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

The Difference Between Experiments and Goals: How to Balance Spontaneity with the Focused Pursuit of Fame

July 16th, 2008 · 10 comments

To Start or Not to StartTarget

Three weeks ago I published a controversial post titled: Getting Started is Overrated. My basic point: If you want to become truly impressive, you have to focus on a small number of things, for a long period of time, to the exclusion of other activities. I don’t like the “just get started” approach to accomplishment because it makes exclusive focus difficult. As Steve Martin taught us, getting good enough to reap major rewards requires incredible dedication. Jumping at every project that catches your attention derails such monastic devotion. Instead, I suggested, you should resist starting — resist until you are absolutely sure that a pursuit is perfect for you. Only then will you able to give it the longterm dedication required. Anything less wastes time.

As you can read in the comments to the original article andin Ben Casnocha’s response, this post generated a lot of discussion. Some people agreed. For example, Stella said:

Great post! Having worked for a large multinational travel agency that forced the Culture of Start down my throat for many years, I have become very skeptical of the Richard Branson type of entrepreneur. Over the years, I have had many business and investment ideas that I’m so glad I never got around to

On the other hand, many others disagreed, such as Grad Hacker:

Starting is often the best form of research, and how do you develop a passion without starting something?

And Ben, who noted:

Some tasks give feedback faster if undertaken right away in a small dose as opposed to analyzing it from afar. Take Cal’s examples: If you want to become a writer, sure you can talk to writers and study the profession, but is there a better way to understand whether writing girds your loins than actually putting pen to paper?

The odd loin reference aside, we are faced here with a clear dilemma: who is right? I was struggling with a good answer — I see wisdom in both points of view — when a real gift came along; a gift delivered from my friend Scott Young, who recently posted a insightful dissection of this issue. His approach brings clarity to a confusing situation.

It goes as follows…

Separating Experiments From Goals

Scott makes the following observation:

I like to separate my pursuits into two broader categories: experiments and goals. Experiments are the activities you take with almost zero commitment… Goals are beyond the stage of experimenting. This is when you’ve had enough experience in an area that you want to accomplish something important within it.

Be careful about getting caught in the middle-zone. This is an area which is no longer an experiment, but you don’t have the focus and commitment to achieve anything meaningful. [Having] lots of activities in this middle-zone means you’re wasting a lot of energy that could be better spent achieving something important or finding new opportunities.

Right on, Scott! I think this model captures the best of both sides of the getting started debate. It’s okay to have both high-value goals — which require focus to the exclusion of other high-value goals — and small, low-commitment experiments — which require a small amount of time and are used only to explore. The real insight is to note that separation is key. The danger is letting an experiment reach a “middle-zone” in which it starts sapping time and energy away from your high-value goals but is still not producing meaningful results.

After thinking about this model for a few days, I want to add a few thoughts of my own:

