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

Monday Master Class: The Study Hacks Guide to Beating Student Stress

September 29th, 2008 · 11 comments

Semester StressStressed Out

As the fall semester picks up speed, your workload is likely growing into something fierce. The optimism of the first few weeks — when assignments were light, beer always available, and plans ambitious — is starting to give way under the reality of conflicting deadlines and exams. To me, this is a perfect time to review some of our most effective stress reduction strategies. Attack stress now, before things get out of hand, and the rest of the semester can unfold without unnecessary pain.

Small Strategies that Make a Big Difference

Switch from To-Do Lists to Time Blocking
Simply listing everything you have to do becomes an exercise in futility once this list grows beyond just a few items. This article explains how to take control of your schedule with the time blocking strategy: an approach that requires you to label each task for the day with the time block during which you’ll finish it. Time blocking forces you to deal with how long things really take and how much free time you really have available.

Adopt a Sunday Ritual
Your schedule is a wily bastard; give it a chance and it will wrench itself right of your control. The Sunday Ritual keeps you in command. As this article explains, the ritual has you retreat somewhere quiet, every Sunday, to knock of a big block of focused work and, most importantly, make a battle plan for the week to follow.

Build an Autopilot Schedule
The autopilot schedule is one of the simplest and most effective scheduling strategies of the Study Hacks Universe. As explained in this article, the goal is to move as much of your regular school work as possible into set times on set days. This preserves your scare willpower for bigger projects, and saves you the stress of deciding when to work on your your daily assignments.

Follow a Simple Task Management System
You need a set of rules to help stay on top of all the things you need to get done. The article above presents a brain dead simple approach that requires just a few minutes a day and has no bells or whistles. If you’re looking for something a little more advanced, check out the always popular Getting Things Done for College Students system.

Major Changes that will Redefine your Relationship with Stress

Embrace Radical Simplicity
This manifesto makes my stance clear: Do less! Much less! It calls for you to choose only one major, one activity, and one (normal) course load. De-cluttering your schedule is the key to keeping student life livable and engaging.

Make Your Course Schedule Suck Less
Are your courses already starting to giving you a headache? You may be taking too many that are too hard. As this article explains, overloaded courses schedules are the biggest source of avoidable student stress. Drop that extra lab. Replace one of your brutal major courses with a lighter elective. No one cares about the specific term-by-term description of your courses, so these changes will make your life much easier with little negative consequences.

Take an Activity Vacation
Have your activity commitments already overwhelmed your schedule? Do you belong to clubs that you can’t remember why you joined? As this article explains, consider taking an activity vacation — one semester with no activities. You don’t have to quit everything. Just tell your club mates that you need a break to focus on academics. Once you’ve experience the joys of a free schedule, you’ll probably start the next semester more selective about your commitments. Also, you’ll have a lot of fun.

College Commando: How a Special Forces Candidate Tackles Undergraduate Life

September 26th, 2008 · 5 comments

An Unconventional StudentSpecial Forces Guy

Steve is a student at the University of South Florida, where he studies religion and international relations. He first came to my attention earlier this summer when he published a provocative blog post debating his post-graduation path. The two options he was juggling: going to law school or becoming an elite Special Forces operative. Steve, as it turns out, is an NCO in the US Army, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. So when he says he’s interested in joining the Special Forces, this is not idle talk.

When I heard Steve’s story, I knew I had to get in touch with him. As you know, I’m fascinated by students follow unconventional paths, as their examples can help jolt us out of our own conventional wisdom-hardened ruts. When it comes to unconventional, I can’t think of anything more fitting than a student whose splitting his time on campus between studying and intense training to join the most elite group of warriors on the planet.

Steve was kind enough to answer my questions about how his military lifestyle affects his approach to college life. Excerpts from our discussion are below. You can find out much more about Steve at his fascinating blog: Educated Soldier.

Give me a sense of your daily schedule.

