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

5 Myths That Cause College Students Unnecessary Stress

August 13th, 2008 · 24 comments

Student Success MythsStress

Here on Study Hacks we spend a lot of time trying to separate truth from fiction when it comes to building a successful student career. As you know, it’s one of my great beliefs that much of the stress experienced by students is unnecessary. Indeed, the entire Zen Valedictorian Philosophy is premised on the idea that most people have no idea what makes a student impressive.

In this article I want to cut to the chase. Listed below are five myths that pop up again and again as causes of the type of stress I fight here on this blog.

MYTH #1: Your Major Matters

This myth says that if you don’t choose the right major — or better yet, double major — you won’t find a good job. It drives students to suffer through punishing courses in subjects that don’t even interest them.

The Reality: As described in this article: outside of jobs that require specific technical skills, your major doesn’t matter. Indeed, as described here, if you choose a major for external reasons you’re at much greater risk for a burn out.

What You Should Do: Choose a single major that you enjoy. Double majors are never necessary. (You think that you need one, but you really don’t.) Engage your course work. Do well. Become a standout in your department. This is more important than the specific subject.

MYTH #2: The Difficulty of Your Courses Matters

This myth says that the most talented students are those who have the most punishing course loads. It leads students to take the maximum number of credit hours and to torture themselves with schedules loaded full with notoriously tough subjects.

The Reality: This myth is derived from the fact that college admissions officers care about the difficulty of your schedule. Students extend this thinking to college and beyond, imagining that something similar must hold true for graduate school admissions or job hunting. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t. As explained in this article, no one cares or will even check what courses you took in college. Taking a killer schedule is completely unnecessary masochism.

What You Should Do: Build manageable schedules that spread out the toughest courses required by your major. Balance hard courses with easier electives, don’t try to take the maximum number of credit hours, and if you have extra credits lying around (e.g., from high A.P. scores) occasionally take an unusually light semester. The distinction you gain from being able to do really well in a normal course load far outstrips the advantages of killing yourself with too much.

MYTH #3: Your Extracurricular Activities Matter

This myth says that getting into graduate/professional school or landing a cool job is like getting accepted to college: the difficulty and impressiveness of your extracurriculars play a large role. This leads students to killer schedules stuffed with an insane number of activities.

The Reality: As argued in this article, no one cares about your college extracurriculars. For graduate school and law school: they mean nothing. For medical school: you need to demonstrate exposure to the world of medicine; beyond that, your activities mean nothing. For jobs: doing one or two activities you like helps flesh out your personality and shows you’re not anti-social; doing more than one or two adds no advantage.

What You Should Do: Find a small number of activities that you really enjoy. If you ever feel overwhelmed by extracurricular responsibilities: cut back! They’re not helping your cause.

MYTH #4: Impressiveness is a Function of Hardness

This myth says that the harder you’re working the more impressive you’ll become. For example: If you want to be 2 times more impressive than your roommate, your schedule — in terms of classes and activities — should be two times harder. This leads ambitious students to equate stress with realizing their potential and equate relaxation with guilt.

The Reality: As explained here and here, impressiveness is more subtle. It depends more on the innovativeness of the activity than its difficulty.

What You Should Do: If you’re interested in becoming a standout — something that for most students is not necessary to achieve their ideal lifestyle — take a page out of the Zen Valedictorian playbook and focus for a long time on a very small number of things and try to push them into a territory that defies easy explanation.

MYTH #5: You Can Plan Your Future Career

This myth says that it’s possible for an undergraduate to plan his future career. It leads to much anxiety as students struggle to check off the credentials they think are necessary to realize their plan.

The Reality: Fast-forward to ten years after college graduation. The chances that you’re doing the same things you predicted as a student are slim. As argued here, most students have an incredibly limited understanding of the different options in the job world and how careers unfold. Indeed, many simply take a general topic they think they’re interested in — e.g., promoting equal education opportunities — then transform it into a made-up job — e.g., “I want to work at companies that promote equal education opportunities.” Trying to plan a long-term career at the age of 20 is an exercise in futility.