  1. Make a distinction between achievements and habits. This discussion becomes clearer when we separate out our lifestyle habits, such as fitness, reading, social events, and even minor hobbies, like biking or joining a kickball team. These all fall under the category of enjoying your life. They don’t compete with your high-value goals. You can identify them by the following two features: (1) they aren’t meant to provide large rewards; (2) their primary purpose is your day to day happiness. When I say “don’t get started,” I’m not talking about these habits. Jump in and out of these as much as you like.
  2. Use experiments to explore potential new high-value goals. Unlike habits, experiments exist for the sole purpose of investigating whether a given pursuit might be worth transforming into a high-value goal. As many of you pointed out, jumping in and trying something, at a low, non-committal level, can be a good way to investigate whether or not to commit to that goal in the longterm.
  3. Keep experiments obligation-free. The easiest way to have an experiment slide into that dangerous middle-zone is to have it start generating regular time obligations. The best experiments require time only at your discretion. You can, if you want, stop at the spur of the moment or put it aside for 6 months without any negative consequences. For example: Don’t experiment with becoming a journalist by taking a demanding, 20 hour-a-week copy editor position with your college newspaper. Instead, work on submitting some unsolicited op-eds. Only once you’re ready to really commit should you jump into the time-consuming, obligation-heavy entry-level work.
  4. Stop experimenting once your goal slots are filled. This is perhaps the hardest advice for people to hear. Once you’ve settled on the 1-3 high-value goals that you want to commit to (the number depends on your situation, a student, for example, can support more high-value goals than a first-year investment banker), stop experimenting. Your attention needs to be focused on getting good at your long-term pursuits. Even though experimenting with new pursuits is more fun. You should only start experimenting again if you complete one of your high-value goals or start to really question whether you should replace one.
  5. Experimenting within the confines of a high-value goal, however, is always allowed. I must add a crucial distinction that I think caused some havoc in the discussion over at Ben’s blog. Within the confines of a given high-value goal, experimenting is good. Expose yourself to randomness. Try lots of different angles to make progress. Anyone who achieved something very impressive will probably credit at least some serendipity along the way. The key, however, is that this random moment happened — usually — after they had committed themselves to the general direction. For example, if you want to start a business, you might want to experiment, at first, with several small ideas and random networking events. This all falls under the rubric of your entrepreneur goal. Don’t, however, spend three months taking a screenwriting course. That would be an unrelated experiment.

I find this topic fascinating. But there are, as we’ve seen already, uncountable variations and issues that arise. This is, roughly, what has worked so far for me. But I’m curious: what are your thoughts on the balance between exploring and making it big?

Monday Master Class: Stop Procrastinating by Making it Easier to Procrastinate

July 14th, 2008 · 18 comments

The Student’s CurseWillpower

After spending years confronting the peculiar peccadilloes of the student set, I’ve learned that one problem, in particular, looms above the rest. I’m talking, of course, about procrastination. For many students, it’s the personification of academic troubles: “if I could only stop procrastinating on my work, I would be doing fine.”

My experience has revealed that there are two types of procrastination. The first, which I’ll call light procrastination, is the standard resistance to shutting down e-mail or turning off the TV that we all feel. I’ve posted before on hacking this issue; simple tricks, like working according to a regular schedule, starting early rather than late, and keeping yourself well-fed.

The real monster, however, is what I call deep procrastination. This is a state, reached by an alarming number of students, in which the pressure of starting at the absolute last minute becomes necessary to motivate any work. Students who suffer from deep procrastination pull frequent all-nighters and are often found begging for extensions on assignments they couldn’t bring themselves to begin before the deadline.

This is a serious problem, and I want to offer an unconventional solution — born from experience — for eliminating its worse effects.

The Roots of Deep Procrastination

The most common reason given for procrastination: work sucks. You assume you delay because the chore itself is brutal. But is this true?

Think back to the last assignment that you put off until the minute. Now imagine during the upcoming fall semester you have no courses to take. Your professor says he believes in your talent and that he wants you to complete this one assignment at your own pace.

For most students, the work would be rather enjoyable. Be it a research paper or a big chunk of reading, there is something very satisfying about mastering material over time. It makes you feel competent (one of our three basic psychological needs), and most people, when not under incredible pressure, actually enjoy learning new things.

The reason, then, that some students suffer from deep procrastination: their schedule as a whole is too demanding. Put simply, there is too much work and not enough time. Night after night they forced into a situation where they have to work, probably late, and this sucks. After a while a resentment grows toward their schoolwork — it is making their life miserable. And once they resent the work — and get none of the joys of competency and learning and mastery that classes could provide — their mind starts doing whatever it can to avoid getting started.

Curing Deep Procrastination

So what works? Stricter schedules and more intense productivity rules won’t cut it. The problem is not disorganization, it is, instead, a deep-seated antipathy to student work in general. If you want to cure deep procrastination you have to remove the source of resentment. And this means doing less; much less.

Student’s who shift to schedules with much more free time find themselves handling their workload without pain. Without the pain, they don’t grow to resent their schedules. And without the resentment, no deep procrastination will arise.