During my last semester, every Tuesday and Thursday, I had class from 12:30 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. I would wake at about 7 a.m. I would eat a quick, light breakfast and head to the campus library. There, I would drink my daily Americano from Starbucks (which I can say, by the way, is one of my rare addiction indulgences) and spend about an hour browsing the websites that I consider daily reading requirements. This was time spent totally free from concerns of studying or Special Forces requirements. Before leaving the library, I would make sure to do something school related. This usually meant working on a reading assignment, which I would typically spend about a half an hour doing.

I would then head immediately to the gym. My work out lasts from 9:45 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. I would then shower at the gym and eat on campus. It would then be 12:30 p.m., or close to it, and time for my class.

Following my class, I would come home and usually spend about an hour checking those same websites of interest again. Like my morning library routine, I would then dedicate about a half an hour or so to school work.

At about 6:00 p.m., I would go for a run. Now, you really have to understand that I enjoy running. It’s an addiction that I am quite proud of. That being the case, I can claim in all honesty that my daily runs would last from an hour to over two hours. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it was usually the latter.

After finishing my run, it was about time to clean up and go to bed. Before going to bed, I would tend to hang out with my roommates for a while, eat something light, and complete a little more homework. And, if needed, this is when I would do the bulk of my additional school work. Even if I only dedicated another half an hour to studying here, however, one can see that my schedule affords me a total of an hour and a half of studying daily without the studying ever seeming burdensome at any one time.

Also, I am a master of hip-pocket studying. That is to say that I always have a book on me and have learned the value of picking up a few pages here and there; for example, I ride the campus bus often and always complete some studying there.

How is this schedule different than what you followed before you began to seriously consider joining the Special Forces?

After joining the Special Forces training program, my daily routine at the university changed in two ways: First, my daily schedule wasn’t so regimented. While I did many of the same things as I do now, I didn’t necessarily plan to do them as well as I do now. Second, prior to joining the SF training program, each day I would either work out in the gym or run. Now I work out in the gym AND run daily.

Why has being ultra-disciplined not made your life less fun?

I definitely had more free time during my freshman year. Yet, I found that I haven’t had less fun on a more restricted schedule. What I have learned, however, is that fun has to be scheduled and a bit less spontaneous than it was that first year.

For example, I do not adhere to my regiment on weekends. I may go to the gym or run on any given Saturday or Sunday because I enjoy doing so. However, I have in no way made this a requirement for myself. I workout hard all week knowing that I going to have the weekends to do whatever it is that I choose. And this mindset has been beneficial in many ways.

Financially, saving my recreational activities for the weekend has been a boon. Like many college students, I like to drink and party. However, by establishing minor priorities, I have found it nearly never necessary to drink or party on a week day or night. Buying beer two nights a week (and usually less lately) is obviously cheaper than buying beer five or six nights a week.

Also, my physically demanding regiment has caused me to develop a much more physically in-shape body. While I can hardly claim to be a ladies man, being in shape does wonders in ways that people not in good physical shape rarely recognize. For example, each day that I work out especially hard, I tend to tackle everything else I do that day equally as hard. When I see tangible, positive physical changes in myself, my confidence is boosted. Doing anything — from taking a test to hanging with friends — is much more enjoyable with a high level of self esteem.

In addition to your personal training you’ve also joined a unit that’s dedicated to training soldiers to enter the Special Forces program. Give me a sense of what this is like.

This last weekend, for example, was dedicated to land navigation. We arrived to our drill location on Friday night for mandatory briefings. These lasted until midnight. We met next on Saturday morning around 6:30 a.m. for a Physical Fitness test that measured our maximum push-ups and sit-ups (both completed in separate two minute increments) and our time running two miles. Immediately after the test, we changed into uniform and packed our rucksacks for the day land navigation course.

The required weight for our rucks was 55 pounds. This was measured before we added food to last throughout the day and night and six quarts of water. My rucksack’s total weight after adding our needed items was 78 pounds. The day land navigation course lasted from 11:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

This means that in temperatures that reached in excess of 100 degrees throughout the day, we were constantly searching through national forest terrain for points. The entire time we had rucks on our back, equipment vests on our chests, and a simulated rubber rifle in our hands. Our main navigational tools were simply maps, a compass, and a protractor.