What You Should Do: Become an interesting, respected, academically-engaged student on your campus. Professional success will follow from here. Don’t sweat specific careers choices until it’s actually time to job-hunt. At this point, don’t try to identify “passions” (as argued here: worthless), instead adopt a lifestyle-centric approach: start with a desired lifestyle then work backwards to select the available job opportunity that moves you closest. Expect your employment situation to change frequently over time.

(Photo by gotplaid?)

I’m Recruiting Students for a New Season of College Chronicles

August 12th, 2008 · 9 comments

The New Season BeginsSpotlights

Last fall I launched an interesting experiment: College Chronicles. It was a blog-based reality show in which I followed three students struggling to improve their study habits. They kept me updated on their progress and allowed me to post regular articles about the trials they faced.

College Chronicles 2: From Stressed to Zen

This fall I want to produce a new season of College Chronicles. Here’s the twist: the focus will be on students who want to make the transition from overloaded to becoming a Zen Valedictorian. That is, I will follow busy students who are trying to make significant reductions to their obligations and rediscover some sense of balance and purpose — all the while trying to maintain or even improve their impressiveness.

This means I need new volunteers. I’m looking for students who:

  1. Are overloaded, heading toward a burn out, and are looking for relief.
  2. Are willing to attempt the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle for a semester. This means, among other things, steep reductions in your obligations, the rediscovery of free time, and the careful cultivation of a small number of activities toward becoming intensely impressive.
  3. Are willing to send me regular updates on their progress and have me post about their experience. (I’m happy to use pseudonyms.)

If you’re interested in taking part in this new season of College Chronicles send me an e-mail briefly describing your situation.

I look forward to hearing from you!

(Photo by jc_jc_jc_jc)

Monday Master Class: How to Use a Monotypic Inbox to Kick the Compulsive E-mail Checking Habit

August 11th, 2008 · 12 comments

E-mail AnonymousE-Mail Zero

Some students have no trouble with e-mail. Others, however, find themselves constantly checking their inbox — in class, while reading, while studying — making it hard to concentrate. This article is for the latter group.

The modern information consumer knows that the most efficient way to handle e-mail is to check your inbox just a few times a day and always process it back down to empty. For a lot of us, however, this is easier said than done. It’s just so damn tempting to take a quick peek; a glance to see if something cool has slipped in over the past few minutes.

In this article I’ll describe a simple but devastatingly effective hack for curbing this bad habit.

Eliminate the Difference Between Read and Unread

The hack works as follows:

  • Setup a filter that automatically marks every incoming message as read.

(In Gmail you can accomplish this by creating a filter with a wildcard — * — in the “From” field, then selecting “Mark as Read” as the action to apply.)

This hack eliminates the difference between read and unread messages — no more bold message titles or increasing inbox counts to titillate your senses. It makes your inbox monotypic — a term I’ve stolen from botany to capture the idea that your inbox now contains only one “species” of message.

The Power of a Monotypic Inbox

If you apply this hack, here is what will happen: At first, you’ll maintain your old habits, taking frequent quick peeks to see if anything interesting has arrived. As usual, this breaks your concentration and makes it hard to make serious progress on the studying or paper writing or reading before you. As you continue to take quick e-mail breaks, however, the number of messages in your inbox grows; and they are all marked as read.

Once your inbox gains a few dozen messages, things start to get annoying. You can’t easily remember which messages you’ve already glanced at and which are unread. You find yourself re-reading some messages and missing others.

Eventually, you get fed up and clean out your inbox. To avoid this pain again you stop checking your e-mail so frequently; making sure to now always leave yourself enough time to process it back down to empty so you won’t confuse new messages with old.

This of course is exactly the behavior we hoped to achieve. It’s a rough tactic, I’ll admit it. For most people it’s unnecessary. However, if you’re someone for whom frequent e-mail checks is scuttling your ability to concentrate, then it might be time to pull out the big guns. The monotypic inbox might be crude, but it works.

(Photo by dampeebe)

The Unconventional Scholar: Don’t Discuss Your Major With Your Parents

August 8th, 2008 · 30 comments

The Unconventional Scholar is an occasional series, written in the style of my book How to Win at College, that offers unexpected but surprisingly effective tips for getting more out of your college experience.