This is somewhat unexpected, as making your schedule lighter makes it easier to procrastinate in the sense that you can get away with more last minute heroics. However, for most students, the opposite occurs. The light schedule takes away their fatigue, and a true interest in their work blossoms again. Guess what? When you’re interested in your work, it’s not that hard to get started…sometimes even real early.

Are You a Deep Procrastinator?

If your procrastination has gotten to the point where your grades are starting to suffer, or you’re frequently working into the twilight hours to make deadlines at the last minute, seriously consider why this is happening, then ask yourself what you might gain by rebuilding a happy relationship with your schoolwork.

Here are a few past articles to help you get started:

  • The Zen Valedictorian
    Take a look at law #1 (underschedule) for a discussion of how and why to keep your schedule light.
  • The Radical Simplicity Manifesto
    No-nonsense advice for achieving an underscheduled lifestyle. It’s based on the Rule of One: one major, one course load, and one extracurricular.
  • How to Be Happy
    If you understand the science behind your happiness, you’ll be more likely to take you course load seriously.

How to Ace the SAT: A No-Nonsense System for Students Looking to Score High

July 11th, 2008 · 43 comments

The SAT Season LoomsSATs

Over the past two weeks I’ve received three different e-mails asking for advice about SAT prep. I assume, therefore, that we’ve entered a season during which many high school students have begun to look ahead to this most dreaded of the standardized test family.

In this post, I want to summarize the system I typically recommend for high-performance SAT preparation. This advice is motivated by three sources: (1) my own experience preparing for the SAT (which I took only once and did pretty well on); (2) the results of a survey I conducted last fall about test prep habits that worked; and (3) observations I made about how a group of my college friends prepared for the LSATs (all three got into Harvard Law School, so they must have done something right.)

The Practice Test Tsunami

My system for SAT preparation works as follows:

  1. Skim the Princeton Review Book. I find some of its advice to be simplistic (for example, all that nonsense about Joe Bloggs), but it also offers some concrete strategies for tackling the main question types. In particular, their methods for dealing with ratio problems on the math section, and analogies on the verbal section, are fast and work well. Learn these. They make a difference.
  2. During a 5 – 10 week period leading up to the test, take 2 timed practice tests per week. Do one of the tests in one sitting (with breaks calibrated to match the real SAT.) I recommend setting aside a weekend morning each week for this beast. I also recommend the public library as a better location than your noisy house. The other timed test you can be split up. For example, tackle a timed math section one day and a timed verbal section another. Spread these out. If you attempt too much review, you’ll burn out and stop working all together. Similarly, if you don’t take the timed test seriously — and really concentrate — they don’t help nearly as much. So set aside serious time for serious concentration.
  3. Go back and review every single wrong answer. Taking the timed tests will get you used to working under pressure. To further improve your performance, however, it’s crucial that after each timed session you review every single question you got wrong; determine why you got it wrong and why the right answer is right. This post-mortem is by the far the most effective tactic for improving your ability to consistently nail the harder questions.
    (Bonus Tip: A reader wrote me this morning to reveal a twist to the wrong question review process. She recorded her wrong answers on note cards, and then did a quiz-and-recall review. As she took more practice tests, her pile of hard question note cards increased. Each day, she did a fresh Q-and-R on her trouble spots. The result? She claims that it quickly revealed patterns that immediately improved her performance. Her math score — where she was having the most trouble — bounced up 150 points in one week!)

If you find this workload too brutal, start earlier and spread it out more. For example, there would be nothing wrong with starting review now for the October test date. You can do only one timed test per week, and take some weeks off. Don’t make the mistake of equating pain with quality review. The two are unrelated.

But What About…

A few final notes. In my (unverified) opinion, this technique works better than the Princeton Review prep courses. The students who benefit from the prep courses do so because it forces them to take timed sample tests. If you can do practice tests on your own (and follow-through on the resulting post-mortems), you won’t gain anything new from the formal courses.