The culmination of the day land navigation course only provided minor rest. A mere two hours later, we began the night course. This event ended at 4:00 a.m. With the same equipment on, and with no additional equipment to aid our night vision (besides a headlamp that was only useful when looking at the map), we had to traverse through the same hazardous terrain. One of members of the cadre sitting on a point that we had to locate encountered a bobcat. A peer candidate turned on his headlamp while crossing a stream only to have his light reflect off the two eyes of an alligator.

The total distance between points in the two courses exceeded 15 miles. This distance fails to reflect how far each of us candidates walked when sporadically lost or in our attempts to avoid particularly hazardous terrain.

While all the Special Forces cadre and candidates returned from the weekend safe but exhausted, I still wanted to share my adventures with you. What I did this past weekend was only a day and a half’s worth in a training effort that ultimately takes nearly two full years to complete. And only after Special Forces qualification and assignment to an Operational Detachment Alpha does the real training begin.

Most of my cadre and nearly all of my peer candidates are college graduates or on-going students. I just want to do my part to reassure the educated types that would frequent a site such as yours that in the Special Forces we maintain the company of highly trained, well-educated individuals.

I think I speak for all of use here at Study Hacks when I say your experiences make the standard student dramas of an all-nighter or busy exam period seem like a little girl’s tea party. Thanks again Steve!

Dangerous Ideas: Imagine a College Application without Transcripts, Test Scores, or Extracurriculars

September 24th, 2008 · 17 comments

The SAT DebateThe Harvard Gates

Monday’s New York Times reported the results of a commission, “convened by some of the country’s most influential college admissions officials,” that examined problems with the SAT. Their official recommendation: colleges should move away from the SAT as an admissions criteria. They have two main justifications: the SAT is not the best predictor of college success and it measures “merit” in a manner that calcifies existing class differences.

(Interestingly, even though the reporter opens with a breathless description of a “billion-dollar test-prep industry that encourages students to try to game the tests,” the commission found that coaching only increases scores by a “modest” 20 to 30 points.)

This article got me thinking. By arguing about the nuances of the SAT — or, for that matter, other small details like whether applications should include class rank or limit the number of AP courses — are we missing the forest for the trees? That is, if we were to start from scratch and design a college application that best fits our current vision of a “good” college student, what would it look like?

In this essay, I tackle this question by offering up my own suggestion for a 21st century approach to college admissions. I call it the Talent-Centric Application.” It’s designed to isolate exactly the type of young people that admissions officers profess to seek; and it does so while eliminating the weak success predictors and stress-inducers that mar the current admissions process.

The Talent Centric College Application

My proposed college application would require exactly the following:

  • A performance report for five courses selected by the student. Each report is written by the course’s teacher. It includes the student’s grade and how this compares to the other students in the class. It also includes a more subjective description of the student’s performance, focusing on his in class contributions, intelligence, and ability/interest to learn.
  • An essay describing the student’s plan for college. It should cover why the student is attending college, what he or she hopes to accomplish, and a description — with justification — of the first year courses he or she plans to take. It should also describe the type of college lifestyle the student plans on living, and the strategies that will make this possible.
  • An essay describing the most important activity the student was involved with during high school. It should describe both the activity and its meaning to the student. Mentions of multiple activities will be frowned upon.
  • An in-person interview. At the beginning of the interview, the student will be given an article to read. He or she will then discuss it with the interviewer for 30 minutes. The interviewer will rank the quality, curiosity, and inventiveness of the applicant’s thinking on a 100-point scale. This score will count for a lot in the final admission decision.

Notice, this application omits most of what we expect:

  • It does not ask for a student’s transcript, G.P.A., or class rank. The only grades are those included on the five grade reports.
  • It does not ask for any test scores. The students can later use A.P. credits, perhaps, to test out of some courses at the college, but the admissions officers don’t know about the scores.
  • It does not ask for a long list of activities or awards. The student only discusses the one activity that he or she writes an essay about.
  • It does not ask for essays about important experiences or abstract ideas. It demands, instead, an essay that proves that the student has thought through his or her reasons for attending college.
  • It places a large emphasis on the interview. A student that has spent a lifetime of reading, and thinking, and probing ideas will do very well. A grind who suddenly decides she wants to go to Harvard cannot fake it.

