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

The Rule of One: A Simple Technique to Create a Relaxed Student Life

August 31st, 2009 · 41 comments

Note (8/31/09): I’m leaving tonight to give a research talk in Bologna, Italy (yes, it’s a tough life I lead). I’ll almost definitely have internet access, but I’ll also be quite busy, so I give my typical warnings about being slow to post, answer e-mails, and moderate comments over the next week.

The (Over) Committed StudentThinking by water

Last week, I received an e-mail from a student who I’ve advised in the past. His new semester was about to start and he was worried about his schedule.

“I think I’m overcommitting myself,” he told me. “I considered dropping some activities, but it’s hard because I want to do them all.”

He then asked me to review the following “time budget” that he created for his schedule:

  • 5 courses — 24 hours/week in class
  • Lab volunteering — 15 hours/week
  • Peer educator and mentor — 10 hours/week
  • Exercise — 6 hours/week
  • Hospital volunteering — 3 hours/week
  • Executive of a club — 5 hours/week
  • Public speaking club — 8 hours/week

After reading his e-mail, I realized it’s time for me to revist one of the main themes preached here on Study Hacks: simplicity is beautiful.

The idea that doing less can actually make you more impressive is, of course, the cornerstone of my Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. I’ve also argued that doing lots of extracurricular activities is meaningless for your job hunt, and that overloaded course schedules are like a devestating virus that can destroy your life.

In this post, I want to add a new strategy to your minimilast arsenal.

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The Unsinkable Student Organization System

August 25th, 2009 · 27 comments

Back to BasicsFiling

As the back to school season transitions from looming to present, it’s time I turned our attention back to the technical details of becoming an outstanding student. In this post, I want to tackle a topic that’s relevant on the very first day of your new semester: staying organized.

Here’s the thing about student organization: what seems like a smart, comprehensive system to today you, will be later seen as a terrible prison that blackens your heart and steals your freedom by the future you mired in the middle of the semester. As you might have guessed, this future you will abandon your smart system and fall back into unorganized chaos.

I want to help you avoid this fate.

Below I describe a dead simple student organization system. It’s a collection of the three basic rules that I’ve used for the past nine years to keep on top of the information in my student life.

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Focus Hard. In Reasonable Bursts. One Day at a Time.

August 20th, 2009 · 44 comments

Dissertation HellThesis

Writing a doctoral dissertation is a peculiar endeavor. There’s a general understanding, suspended out there in the stress-fraught ether of graduate student life, that this is supposed to be a brutal process. Consider, for example, the popular blog Dissertation Hell. Its tagline reads:

A place to rant publicly but anonymously on the many tortures of writing a dissertation.

In a recent post, titled A Last Day in Hell, an anonymous graduate student notes:

Many asked how I balance [my dissertation] with my life. The truth is I never did! … I did this for three or so months, 8 to 14 hours a day, every day of the week.

In a particularly dark twist, the student adds:

My aunt died of leukemia during that time, but I had promised her I would finish, so the night I found out I doubled my efforts and kept on going. EVERYTHING got put on hold.

Fortunately, during my own dissertation process, I was able to observe most of these frantic conventions with some semblance of objectivity. Having already written two books, and published over 20 peer-reviewed papers in my field, the task, while demanding, seemed far from “hellish.” But it did get me thinking about the conventions of student life and how we handle work.

In this post, I want to share some thoughts on why these big student projects cause so much stress and a strategy for alleviating this suffering.

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The Danger of Black Box Studying

August 13th, 2009 · 20 comments

Note: Having handed in my dissertation last week, I guess, for the first time in over 20 years, I’m no longer a student. Worry not, however, Study Hacks isn’t going anywhere in the near future.

Economic Troubles

I recently received the following e-mail from a Berkeley student:

I left [an economics] exam positive I would get an A…The mean was a 77…I ended up getting a 55 — absolutely awful…I feel beyond frustrated by this and am wondering why, perhaps in your analysis, did I think I did so well when I absolutely nuked it?

I receive several e-mails of this type each week. They all follow the same basic format. The student is surprised by doing poorly on a test and is hoping that I can offer some ingenious strategies that will prevent the disaster from happening again.

I’m happy to answer these e-mails, but I’ve been fearing recently that a dangerous sentiment lurks beneath — a sentiment I need to combat.

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What is Your Time Worth?

August 8th, 2009 · 29 comments

The Lecture After LastSchedule

In a talk given at the University of Virginia, soon after his famous Last Lecture, the late computer scientist Randy Pausch tackled an apropos subject: time management. Early in the talk, he revealed an interesting tidbit:

“When I meet with my new grad students,” he said, “I ask them how much their time is worth.”

His goal was to get them thinking about their time as a valuable commodity. It costs a university around $80,000 a year to support a doctoral student (sadly, only a small fraction of that is passed on in the student stipend). If you follow the standard grad student schedule, showing up in the afternoon and working into the night, then your time is being valued at around 30 to 40 dollars an hour.

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Pruning Your List of What Matters

August 2nd, 2009 · 27 comments

Ahead of the CurveQuiet Study

Recently, I’ve been reading Ahead of the Curve, Philip Delves Broughton’s memoir of his time at Harvard Business School. It’s a reasonably interesting read, buoyed more by Broughton’s writing ability (he was a professional journalist before arriving at HBS) than the events that transpired (attending b-school, as it turns out, is not an adrenaline-soaked adventure).

There was one passage, however, from page 85 of the paperback edition, that caught my attention. It reads:

At a meeting of the Mormon Club, [the dean of HBS] explained the secret of his success. He has whittled his life down to just four things: work, family, faith, and golf.

This focus was later elaborated:

As an academic, he used to arrive at his office at dawn and work in silence until lunch time. Only then would he engage with the world…On Saturdays he played golf, and on Sundays he spent the day at church with his family.

Then came the conclusion:

Such discipline had propelled him to the leadership of the school.

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