Second, I’m not a huge believer in memorizing vocabulary lists. The only way to hit the 700 range or above on the verbal section is to read, a lot. If you’re younger, start reading as much real books as possible. (Like many high-scorers on the verbal section I begun reading adult fiction and non-fiction early.) Memorizing words might boost a not high score to slightly less not high, so if that’s you, then, I guess, you can memorize if you want. On the other hand, if you’re a bookworm, you’ll probably find that with practice your scores get where you need them to be without memorization.

Whatever you do, however, don’t buy those stupid fake novels with SAT prep words bolded. They’re a waste of print and an insult to anyone planning on attending college. If you’re in doubt, drop me a line, I’m happy to recommend any number of real books that will boost your vocabulary while having the advantage of not being terrible.

What worked for you? 

Q & A: Death by A.P. Course, Initializing the Autopilot, and Shameless Promotion

July 9th, 2008 · 9 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

College classes are generally spaced out; each class meets once or twice a week and you take only 4 to 6 classes per semester. Isn’t applying your tips to a class schedule like this easier than applying them to a rigid high school schedule of 9 periods, 7 of which could be AP (which is how my schedule is based next year)?

Cal responds:

High school has a different rhythm than college, and therefore requires a slightly different approach. With this in mind, I have two big pieces of advice…

First: it is easier to screw yourself with your schedule in high school. At the college level you take a small number of courses all of which are expected to be tough. In high school, on the other hand, you have 8 or 9 periods to fill. It is not expected that every one of these periods is equally hard. There is lunch, and gym, and maybe a study hall or two. There is also the possibility of lighter electives or vocational classes sprinkled throughout.

If, however, you try to fill most of these periods with the toughest possible classes — ahem, 7 A.P.s !? — you can get into a situation where it’s almost impossible to keep up. So my first piece of advice: craft a balanced schedule.

This basic advice has become harder to preach because, at some point, high school students collectively decided that the more A.P. courses you take at once, the better your chances of getting accepted at a top college. This is masochistic nonsense. It has no basis in the reality of how admission decisions are made.

My advice: Don’t schedule more than two A.P. courses per term. Balance them with other courses you enjoy. Do well. And stop killing yourself! In my humble opinion: 7 A.P.s at once is ridiculous; your health will suffer, your grades will become erratic, and it’s not going to help you get into Harvard. So why do it?

My second piece of advice: start early and work constantly. There are many more assignments in high school, but they are also much smaller than college assignments. The key is to avoid pile-up. An efficient strategy is to put in 1-3 hours every weekday at the local library. The quiet lets you focus and rip through your work.

While I’m at, I’ll mention that you should not write papers all at once. Do little pieces throughout the weeks leading up the deadline and finish it in one final weekend spurt. Never — and I can’t emphasize this enough — work on or near any machine with an Internet connection. Facebook and IM will increase the time required to finish a writing assignment by a factor of 3 or 4. Write first. Go online later.

Thus endeth my high school fire and brimstone study sermon…

From the reader mailbag:

I have been trying to get better at studying for the past 2 years of college. An autopilot schedule is exactly what I need, but that’s harder said than done. Any tips?

Cal responds:

As I’ve learned from my College Chronicles experience, it’s difficult to jump from disarray into precision organization all at once. It’s just too much. What happens is that small things in your new super schedule will slip through the cracks and this, in turn, will destabilize the whole shebang, quickly sliding you back into your old ways.

My advice: start slow. Maybe with just one or two autopilot sessions per week. Try this for a month. Once you get used to reaping the benefits of getting some work done regularly, habitatize a few more obligations. The students with the most efficient study systems tend to get there step by step.

If you’re looking for a little more guidance, you might check out Scott Young’s recent articles on conducting 30 Day Trials.

From the reader mailbag:

I am interested in reading your books. Does the content of one book build on the other, i.e. where should I start — which book?

Cal responds:

Here’s my advice: buy several hundred copies of both then distribute them to your most influential friends in the popular media.