Sorry Mom and Dad…Ignored Parents

If your parents are footing your tuition bill, you owe it to them to take your classes seriously. They can demand to know how you’re doing and even hold you to account for slacking. (If you don’t like it, you can scrounge up the $40,000 a year). There is, however, one area where I suggest you leave them completely in the dark: your choice of major. Don’t mention a word to them. Refuse to hear their opinion. Don’t solicit their advice. Wait until after you’ve already filed the papers before you break the major news.

I’m sorry parents, but there’s a very good reason for their secrecy: some of the happiest students I’ve encountered are those who chose their major entirely on their own for no reason other than it seemed really cool.

If you remember my article on the research of Ryan and Deci, a pair of psychologist from the University of Rochester, this observation shouldn’t surprise you. These researchers have repeatedly shown that tasks that are extrinsically motivated drain energy and willpower. Over time, they become harder and harder to continue. The effect is so subtle that even societal pressure — for example, a major being generally understood to be a practical choice — can act as extrinsic motivation, making an activity increasingly hard to continue.

Here’s what I’ve observed: Students who choose a major because it was expected or to please their parents are much more likely to burn out by their junior year. Even if they have good study habits and a light activity load, the draining effect of extrinsic motivation can build up a terrible resentment toward school work. Becoming an engineer because your parents think the liberal arts are “soft” is a quick route to mild student depression and falling grades.

But what are you going to do with a music history major!?

I’ve heard all the objections before. Some are valid. But I don’t think any are powerful enough to outweigh the negative consequences of an extrinsically motivated major choice. Let’s cover the big two:

  1. Without a “practical” major you’ll never get a job. See this past article. The research is pretty clear. You need a technical major to get a technical job. Technical jobs pay slightly better than non-technical jobs. Beyond that, your choice of major doesn’t matter for your future job prospects or pay. Trust me, the slightly larger paycheck of the technical majors doesn’t justify majoring in these fields if you don’t love the subject — you’ll just go from hating college to hating your job.
  2. It’s a parent’s right to have a say in how their tuition money is spent. I agree. In the broad sense. Don’t tolerate your son partying away $40,000 a year. But when it comes to this one thing, I’m telling you, I’ve seen it dozens of times — even hinting that you like or dislike a given major can push a student into crisis. It’s frustrating, I know, but it’s just the way the brain works. If you don’t let this decision — this one decision — come from inside, trouble can brew.

So to you, college student, I urge a bold step. Tell your parents that you take your academics seriously and appreciate their input. But when it comes to your major, they need to step back and trust you to do what you want to do.

(Photo by FirstBaptistNashville)

Bonus Post: An Author Who is Proud to Admit that he Sucks at E-Mail

August 7th, 2008 · 10 comments

E-mail Zero Strikes AgainE-Mail Zero

Once again I’m using Thursday to publish a bonus post about my E-mail Zero project. For the uninitiated, this short series questions the idea that all people should use e-mail and related technologies in the same way. It seeks out examples of alternative communication lifestyles.

Today, I’m happy to report that the venerable Merlin Mann from 43 Folders has recently published an article series on a similar topic. I wanted to point your attention to another E-mail Zero practitioner that Merlin recently wrote about: author Neal Stephenson.

I’m a Bad Correspondent

Here is a key excerpt from the author’s web site:

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time…If I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all.

Which leads to:

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time…there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

And then the big finish:

For me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people.

What Does This Mean For You?

The big picture point: Ultimately, you gain respect and reward in this world for the hard things you do. Ask yourself this: what distractions disrupt your concentration? Does being constantly available by text message, or e-mail, or on Facebook make you better at being a student? Or does it make you worse? Do you really need to be that accessible?

The right answer differs for different people. But the one thing this series makes clear: not every communication technology is right for every person. Even if it seems like everyone is using it…

If you’re curious about the types of places such questions might lead you, consider this fact: I do not have — nor have I ever had — a Facebook account. And yet, mysteriously, I still have friends who know my relationship status and what movies I like.