My contention is that the elements of this application select for the type of students selective colleges claim to covet. Specifically, a student who looks good on this application is one who:

  • Can really stand out as smart and interesting and inquisitive in the classroom.
  • Has done one thing outside of school that is really interesting — showing an ability to innovate and make important things happen.
  • Has a real plan in place for getting the most out of college.
  • Can take in, think about, and debate complicated ideas on the fly.

At the same time it removes any importance from taking large numbers of hard classes, getting perfect grades, obsessing over standardized tests, or building up laundry lists of activities: the major sources of student stress.

But Don’t Take My Word for It…

The Talent-Centric Application is my take on the complicated admissions issue. I’m interested, however, in what you think. If you got to redesign the standard college application from scratch, what would it look like?

(Photo by j.gresham)

The Freshman 15 Contest: I’m Giving Away a Free Laptop

September 23rd, 2008 · 17 comments

An Offer I Couldn’t RefuseHP dv7

A few weeks ago I received an interesting call from HP. They wanted help spreading the word among college students about their Pavilion DV series of laptops. Here was their pitch: they would choose 15 college blogs, and give us each a free laptop to give away however we want. No strings attached.

My reaction: sure! I’m more than happy to send free expensive stuff to my readers. (Full disclosure: I get nothing out of this deal except the pleasure of giving away something shiny.)

So here’s how things are going down. Each of the fifteen blogs they chose will run their own contest and give away their own laptop. The Study Hacks contest will begin on October 2nd. On this date I will announce the official rules. You will then have one week to enter before I choose the winner.

The full prize package includes: an HP Pavilion dv7t entertainment laptop, a 500 GB media drive, a docking station, and a PhotoSmart printer. (Not bad for a stupid blog contest.)

I’m not a gadget guy, but from what I understand the dv7t is a “desktop replacement” focused on “entertainment.” You can read smarter peoples’ reviews here and here.

Notice, PC World ranked it “superior.” I don’t know their rating system, but I assume that means it’s not a bad thing to win.

The other review notes: “with its 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo T9400 processor and 3GB of RAM, HP Pavilion dv7t get the score of 98 in PC Advisor WorldBench.”

I have no idea what that means.

Below is the official schedule of all 15 laptop give-aways. For each site I’ve listed when their contest will begin. In all cases, the winner will be announced exactly seven days later:

The Freshman 15

I Want Your Advice for Designing the Contest

If you’re interested, keep your eyes open in early October for the announcement of the Study Hacks contest rules. In the meantime, let me know if you have a suggestion for our contest — I’m still brainstorming possible ideas.

Monday Master Class: The Retreating Deadline Method

September 22nd, 2008 · 16 comments

Dated ThinkingRelaxed Reader

I rarely know the date that things are due. Yet I’m not disorganized. I check my calendar every morning, and it contains dozens of deadlines. But here’s the thing: few of them match the actual due dates. They are almost all earlier; sometimes much earlier.

I’m not sure exactly when I started this habit. It was sometime during college. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a clever strategy; it was, instead, just something I did to keep stress low and my feeling of self-control high. Only now am I’m starting to recognize it for what it is: a highly effective strategy for handling a college-level workload.

The Retreating Deadline Method

I can formalize this habit of mine as follows:

  • Shift the due dates of all major assignments, papers, and exams at least one day earlier on your calender.
  • For the purposes of working on the assignment, writing the paper, or studying for the exam, forget about the original date. (Obviously, for the purposes of taking an exam, remember the real date!)
  • Construct your work schedule to finish by the new date, as if it was real.

The benefit of this advice is profound. By avoiding work on the day before something is due you basically avoid ever feeling time pressure. This significantly reduces your student stress. (Even if you’re super efficient, it’s still nerve-wracking to wake up the day before a paper deadline with a lot of writing to complete.)