Once this is complete, then keep in mind that neither book really follows the other. How to Win at College is 75 pithy rules for improving all aspects of your college experience. How to Become a Straight-A Student focuses entirely, and in great detail, on the academic piece of college life.

You can read excerpts of both here. There are also more than 25 Amazon reviews of each here and here. (As I always mention, only a handful of the early reviews for each are from people I know.)

Monday Master Class: To Go To Class, Or Not To Go…There Shouldn’t Be Any Question

July 7th, 2008 · 21 comments

“The following are valid excuses for skipping class: I have a fever of 105 degrees; I need to fly to L.A. to accept an Academy Award; today in class we are reviewing a book I wrote; my leg is caught in a bear trap. The moral of this exercise: Always go to class!

— from How to Win at College

Debatable AttendanceLecture Hall

A lively discussion has broken out in the comments thread of last Friday’s post. The topic: whether it’s necessary to attend class. On one side of the debate is the idea that some professors don’t offer any new information in lecture, ergo: you can skip these classes. The other side of the debate says that there’s more to lecture than just raw information. The professor, for example, might indicate which material is most important for an upcoming test. As a more straightforward concern, it’s also possible that a professor might note your absence, and then penalize you appropriately.

This is a great question and a great debate, so I thought I would weight in. Actually, I already have weighed in on this topic, in chapter 57 of my first book: How to Win at College. As the excerpt above reveals, my advice is unambiguous: always go to class.

Why to Attend

When I first wrote about this topic in How to Win, I gave three main reasons for attending class:

  1. As mentioned in the comments thread from Friday, professors often give indicators (sometimes subtle) about which material is worth really knowing and which you don’t have to sweat.
  2. You concentrate better in a lecture hall, listening to the professor in person, surrounded by your solemn peers, then you do trying to read notes or the textbook in your dorm room with the TV blaring. In short: it’s a quicker way to learn material well.
  3. Finally, if you skip any class even once then this suddenly becomes an option for all your classes. You now have to endure this debate before every lecture, and that’s a hard battle to win, especially during a tired (read: hungover) morning — which occur often. You’re much better off keeping class attendance mandatory, always, and take the skipping option off the table.

I want to add a fourth argument that was not originally included in How to Win. It goes as follows: attending class is a sign to yourself that you’re taking your academics seriously. Even if you could review the material on your own, to get up and drag your ass to the lecture hall is like callisthenics’s for your willpower. If you’re worried about wasting time in a lecture that presents no new material, then study the material during class; it’s the best study location on campus! But just make sure you get there.

Case Study: Why the Number of Hours You Spend Studying Means Nothing

July 3rd, 2008 · 35 comments

[Note: Because I’ll be away from technology tomorrow to enjoy the 4th of July festivities, I’m posting Friday’s post one day early. See you on Monday. Enjoy the fireworks…]

Troubles In PhysiologyFrustrated TA

A reader recently wrote me in search of some advice. He was taking an intense human physiology course and worried about his grade. This student is responsible and possesses amazing willpower. Accordingly, in an attempt to ensure top marks, he had been following an incredible study schedule:

Monday – Thursday
Class: 8-12 (Human Physiology)
Lunch: 12-1pm
Working out: 1-1:30
Library: 2- 7
Dinner: 7-9
Library: 9-11

Friday
Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 4-10

Saturday
Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 3-6
Dinner: 6-8
Library: 8-10

Sunday
Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 3-6
Dinner: 6-8
Library: 8-10

My Advice: Stop!

With such an outrageous number of hours spent hitting the books, this student expected to breeze through the class. Then he took the first exam. He got a 70 — well below the average.

What’s going on here? There are literally no more waking hours left in the day for this student to study.

In response, here is the schedule I recommended he follow instead:

  • Study two hours after lunch, every other day, and a good chunk of time on Sunday morning.

In other words, my advice for improving his grade in this class is to study much, much less. Allow me to explain…

The Quantity Myth

A common myth plaguing college students is that grades are a function of smarts + hours spent studying. Since you can’t change your smarts, your only option to increase your grade is to study more. What I love about this reader’s story is that unless he is taking the absolute most difficult human physiology course ever taught in the history of mankind, his experience completely invalidates the study hour quantity myth.