Crazy. I know. But once you start asking the right questions, interesting answers shake loose…

(Photo by dampeebe)

Case Study: How Skidmore’s Busiest Student Discovered the Secret to Happiness on the Other Side of the World

August 6th, 2008 · 6 comments

Imagine if the busiest, most overloaded student you know was sent to spend six months at a school that forbid hard course schedules or extracurricular activities…

The Obligation Saturation PointRelaxing Down Under

By the beginning of his junior year, Skidmore student Toph had reached what he called his “obligation saturation point.” He was taking five hard classes, three of which were at the 300-level — a designation for exceptionally advanced subjects. He had five paying jobs on campus: a feat that required special permission from the Dean. He was also active in two clubs and kept agreeing to time-consuming side projects.

“I expected that this onslaught of obligation would empower me and drive me to do even great things the next semester,” was how Toph explained this to me. But this is not what happened. He instead ended the semester drained and exhausted. He felt out of control of his time.

“I had a heartbreaking feeling that, while I had done a lot of things, I had actually accomplished very little.”

The Escape

Toph then did the unexpected. He packed his bags, kissed his girlfriend goodbye, and boarded a plane to Australia, where he would spend the next 6 months as an exchange student at the University of Sydney.

Enforced Simplicity

“It wasn’t a conscious decision that led me to cut back,” recalls Toph. If anything, he had no choice. True to his old form, he tried, at first, to sign up for several advanced 300-level courses, but, as an exchange student he could only get into two. He tacked on two additional courses for a reasonable schedule of four subjects, only two of which were high-level; a far cry from the previous semester’s academic bloodbath.

Toph then discovered that joining student clubs required a $200 fee, which he couldn’t afford. In addition, as he also recalls: “I had no connections at this new school, so I didn’t receive any request for ‘favors,’ thus ended up with no side projects.”

In a bid to earn a little pocket money, Toph took a part-time, “brainless data entry job” at a local software company. Because of a timing conflict, this required that he drop one of his courses. The end result: The once insanely busy student was taking only three courses and had no extracurricular activities.

He loved it…

The Beauty of Simplicity

I’ll let Toph explain, in his own words, what happened in the months that followed:

When I stepped off the plane six months later here’s where I stood: I had aced all three classes with a High Distinction mark in each. I could say with complete sincerity that I learned more that semester than I had in two full years at Skidmore.

Because I had more time to really fall in love with my topics of study, the contempt for “work” that begets procrastination was never given a chance to take hold. My productivity went through the roof.

Toph enjoyed more than just academic success. By giving himself the time to relax and really embrace his small number of obligations, the company where he had been working noticed his potential. Toph eventually met with the VP of Marketing who upgraded him from data entry to working with the marketing team for the entire Australian branch. He loved the new upgraded job. He loved his classes. All was well.

Perhaps most important:

I had grown as a person; my character was stronger, my energy radiated, my friendships were true and meaningful and my overall perspective had matured. There is no way I would have had this experience if I had been as ruthlessly busy as the semester before.

What Employers Don’t Care About

As Toph looks back on his experience, he sums up the wisdom he learned as follows:

Employeers could not care less about how many ‘things’ you did in collegethey don’t care that you were the president of 47 clubsthey are miles away from caring that you took ‘really hard’ courses…you will never get ahead by doing 1000 things well because there will always be someone else in the interview room who did 1001 things, better.

So what can you do? As Toph put it:

Develop an absolute mastery of one simple thing: you. Take a reasonable course load, work on only one truly inspiring project, and spend as much time as possible with the people you love and admire. As they say in Australia: Full stop. That’s it.

Toph’s Plan for Moving Forward

Since returning in June, Toph has planned his fall schedule. It’s a work of minimalist beauty. He was even so kind as to put together a graphic which compares a screenshot of his calendar last fall to his calendar for the upcoming fall: Toph’s Schedules — Before and After (click the link to see the image.) Notice how last year every day had obligations from morning until late at night. For this upcoming fall he has nothing scheduled past noon.

The approach has already returned real dividends. The company that he worked for in Australia — where he was able to thrive because he had nothing else going on — has offered him a full-time position after graduation. In the meantime, his extracurricular attention this fall is focused on a single passion-saturated activity.

Could This Be You?

Imagine for a moment what would happen if you too adopted a Toph-style Zen Valedictorian lifestyle. If you cut down your courses, and put your focus onto one activity — leaving the rest of your time free for exploration. Would your life fall apart? Or, like Toph, would you end up more impressive, and happy, than you are right now?

