is not high school. There are no admissions officers in your future who are going to pour over your extracurricular activities and come up with a subjective score that will determine whether or not you get to move on to the next stage. What you do outside of your classes will play only a minor role in landing a job after graduation. And doing lots of hard things will probably not add an appreciable advantage over doing one or two things you really liked.

My advice:

  1. Join a small number of activities that interest you and that surround you with interesting people.
  2. Don’t do a large number of activities.
  3. If you ever feel stressed or overwhelmed by extracurricular obligations: cut back! Their is no reason for activities to cause you hardship. Their main purpose is a source of happiness for you.

This lesson is tough for some to swallow. The lingering impact of the college admissions process is hard to shake. But you must. It’s okay not to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to actually have free time. It’s okay to simplify and try a life that’s a little more zen. Your future bosses simply don’t care about that extra volunteer gig you are trying to squeeze into your schedule. So let it go. Make your extracurriculars, as tough as this may be, about you — not some vague plan for what you want to achieve down the road.

I’m interested in your thoughts? Are you a college student that feels overwhelmed with activities? If so, why do you think you are doing so much?

Monday Master Class: How to Start Down the Long Road from Chaos to Efficiency

July 21st, 2008 · 11 comments

Restarting is Hard to DoTired Student

Something that surprised me last fall, when I began to work more closely with individual students on productivity issues, was the difficulty of transitioning from chaos to control. It’s one thing to learn the type of systems used by the most efficient students, it’s quite another thing, however, to put these systems into practice. More often than not, my experience has been: the more productivity habits you start at the same time the higher the probability that you’ll abandon them all. It just becomes too overwhelming.

In this post, I want to talk about getting started from scratch. How to ease into that transition from a chaotic student lifestyle to relaxed efficiency; making changes that will stick…

Getting Started on the Road to Efficiency

Below I have described five small habits. If you’re new to student productivity, I would recommend that you stick to these five, and only these five, until at least midterms of the first semester in which you deploy them. If all goes fine, then you can consider adding some of the more advanced techniques discussed on this blog and elsewhere. (For a good example, read this article, which describes the collection of systems and habits I use regularly as a student).

From my experience, these changes are easy enough — and have a big enough positive impact — that they shouldn’t overwhelm your self-discipline. Once you get used to having some control you’ll be able to start moving toward mastery. Remember: start small. Keep improving…

  1. Setup a Google Calendar.
    Keep your appointments, classes, office hours, meetings, and deadlines on Google calendar. The advantage of a web-based calendar, of course, is that you can check it from any computer on campus. The specific advantage of Google’s offering is the quick add feature, which lets you quickly type in new appointments in natural language (i.e., “midterm next Thursday” or “econ group meeting Friday from 1 to 3”). This is easy enough that you’ll actually probably keep the calendar up to speed. Especially if you use the browser plug-in version of the feature; keeping calendar updates just a few keystrokes away.
  2. Choose your courses carefully.
    For your first term as a new and improved student, you need to avoid a killer schedule. Mix class types. Don’t have too many science courses or too many writing-heavy courses scheduled all at once. Don’t be afraid to schedule in a course that seems interesting but may have a reputation as being, well, not too hard. You need to practice having control over your workload, and this means starting with a load that’s easier to control.
  3. Take an activity vacation.
    This piece of advice, first spelled out in this article, is tough for some to stomach. But I recommend it highly. Take a break from your extracurriculars. As I mentioned in the original article, this is college, not the Olympics, no one is going to fault you if you say “I need to take a semester break to refocus on my grades.” Your various club memberships and volunteer gigs will be waiting for you when you return. As with the last piece of advice, you need breathing room to start getting comfortable with being an efficient, organized student. Killing your activities — for just a semester — gives you the space needed to get comfortable with being in control.
  4. Insist on a study plan for every problem set, test, and paper.
    When you’re first starting your student overhaul, it’s overwhelming to deploy too many complicated study rules; especially if they all demand stringent behavior controls. You need some flexibility in the earlier stages; some time to help you get used to having a plan and discovering what type of things work best for you. To accommodate this reality, follow this simple advice: have some plan for everything major assignment. For now, I don’t care what the plan says. Just have something, decided in advanced. that spells out, roughly, how you are going to complete the assignment (i.e., what specific actions…you’re not allowed to used ambiguous terms like “study”), and how you’re going to break up the work.
  5. Establish a Sunday Ritual.
    I covered this advice in both a previous post and in How to Win at College. There’s a reason it keeps coming up: it’s simple yet yields tremendous results. The basic idea of the ritual is to transition from the debauchery of Friday and Saturday into the new workweek. I recommend it consists of the following: (1) eat a big breakfast, read something interesting, drink (lots) of coffee, and clear your head; (2) get your calendar and task lists up to speed, integrate in the loose stuff that gathered in the week; (3) go to the most deserted library on campus, and spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon working; and (4) conclude by setting up a schedule for Monday. You can vary this as you see fit, so long as you retain the basic structure of clearing your head, fleeing civilization, and getting stuff done.