In other words, if devoting every possible waking hour to a single course doesn’t budge your grade, there must be something else more important playing a major role in determining your score.

This is why I advised the student to significantly reduce his work hours. Once this slash and burn is complete, he can turn his attention to the real question at the core of the studying process: what’s the most efficient way to transform the inputs, arriving in the form of lectures, into outputs, leaving in the form of exam answers?

Here are some resources to jumpstart this thought process:

  • Studying is a Technical Skill
    Why do Olympic swimmers clock worse times when they try harder in the water? In answering this question we discover the crucial different between technique and effort, and why the former is where you should focus when planning your study schedule.
  • Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work
    When it comes to measuring how much work you’ve done, hours alone are a terrible metric. This article integrates intensity of focus into the equation and teaches you how to schedule productive work, not simply time.
  • The Focused-Question Cluster Method
    A specific study technique fine-tuned to the type of abundant material presented in the type of class our example student faces.

Beyond these existing articles, I’ll also mention the following specific advice:

  • Don’t think in terms of getting a 70 despite the number of hours you studied. Keep this in mind: most of your study hours were wasted. If you had studied a third of that time you would have probably made the same grade.
  • Concentrate more on understanding what is being said in lecture as it is being said. Ask questions if you need to. When taking notes, try to synthesize and then write the concepts your own words. Understanding is key. Rote transcription is worthless.
  • Eliminate all Rote Review. Also a complete waste of time. Your entire studying schedule should be focused on being able to synthesize and explain the material, out loud, without looking at your notes, as if teaching a class. That’s what indicates learning; not how many times you read the material quietly to yourself.
  • Above all: Relax! It’s human physiology, not the future of the human race. No one actually cares how you do. And it’s possible to sometimes screw up exams. I do it all the time. It happens. Live life. And keep this class only a small part of it.

The take-away message from this reader’s problem should be clear: hours are meaningless when it comes to studying. Keep your focus on learning the material and you’ll avoid landing yourself in a similar, terrible, over-scheduled situation.

E-Mail Zero: Imagining Life Without E-Mail

July 2nd, 2008 · 25 comments

Lightman Lives LightlyProfessor Lightman

At first glance, Alan Lightman is the poster boy for a fast-paced, turbo-charged lifestyle. He’s currently an adjunct professor of Humanities, Creative Writing, and Physics at MIT, where, among other feats, he introduced the Institute’s first undergraduate writing requirement and founded a science writing graduate program.

Professor Lightman is perhaps best known for his writing, including the bestselling book Einstein’s Dreams. His essays on science and life have also appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and, basically, every other impressive literary publication on the planet.

When you read Professor Lightman’s biography, it’s hard not to imagine the prototypical gung-ho celebrity intellectual, glued to his blackberry, making moves, and ping-ponging messages with movers and shakers well into the night. One can only guess how many messages clog his inbox. 10,000? That’s chump change for the average busy professor. A better guess might be closer to 50,000!

But then you look a little closer at his official web site and notice a curious note:

I do not use e-mail, but you can reach me at my MIT office: [address removed], telephone: [number removed]

If anyone could make an argument that he had to have e-mail, it would be Alan Lightman. Think about it. He has to communicate constantly with students and his colleagues. He also has to zip around manuscripts and magazine articles. And what about keeping in touch with all of his high-power friends and fans? Imagine all the cool opportunities that he’s missing by shutting off the electronic spigot.

But here’s the thing: he’s busier than you and me, yet he’s doing just fine without e-mail. It hasn’t stopped him from accomplishing his professional goals or living an interesting life.

With this in mind, I implore you to shut the door, pull the blinds, and ask yourself, softly, the following question…

What would happen if you lived life without e-mail?

A Powerful Thought Experiment

I’ve been obsessed, recently, by this insidious little thought experiment. Over time, I’ve come to believe that for a significant cross section of society, life without e-mail would not only be possible, but would also reduce stress and not really cause any serious impact on their daily life or professional productivity.

