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

An Update On My New Book

May 29th, 2009 · 17 comments

UPDATE (2/17/10): My new book, which is scheduled for publication in July, 2010, is now available for pre-order on Amazon. If you’re excited about this title, and want to ensure that you get your copy the day it comes out, consider ordering it in advance.  (I have a feeling we’re going to sell more than they expect, and stocks will run low.)

The Relaxed SuperstarsBook Deal

I receive a lot of e-mails asking about my new book. I realize that I’ve only given a few vague details on the project to date, so I thought I would rectify that today by bringing you up to speed.


The book focuses on a group of high school students I call relaxed superstars. These are students who live low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. In the book I tell their stories and deconstruct how they pull this off.

To date I’ve interviewed around 20 such students. I can guarantee that their stories will change the way you think about college admissions. You’ll encounter students who enjoyed abundant free time (due to reasonable course loads and minimal junk extracurriculars), yet still breezed into schools like Stanford, Princeton, and MIT. Their secret almost always involves focused attention on an innovative project they loved.

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My Advice for Rising Freshmen

May 26th, 2009 · 30 comments

The Great WaitCollege!

It’s almost June. For high school seniors, this means two important milestones have passed: college admission decisions and graduation. You know where you’re headed next year and have nothing to do until you get there.

In this post, I want to offer you some friendly advice for how to best use this final summer to prepare for the new world you’ll soon face. If you want my general thoughts on how you should tackle college, read last year’s open letter to students awaiting their admissions decisions. Today, by contrast, I want to get more specific.

Below I’ve listed three suggestions for how to prepare for college …

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The Grade Whisperer: Eric Prepares to Battle English Lit

May 22nd, 2009 · 13 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Eric’s Literate ConcernsAdvice

A reader named Eric recently sent me an interesting question. Next semester, he’s facing an English Lit course.

“My concern is that the best grade I ever got in high school English was a ‘B’,” Eric explained.

He wanted some feedback on his plan for the course.

“I read about Q/E/C notetaking in the red book, but I’m not quite sure how to apply it to these courses,” he said. “Would it help if this summer I picked some novels and practiced the technique? Or would it help me more to just read some novels for pleasure in preparation?”

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The Power of Demolition: Why the Best Study Strategies are New Strategies

May 18th, 2009 · 13 comments

Assuming the Worst

I recently received an e-mail from a student who was struggling in his calculus class. “I’m out of options,” he told me. “I practice the problems in the book again and again, and I still do poorly on the tests.” He concluded that he just didn’t “get math.”

I told this story because it highlights a common problem. I’m not talking about math difficulties. Instead, the real issue here is the danger of hidden assumptions. This student was confounded by his assumption that reviewing practice problems is the way to study for math. He decided, therefore, that the only way to improve his grades was to spend more time. Not surprisingly, this did little help — leading to his catastrophic conclusion that he simply couldn’t handle the work.

He needed to change the foundation of his study philosophy, but couldn’t see beyond the surface.

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My Focus-Centric Work Day

May 13th, 2009 · 18 comments

Blocking TimeFocused

Earlier this year, I made an important improvement to my infamous 9 to 5 student work day. Instead of treating these hours as one undifferentiated mass, I added the following simple structure:

  1. Writing
  2. MIT #1
  3. Midday
  4. MIT #2
  5. Shoulder

The accompanying rules were simple. The first thing I do when I arrive at my office is write. I wrote my first two books predominantly between the hours of 9 and 10:30 am, and I’ve finished 2/3 of my new book during this same interval.

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How to Build a Paper Research Wiki

May 11th, 2009 · 43 comments

Beyond DatabasesWiki thumbnail

Back in the early days of Study Hacks, I introduced the paper research database. The idea was to build a database of every quote you might need to cite in your paper. These citations could be sorted by date or type, and be linked to their matching source. The technique works because it helps you build and organize a comprehensive understanding of an event or idea before you start writing about it.

I should be clear: I love this technique. I used it to write two massive art history research papers while here at MIT. Recently, however, when I began the research process for my new book, I found myself drawn to a new strategy: the paper research wiki.

In this post I want to explain this approach, which has the potential to significantly improve the complexity and confidence of your written arguments.

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The Grade Whisperer: Mike’s Pre-Med Nightmare

May 7th, 2009 · 20 comments

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Mike’s Mixed BlessingAdvice

I recently received an e-mail from Mike, a pre-med major with an interesting problem. “I’ve read both of your books and have had unbelievable academic success ever since,” he told me. “I’ve had two semesters of straight A’s which include 5 A+’s and some of the most difficult pre-med classes such as physiology and biochemistry. ”

This sounded good to me. But then came the catch:

“However, I realized that I’ve become somewhat of a grind during this miraculous transformation. The problem is, in college, there’s literally always more work to do. ”

With some hesitation, he asked: “Do you think maybe I’m using your methods incorrectly?”

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The Shadow Course: A Simple Technique to Produce Extraordinary Work

May 4th, 2009 · 11 comments

Better AutopilotsThinking by water

As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I’m a big promoter of the autopilot schedule. In case you’re new, let me briefly review: The autopilot schedule is a set of fixed times and locations for finishing your regular work each week. For example, you might decide to always tackle your history reading assignments Monday morning, from 9 am to 11 am, in the study carrels found on the 6th floor stacks of the main library.

The shadow course, described below, is a simple optimization to the autopilot schedule that can generate huge benefits.

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