Study Hacks Blog Posts from January, 2009 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Case Study: How Amy Saved Her College Career

January 30th, 2009 · 13 comments

Amy’s TaleStudent Studys

I recently received an e-mail from a student I’ll call Amy, who is a sophomore at a well-known university. She began: “I’ve really turned my academic life around and because of this my entire life has improved…”

As I read on, I learned Amy transformed a 3.0 GPA to a 3.7 GPA while improving her social life and decreasing her stress. At the core of her transformation where the tactics of the Straight-A Method and the philosophy of the Zen Valedictorian.

“When I read How to Become a Straight-A Student over the summer I thought it seemed too easy,” she told me.

“However, only a few habit changes totally redirected my life.”

I want to share Amy’s story. It provides an important reminder how surprisingly easy it can be to make that transformation from out of control to a standout.

But enough hype, let’s get to the details…

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The Myth of the Big Break

January 25th, 2009 · 38 comments

Action ParalysisWorking

J.D. Roth of the popular Get Rich Slowly blog recalls a conversation he had with a friend who had just started his own web site. As J.D. recalls, after the friend posted an introductory article he asked: “Can you point people to the site?”

“Not yet,” J. D. replied. “You don’t have any content.”

Instead of writing, the friend tweaked the layout and introduced advertisements. Several weeks passed.

“Nobody’s coming to my site,” the friend complained. “Not a single person has clicked on an ad.”

“That’s because there’s nothing there…you need to focus on content,” J.D. replied.

The friend posted a new article, then let the site lay fallow for another month. Finally, he wrote J.D. again, this time pleading: “Can’t you please point people to my site?”

“Maybe in a couple months,” J.D. replied. “Maybe once you have some content.”

Empty Inspiration

Consider another example. I have a friend who is a successful entrepreneur in the movie industry. He’s a strong believer in the power of consistent action. When giving talks to student crowds he likes to sum up his entire approach to life as a two-step process: “(1) Get started; (2) Keep going.”

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5 Thought Experiments That Might Change Your Life

January 22nd, 2009 · 18 comments

What if… Deep in Thought

I’m a fan of thought experiments. Sometimes they’re annoying, but other times they can help you sift through that heap of assumptions that sloshes around your brain and guides a lot of your behavior. In today’s post, I want to offer five thought experiments that yielded, at least for me, some interesting insights. Give them some thought. They might catch you in just the right way. Or not. But at the very least, they’ll provide you with some excellent cocktail party conversation.

Depending on popular demand, I can later share my own answers to the conundrums below…

5 Thought Experiments That Might Change Your Life

  1. A mad scientist attaches a probe to your brain. If you become bored or tired while working it delivers a painful shock. If you had to stay with your current job or school, how would your work schedule change? What habits would you lose? What habits would you gain? What’s stopping you from working that way now?
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3 Simple Rules for Making your Free Time Count

January 16th, 2009 · 23 comments

RelaxedThe Trouble with Freedom

In Tuesday’s post I repeated a familar refrain: underschedule! By now, you probably know my argument by heart:

Having significant amounts of unstructured time in your schedule provides three benefits…

  1. Time affluence which generates happiness.
  2. The ability to master the small amount of structured things you leave in your schedule — the only route to becoming famous.
  3. Freedom to expose yourself to positive randomness, the key to stumbling into cool opportunities.

The argument is clear. Putting it into practice, however, can become problematic. I know this because I’ve received several e-mails from students reporting that they’ve given underscheduling a try, but didn’t know what to do with all that free time.

The result: lots of doing nothing, which made them unhappy, which, ironically, made them procrastinate more than ever before on their work, which made them even more unhappy, and so on.

In this post I want to help rectify this problem. Below I’ve listed 3 simple rules to help you get the most out of your experiments with an underscheduled lifestyle:

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Start Your Semester Off Right By Quitting Something

January 13th, 2009 · 18 comments

Ben’s YearTrash

In a recent blog post, Ben Casnocha summarized his adventures during 2008. Here are some excerpts:

I traveled to Quito and the Ecuadorean Amazon jungle, Zurich, Prague, all over Costa Rica, Alaska, and rural Tennessee… Gave a dozen paid speeches in various U.S. locales. Read 60 books. … Wrote a hundred thousand words on my blog…Won an essay contest. Made new friends. Tried to become closer still to old friends…Fished for halibut off a boat…Met one-on-one with David Foster Wallace and then mourned his death. Philosophized. Watched too many Seinfeld episodes….Plotted world domination.

This seems like a lot. And it is. But in this post I draw an unexpected conclusion: the long length and indisputable awesomeness of this list should inspire you during this upcoming semester to do much, much less.

We begin with a simple question…

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The Difference Between “Unusual” and “Impressive”

January 12th, 2009 · 6 comments

Think Different

Our friend Ben Casnocha recently launched a new web venture called Think Different TV. Inspired by, it features split-screen videos of two people having a conversation. Bloggingheads focuses on politics. Think Different TV, by contrast, covers issues more near to the heart of us Study Hackers, including entrepreneurship, education, and big ideas.

I was honored to chat with Ben in the inaugural episode, and I even wore my glasses to make myself look much smarter than I actually am. In this episode we discuss my third book, dissect the difference between unusual and impressive, and argue about the skills needed to be a successful student (and whether these matter in the “real world”).

Think Different TV

To access the video, you can go to the Think Different web site or straight to Vimeo where it’s hosted.

In case you want to jump around, the conversation goes like this:

0:54 – Cal tells us what his third book is about
3:33 – Ben says people confuse “mysterious” with “impressive”
7:49 – Difference between being an impressive person vs. an interesting person
15:10 – Cal talks about the “confounding effect” that distorts our sense of interestingness since we don’t understand how something is done
16:37 – Attributing someone else’s success to “magic” relieves yourself of responsibility / guilt?
20:46 – What’s the difference between school and the “real world”? What skill sets are transferable?
27:26 – To succeed as as student requires some degree of entrepreneurship/innovation

Keep an eye on Think Different. I have a feeling it will evolve into a great source of innovative inspiration.

Three Student Resolutions Worth Making

January 5th, 2009 · 24 comments

A New YearHappy New Year!

Making New Year resolutions proves a tricky business. We all know that setting too many goals is a recipe for disappointment, so it’s important to choose a small number of changes that will have the maximum impact.

In this post I describe three simple resolutions that I’ve learned from experience to be incredibly effective. If you’re unsure where to direct your resolve in 2009, forget the cliched crap about going to the gym more or “studying harder.” Give these three habits a try — they’ll completely transform your entire student experience.

Resolution #1: Commit to Full Capture

It’s the oldest trick in the proverbial productivity book, but it’s also the most essential. Without it, you simply cannot eliminate copious stress from your life. I’m talking, of course, about capturing every task, date, and deadline in a trusted system that you review regularly.

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