First, however, let’s note who this probably doesn’t apply to: people with bosses. As has been often discussed, e-mail is asymmetrical. It’s easier to send e-mails than to receive them. Bosses want their lives to be easier at your expense. Ergo: you have to answer e-mail.

But what about the entrepreneurs or academics or writers or freelance consultants among you? Though your knee-jerk reaction might be “That’s impossible! My clients/collegauges/students/editors would never abide an e-mail free me!”, on closer examination, your situation just might be more flexible than you first believed…

Problems and Solutions

Let’s extend the thought experiment by facing our worst fears. What would become a problem if you were to lose e-mail? How might we fix it?

  • Lose touch with friends. This one’s easy. E-mail is poor way to keep up with close friends. Many people, myself included, tend to have a call rotation that keeps us up to date with everyone worth pinging.
  • My clients demand access. Yes. But this doesn’t have to mean e-mail access. Back in the good ‘ole days when I ran my own dot-com, we made good use of a regular phone check-in schedule and a sophisticated extranet that gave our clients the ability to check in on daily progress. At the time, this was crucial, because I was attending high school, and was a varsity athlete with daily practice, which meant that I was literally away from e-mail from 7 am to 5 pm most weekdays. They adapted.
  • E-mail is the best way to send files. Register a files@<yourname>.com e-mail address. Give this to people that need to send you a file. You can check it when you know a specific file is being sent. Of course, never actually respond to any e-mails sent to this address.
  • Too many people won’t go through the hassle of calling me, but they would have sent an e-mail. I’ll be missing out on this communication. Good! This filters communication down to the truly important.
  • My business requires me to handle a constant stream of requests and queries from customers (or students). Build a custom web site form that allows your customers (or students) to specify:
    • the type of request,
    • a description of the request, and
    • a list of actions, if any, they require from you.

    If you want an example of such a form in action, check out the contact pages deployed by some of the more popular productivity blogs. (For example: 43 Folders.) If they insist that e-mail is the best way to contact them, build into your system the ability to do one-way e-mail. That is, to send a message, from the control panel of your request submission system, to an e-mail address, and have the reply-to address be set to something fake. You can automatically append a standard signature of the form: “please do not reply to this e-mail. If you require further information, you can…” (If you need to process a huge quantity of such requests, consider a professional grade ticket system of the type used by system administrators.)

  • I’ll be left out of discussions driven by messages that are cc’d to multiple people. Very good! These are time wasters. If someone wants to put something on your plate they have to take the time to get in touch with you by phone, or in person, and explain, clearly, what is needed. If they need to check in on an ongoing project, the same holds: phone or in person. The result: less ambiguous crap. More focus.
  • In general, I’m going to miss out on some communication. That’s fine. We don’t need to communicate as much as we do now.
  • The editors/agents/clients I need to contact are only available on e-mail. Not true. People read letters and answer the phone. You just don’t want to make the effort.
  • Regardless of what you say above, I can think hard and come up with some work, or clients, or opportunity that would be impossible without e-mail. I’m sure such things exist. Don’t do those things.

The Benefits

The benefits that arise in this thought experiment are two-fold: (1) less crap; and (2) more focus. You still accomplish the important stuff, but also free yourself from all the small, or annoying, or unnecessary, or, worst of all, ambiguous requests that eat up so much of our day. Perhaps even more profound, imagine the focus you could achieve if there was no inbox to check. Instead, you just worked until you finished what you needed to, then shut down the computer, and got down to the business of living life.

The Implication

I don’t know what to make of this thought experiment. Should we really turn back the clock on such a powerful innovation? Would we really want to? I don’t know. But Professor Lightman’s example does make one thing clear: regardless of how you personally feel, the e-mail zero lifestyle is possible. If you live in your inbox, it’s a choice you’re making; a choice you could reverse.

For the students among you, this is something to keep in mind as you plan your ideal life after college…