Given serious thought, the answer might surprise you.

(Photo by reinn)

Monday Master Class: The Biggest Source of Stress that Most Students Ignore

August 4th, 2008 · 48 comments

Academic HellCalendar

I recently met a student whom I’ll call Amy. She’s a rising junior in the pre-med honors program at a top state university. After a strong freshman year, Amy kicked off her first semester as a sophomore with a schedule bearing four “very difficult” courses.

“As soon as the semester started, I sensed that this schedule would not work,” she recalls. “But for some reason, I kept all of it, thinking: ‘Hey, I’m smart, I can make it through this.'”

“Big Mistake!”

“I found myself learning exam material, for the first time, three days before the test and living day to day, always fearing what was to come…it was academic hell!

When the grades were returned, Amy was not happy. To make things worse, she was drained. As she explains, by the end of the semester, she had begun to “loathe” her classes; a source of devastating deep procrastination.

The Turnaround

The following semester, which ended this past June, was a different story. Amy scored much higher grades. Her performance in the undergraduate research lab where she worked improved significantly, earning her the honor of a solo project — something that will play a big role in her med school applications. And she no longer loathed her classes.

What changed? Something simple. Something that no employer, professional school or graduate school would ever notice. But still something that made all the difference in the world for this one student. It’s a stress reduction technique that is tragically ignored by too many students.

In this article, I give it the attention it deserves…

The Biggest Avoidable Source of Student Stress

Between the first and second semester of her sophomore year, Amy changed her course load. She went from four very difficult courses to a much more reasonable 14 credit hours. She was also careful about the balance of courses. She had only one lab course, and selected the others to fall between 9 and 12, leaving her afternoons free to study.

“I felt like something was wrong; like I shouldn’t have this much free time,” recalls Amy. “With fewer classes, however, I could actually focus during my study time and make progress.”

Here’s the important point: Though this change drastically improved Amy’s life, the medical schools to which she plans on applying won’t even notice. In other words, the “academic hell” Amy suffered through during her first sophomore semester was entirely unnecessary.

The Hardcore Myth

Many students believe that taking a punishing course load will somehow indicate a higher ability; making it easier to land jobs or post-graduate positions. Here’s the reality: it won’t.

Employers and professional schools will notice your GPA, where you went to school, and your major. They don’t care about about how many credit hours you jammed into each semester or how hard your schedule was compared to others in the same major. The same goes for graduate schools. Though it’s true that specific professors on the admissions committee might look at your grades in the classes relevant to their specialty, they don’t care about the general hardness of your particular schedule.

The implication: once you’ve chosen your major, it’s in your best interest to construct the most reasonable, balanced, low-stress course load possible. Jamming in an unnecessary number of heart-attack courses serves no purpose other than to make your life hell. It won’t make you more impressive to the outside world.

Some practical advice for using your schedule to dramatically reduce your stress:

  1. Don’t double major. Even if you “like” both majors. Even if you think that the particular job or graduate program you’re interested in demands both. (They don’t.) Neither are good reasons. A double major will force you to have hard semesters and offers little extra reward in return.
  2. Select your major early. A big source of terrible semester are students who decide, late in their academic career, to tack on a new major or change their major — requiring a large number of hard pre-reqs to be knocked off in a short amount of time. Your major is less important than you think. Settle on something sophomore year and stick with it.
  3. Make a long-term course schedule. Don’t live semester by semester with your course planning. Instead, map out what courses you need for your college’s core requirements and your major’s requirements, and then make a long-term schedule to avoid pile-ups.

If I was only allowed to offer you one piece of advice to make your college years easier, it might be this simple rule. Nothing seems to have as profound an effect on student stress than a killer course load (though a killer extracurricular load runs a close second). What pains me is that this stress is so unnecessary. Get the credit hours required to graduate. Take the courses required for your major. That’s all that matters. Don’t make you life much more difficult than it needs to be.

As Amy says: “I realized that the pseudo-life I had been living that past semester was something I never wanted to do again.”

You should consider making a similar pledge.