Another benefit is the sense of self control you gain by freeing yourself from a “last minute” mindset. When you finish assignments a day (or more) before your classmates’ final scrambles, you feel like you’re the master of your own academic universe. This confidence is exhiliarting.

But What About Procrastination?

There’s an elephant in the room here: procrastination. Some students react to this suggestion with disbelief. “I can’t finish work early!” they cry. “I’m a procrastinator!”

Let’s deconstruct this complaint. As we know, there are two sources of procrastination. The first is deep procrastination, which comes from a fundamental resentment toward to difficulty of your workload. If you’re suffering from deep procrastination, no small strategy will help you. The only solution is to simplify. Switch to a major you like, drop most of your “List A” activities, and take a reasonable course load.

The other type of procrastination comes from poor scheduling — “I have plenty of time…oh shit, it’s due tomorrow!” — and bad study habits — “I don’t even know how to get started.” Both are easily fixed. Get a calendar. And make a study plan for each assignment, paper, or test. (Browse the study tips archives for tactical inspiration.)

A Small Change. A Big Impact

What’s nice about the retreating deadline method is that it doesn’t require more work. It simply shifts your existing work by a small amount. This small change, however, radically transforms the way you feel you about your student life. If you’re tired of stress, try this for a few upcoming assignments. You’ll be hooked.

Case Study: How Scott Discovered That His Activities Wouldn’t Get Him Into Law School Then Harnessed Simplicity To Become a Star

September 19th, 2008 · 7 comments

Imagine if a stressed out, over-committed undergraduate failed to get into his top 11 choices for law school, and then discovered a new path to becoming a standout; a path built upon doing much, much less…

The Grind Who Learned to FocusLaw School

As an undergraduate at a large Midwestern university, Scott had has eyes set on law school. Following conventional wisdom, he assumed that the more activities he joined the better his chance for admission.

“I became very involved with my fraternity, eventually being the Vice President of Recruitment and then Vice President of Programming, ” Scott recalls. “I was also involved in: class honoraries, interfraternity council, student-alumni council, the Homecoming Court, and was an Eagle Scout.”

Then came his senior year and the mailing of law school applications.

“I applied early decision to Georgetown, thinking that my Jesuit high school education, being an Eagle Scout, and having been so involved in undergrad activities would make up for my decent, but certainly not stellar LSAT and GPA.”

It didn’t help. Scott soon realized that his GPA and LSAT were by far the most important piece to his application. The laundry-list of activities he had so painfully constructed impressed no one.

“I was rejected from: Georgetown, Michigan, Penn, Northwestern, Duke, Virginia, George Washington, and UNC. I was waitlisted at Notre Dame, Boston College, and Boston University.”

In fact, he was accepted to just one school — his undergraduate alma mater, and that’s where he decided, by default, to attend. On campus, he noticed that many of his new law school classmates were “getting overly involved in a lot of little organizations,” the same strategy that had just failed Scott. Taking a cue from the Zen Valedictorian philosophy (he had discovered Study Hacks around this same time), Scott rejected this laundry-list approach, and instead emphasized focus.

“I started to think about my area of expertise. I had majored in Economics and International business, and minored in French, I also had five years of Latin. So I applied to the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to pursue Romanian and Eastern European studies. I won the fellowship for the next year. This will now help me to earn a certificate in International Trade and Development. It also scored me an internship this summer, working in Washington, D.C. at the International Trade Administration in the Department of Commerce.”

Like any good Zen Valedictorian, Scott couples this newfound focus with the power of underscheduling:

“I decided not to join a law journal, which most of my classmates will be starting in the next few weeks. I also avoided taking any active involvement in any other student organizations at the law school. ”

In his future, Scott looks to convert his focus into even more innovative directions. “I’m hoping next summer to work with either the WTO, the US Trade Representative, or another government agency. Then I’m hoping to take all of this and apply for a Fulbright to study in Romania after I finish law school.”

With such an impressive, focused resume behind him, Scott’s chances at a Fulbright are looking good.