Baby Steps

These initial changes omit most of the super-detailed strategy we love to dissect here on Study Hacks. Notice, there is no complicated time management system or advanced scheduling tactics or complicated note-taking formats. These are all tools that will eventually enter your student arsenal. But if you’re new to efficiency, resist their allure for now. Get used to having a basic plan, and knowing your schedule, and clearing your head on weekends. Do this during a semester with a light course load and no activities. Experience the rush of being in control of your obligations. Once you’ve scored that high, you’ll never want to lose it again.

Then you can move on to the fun stuff…

(Photo courtesy of the contented)

5 Articles That Will Change The Way You Think About Personal Productivity

July 18th, 2008 · 12 comments

Re-Thinking ProductivityThe Thinker

There’s nothing more satisfying when reading than that magic moment when something flips a switch deep within the neuronal recesses of your brain, and completely transforms your world view. I wanted to share with you a collection of productivity-related articles that, for me, generated this feeling. They have helped challenge my own beliefs about what it means to be “productive.” Indeed, you’ve likely seen their influence ricocheting throughout many of the recent posts here on Study Hacks. These are the the type of articles that keep me excited to check my RSS feed in the morning.

I hope they have the same effect on you…

#1. The Alternative Productivity Manifesto

This attention-catching tirade on the counter-cultural The Growing Life blog, is motivated by a simple question: if our productivity has doubled since WWII, why aren’t we working 20-hour weeks?

This article is one of the first I’ve seen to note that many of the most popular productivity gurus — ahem, Mr. Allen — are not working in the interest of the people; their goal, instead, is to help companies squeeze as much work as possible out of us poor worker drones.

#2. Rethinking Life Hacks

Writing with the trademark tone of academic sophistication that separates the Academic Productivity blog from so many others, Jose investigates a damning question: when it comes to productivity advice, where’s the evidence?

Of particular juicy goodness, is his list of some of the top internet productivity gurus — Steve Pavlina, David Allen, etc — annotated with what, exactly, these people have achieved to justify their guru status. The result, as you might imagine, is not too kind to the gurus. Like any good academic, Jose concludes with some suggestions for a more systematic approach validating life hacks.

#3. The Planning Fallacy

The always thought-provoking Eliezer Yudkowsky, in a guest post on the I Will Teach You to Be Rich blog, describes a common cognitive shortcoming: we are terrible at planning. Again and again, research has revealed that our attempts to estimate how long things will take are really no different than our prediction of the best case scenario. In other words, we are hopelessly optimistic.

Understanding this ingrained flaw can transform the way you think about project planning, leading you to take on less and schedule more time for completion.

#4. How to Act Productive

The mysterious grad hacker lampoons hyper-stress work cultures in this hilarious, and often biting, 12-part satiric series. Each entry, from #8 Skip Meals to #2 Talk About How Much You Haven’t Slept, helps pick away at the shell of social convention that conceals our worst work instincts. It also draws attention to just how much of the stress and unhappiness in our work lives (especially student work lives) is invented; a show we put on to prove to others that we belong where we are.

The series is a must-read for anyone who: (a) owns a blackberry; (b) uses the phrase “how you holding up” as a standard greeting; or (c) thinks productivity advice is for other people, you know, those with much easier jobs.

#5. The Only Guide to Happiness You’ll Ever Need

The incredible success of Leo’s Zen Habits blog baffles many people. On the surface, he peddles the same life hacking-style advice as countless others, and his format, including inspirational quotes, long tip lists, and, of course, the ubiquitous pictures of generic people jumping or watching sunsets, reeks of cliche. But something about Leo stands him above the crowd.

At its core, Zen Habits tells the story of a real man, living on an isolated island with six kids and real problems, struggling — and more often than not, succeeding — to construct a life that is engaging, but also happy and, above all, peaceful. We see us in him, and his experiences give us hope.