(Photo by Joe Lanman)

Dangerous Ideas: Beware of People Who Tell You Traditional Career Paths are Bad

August 1st, 2008 · 14 comments

The Drone ArmyWorker Drone?

Self-help blogger Steve Pavlina recently published an article titled: What If You Have Many Different Interests and Cannot Commit to Any of Them? Among the many ideas in this piece (several of which I agree with), were the following arguments:

  • “The notion that you have to commit to a single trade for life (or even for a decade or two) makes sense if you want to live like an industrial worker drone.”
  • “Hmmm… for some reason the people that said I should specialize got a lot quieter when my eclectic interests started paying off financially.”
  • “The next time someone tells you to settle down and pick just one thing for your career, your college major, or your source of income, I recommend you reply as follows: ‘I appreciate your concern, but since I don’t share your dream of becoming a prized poodle, I must reject your advice as being utterly stupid.’”

The basic message lurking here — that traditional, long-term career paths are for unoriginal, unhappy drones — has been gaining ground in the self-development blogging community. I guess this is not surprising, there’s something appealingly contrarian about the message. Think Different! Make your own path!

But is it right?

Good Intentions Pushed Too Far

Arguments like those above are born of good intentions. They aim to prevent arbitrary social conventions from pushing people into career paths they don’t like. The problem, however, is that these arguments often go too far. Instead of making the point that there are other options out there, they begin to demonize the traditional options as always being bad. Instead of freeing people to make their own judgments, they slander an entire direction as being for “drones” or “prized poodles.”

The Reality of Careers

Here’s my experience with young people entering the work world. For many, a so-called “traditional” career path is probably the best fit. Not because they are somehow damaged or unoriginal, but because for their particular set of interests and talents, a traditional path comes closest to giving them what they need to be happy.

For example, the following are all traditional career paths that match up with someone I personally know who is really engaged and happy with their life:

  • Journalist: The adrenaline of scoring the big scoop and the excitement of jumping from story to story is addictive to some. The quickest route here is a good college, lots of writing for the best possible student publications, journalism school, then working yourself up at a professional venue.
  • Professor: Everyone had at least one college professor who seemed to just absolutely love his life. The path here is as traditional as it gets.
  • Technology Entrepreneur: Stupid consumer web businesses started by 19-year-old college dropouts capture our imagination, but the vast majority of successful tech companies are started by engineers who innovated some new and needed technology. They are either professors, grad students (like the Google guys), or product team managers at an existing tech company. All require a long-term, traditional path.
  • Management Consultant: Some people love this lifestyle: see the world, never stick with one project for too long, work with brilliant people. The path here requires top schools and top grades.
  • Teacher: If you want to make a career of teaching, you’ll want a Masters of Education from the best school possible. If you want to do Teach for America, you better be one of the top students at your school; their recruitment is more competitive than most investment banks!

There are, of course, hundreds of other examples of traditional career paths that yielded, for some people, a rich, fulfilling life. On the other hand, there are also hundreds of stories of people trying to construct “alternative lifestyles,” who end up spinning their wheels for years, unhappy, bored and aloof until finally they figure out what fits their real interests and they end up buckling down, working hard, and constructing a life — though not always a Tim Ferriss wonderland — that they respect. The point being that there is no answer that is automatically good or bad.

How to Decide What’s Best For You

The decision of what to do with your life after college remains complicated. My advice is to start with the desired lifestyle, then work backwards. That is, visualize the feel of your ideal lifestyle, then decide what specific near future path will move you closest.

The key to a lifestyle-centric approach is to take nothing off the table in advance. Don’t let bloggers who are self-satisfied with their microbusinesses, or serial entrepreneurs with a fear of ties, try to convince you that some options are only for losers.

Do you really believe that everyone would be best off be making their living off of blog advertisements, eBook sales, and paid product reviews? Think about it for a moment. There is just no way that such a highly specific, somewhat unusual career path is some general cure-all for post-grad ennui — no matter how strongly we rant against “societal expectations” and the “liberating” power of “lifestyle design.”

What fits your talents might be different than what fits that talents of Steve Pavlina. Or it might not. The point is that only you know that answer. Don’t let anyone else try to convince you otherwise.

(Photo by Meditatejack)