From Scott’s Life to Your Own

Scott’s laundry-list of undergraduate activities — none of which produced the failed-simulation effect — generated stress in his life but few real returns. As he matriculated at a second-tier law school, he faced the grim prospect that three years later he might once again be flailing to find a spot; this time, in the notoriously tight law job market.

But he had learned his lesson. By focusing on a single point of interest — Eastern European international law — and constantly looking for innovation — the FLAS fellowship, the government internships, and, potentially, a presitigous Fullbright scholarship — Scott is poised to leap past his classmates and into a powerful, interesting career. Best of all, his life is much less stressful than those of his over-committed classmates — students who are battling it out to win journal editor spots and creep, painfully, ever-higher on the class rank lists.

Keep Scott’s story in mind as you sign-up for activities this fall. Are you becoming an expert in your own niche, or are you struggling to compete in the same big ponds as everyone else?

(Photo by blmurch)

I’m Looking for a Few Good Volunteers…

September 18th, 2008 · 8 comments

The Birth of a Handbook

Study Hacks readers often complain that it’s hard to navigate the 300 articles and 1500 comments that populate this blog. The categories and search box help, but for a new reader, wading though the archives can still be intimidating.

Here’s my solution: yesterday I launched a wiki that I’m calling The Study Hacks Student Handbook. I hope to evolve this wiki into a detailed guide to the content of the Study Hacks blog — a resource to organize and make sense of all the advice and systems and philosophies that crowd our little corner of the online universe.

Here’s the thing: I need your help to build and maintain this online guide. If you’re a Study Hacks fan, and want to help your fellow students live better student lives, then send me an e-mail, and I’ll set you up with your own editor account for the wiki — allowing you to update and edit the site as you see fit.

Once the Student Handbook gets to a reasonable size, I’ll start promoting it on the blog. I want to make this one of the web’s most important student resources.

To get there, however, I need your help!

Do You Have a Working Disorder?

September 17th, 2008 · 4 comments

The Danger of Emotional WorkingWillpower

I had a college friend who made social plans based on whether or not he felt like he should be working. The keyword here is “felt.” You might think that a decision to work depends on whether or not there is a specific task with an impending deadline. But for this friend, as with many students — both undergrad and graduate — such logic is hijacked by emotion.

And this is dangerous territory…

Do You Have a Working Disorder?

Let me ask you a few simple questions:

  • Do you frequently make decisions about whether or not to do school work based on guilt?
  • Do you ever go to the library just because you worry you haven’t been there in a while?
  • Do you frequently discuss your workload or the times you’ve been working; are you unusually interested to learn when and how much your friends have been working?

If you answered “yes” above, you might have what I call a working disorder. We focus a lot of our attention on students who don’t do enough schoolwork. But in this post I want to address the less well-known, but equally devastating curse of working too much.

A working disorder means you have allowed your work quantity, not your work output, to determine your sense of self-worth as a student. Once you start down this path, you will experience increasing bouts of guilt and anxiety. You will also rob yourself of relaxation and free time that could be devoted to the type of shenanigans that students — who have no boss or time clock to punch — really should revel in.

Toward a Cure

These problems can be severe, but, at the very least, recognizing you may be suffering from a working disorder is a good first step. Beyond recognition, keep in mind the following facts:

  1. Many of your peers might also suffer from working disorders. Do not use their work habits as a point of comparison for your own.
  2. All that matters is your work output (be it grades or research). Track this closely. Compare this, not hours, to your peers. If you like your grades in a class, you’re fine; even if you’re not suffering through all-nighters.
  3. Student work demands are highly variable over time. Just like there will be times when you have to work late, there will also be stretches when you don’t have much to do. This is expected. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t force busywork into these lulls. Enjoy yourself.

Finally, your best defense can be captured by a simple question. Whenever you’re about to work late at night, or on a weekend, first ask yourself: “what exactly is it that I’m worried about not completing on time?” If you don’t have a good answer, crack open a beer and leave the guilt to us over here at MIT — when it comes to emotional work disorders, trust me, we’ve got you covered.

Do you, or someone you know, have a working disorder? If so, what have you observed that helps?