This recent article is an example of Leo at his best. He summarizes the core components to living a good life. Though simple, this advice resonates strongly. Something about it just seems right. It sweeps away the gunk that builds up when you spend too much time down in the proverbial dirt of the life hacking world, trying to figure out how to make the little things slightly better, and provides, instead, a big picture target. If you set down a path to satisfying the advice given here, the rest seems like it will all just click into place.

Bonus Post: How the World’s Most Famous Computer Scientist Checks E-mail Only Once Every Three Months

July 17th, 2008 · 40 comments

E-mail Zero ReduxDonald Knuth

Two weeks ago, I introduced E-mail Zero, the concept of living life with no e-mail. The motivation was to investigate innovative ways to combat the stress and lack of focus caused by living in your inbox. My case study was MIT professor Alan Lightman, who though very busy and important, communicates solely by phone, mail, and in-person meetings.

Thanks to Mike Brown, over at the BrownStudies blog, I’ve found another fascinating E-mail Zero case study to share. I’m talking about Stanford Professor Donald Knuth, arguably the world’s most important living computer science personality (my advisor, no small shakes herself, recently won the “Knuth Prize,” a major honor). Professor Knuth is perhaps best known for his famed series: The Art of Computer Programming (named by American Scientist as one of the best twelve physical-science monographs of the century.)

On his official Stanford web site, Professor Knuth notes:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

He continues with a rationale for his decision:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

The argument here is obvious. But still, nonetheless, powerful. For some jobs, e-mail hinders your ability to perform at your peak. In such situations, it would seem, as Professor Knuth has concluded, you might have an professional obligation to stop using highly distracting electronic communication.

But wait! The good professor is the author of famous textbooks, and he is famously diligent about tracking down bugs (he rewards any reported bug with $2.56 — one hexadecimal dollar). He also plays a major role in the computer science community and is constantly, I imagine, in contact with all sorts of famous people and powerful academics and members of the media. He has to stay in touch with tons of people all the time!

No worries. He’s got that covered:

On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode — like, one day every three months. So if you want to write to me about any topic, please use good ol’ snail mail and send a letter to the following address…

But wait again! What if someone requires an urgent response? Again, he’s a step ahead:

I have a wonderful secretary who looks at the incoming mail and separates out anything that she knows I’ve been looking forward to seeing urgently. Everything else goes into a buffer storage area, which I empty periodically.

Okay, but what about us poor computer science students, with a textbook bug to report. We’re not going to take the time to buy stamps and envelopes — which none of us own. Once again, Professor Knuth has us covered:

My secretary prints out all messages addressed to or, so that I can reply with written comments when I have a chance.

Two important things to notice here. First, these are specialty addresses. “taocp” is an abbreviation for his book, and “knuth-bug” is specifically for reporting mistakes in his book. Therefore, these e-mail addresses — which get printed and added to his snail mail pile — can be used only to ask a question about his book or report a bug. Anything else — as he clearly goes on to state — is discarded.

Knuth’s Two E-mail Lessons

Professor Knuth offers two important insights for our E-mail Zero discussion:

  1. Some jobs are performed better without e-mail.
    Professor Knuth is quite insightful to notice that for some jobs — such as those that require long periods of concentration — on the whole, e-mail can do more damage than good. Sure, it’s convenient for some things, but it scuttles your primary professional purpose. When contemplating the E-mail Zero lifestyle, ask yourself the following two questions: What do I do that makes me most valuable? Would e-mail make me better or worse at this primary role? A simple idea. But as mentioned, powerful in its implications.
  2. E-mail can be processed like snail mail.
    Professor Knuth was savvy to realize that certain groups he wanted to hear from — i.e., young people finding bugs in his books — would probably only communicate via e-mail. Having the messages printed and added to a snail mail inbox is a great way to keep these avenues alive without the distraction of a checkable electronic inbox. Of course, most of us don’t have a secretary to handle this printing. But I imagine that this is a perfect place for a part-time, out-sourced virtual personal assistant (VPA). Tim Ferriss, for example, talks frequently about his VPA who manages his e-mail and forwards him the most important messages. Imagine, instead, having a VPA paid only to check your inbox once a week. He filters out the obvious spam, discards messages that match some rules you provided, and then prints, scans, and sends you a PDF of the rest. Once a week (a month? every three months?) you can print the PDFs and sort them with your snail mail. Worried about urgent communication? Have your assistant sort these out and send them in a separate PDF that you print and process every week.

I’m just thinking out loud here. But we have to give Professor Knuth credit for giving us some outstanding new insight into the different roles e-mail might play in a hyper-efficient, hyper-focused work style.

Who else do you know that does or would benefit from the E-mail Zero lifestyle?

(photo from