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

Double Majors Don’t Publish Novels

October 27th, 2009 · 31 comments

Notes from a Novelist’s Life Justine Musk

Justine Musk is the author of three novels with a fourth on its way. She specializes in dark fantasy and the supernatural, and has written for both adult and young adult audiences. She lives the standard writer-fantasy: making a living crafting titles dealing with subjects that fascinate her.

I’m bringing Justine to your attention because she recently published a pair of insightful blog posts that dissect her journey into professional writing. This story is relevant to our mission here, as the goal of becoming a popular writer can be a stand-in for almost any quest to “become so good they can’t ignore you.” And as I’ve argued again and again, it’s this building of an outstanding ability — not the display of raw diligence — that ultimately generates remarkable lives.

I will leave the task of fully ingesting Justine’s posts to you. But I wanted to first mention a few key observations:

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The Hidden Art of Practice

October 21st, 2009 · 13 comments

Note: I’m giving a talk at Dartmouth on Wednesday, October 28. If you’re a Dartmouth student and are interested in meeting me, send me an e-mail. I might arrange a slot in my schedule for a group of us to get together and talk shop.

E-mail Wizard Guitar Practice

I don’t waste much time with e-mail. I typically check my inboxes two, maybe three times a day, and always process them back to empty.

(An exception to this rule are the copious e-mails from blog readers, which are shunted to their own inbox and which I work on once a day, in a pre-scheduled 30 minute slot that keeps my fixed-schedule intact.)

It’s a well-oiled, efficient machine, that keeps me connected to the world but also maximizes the hours I can spend in a state of hard focus.

There are three important points about this system that I want to draw your attention toward:

  1. It’s simple to understand and provides obvious benefits.
  2. Many people would love to do something similar.
  3. Few of them actually do.

It’s the contradiction of point 3 that motivates today’s post…

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The Grade Whisperer: Rapid-Fire Advice

October 13th, 2009 · 10 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.

The Return of Q & AAdvice

After spending a nice evening yesterday working through my backlog of Study Hacks e-mail, I felt inspired to do an old fashioned Q & A style post. I like these posts because they allow me to cover a lot of ground quickly and reinforce some of the Study Hacks basics. If you’re amenable, I’ll try to work more of these Q & A dashes into my regular rotation.

And as always, feel free to e-mail me with your own student questions.

From the reader mailbag:

While most of your site deals with college and some grad school advice, I haven’t seen anything for med students.  Have you talked to any successful students in med school?

Cal responds:

I have. The consistent message I hear from med students is that there’s a unique best way to study for each course/professor combo. If you can find this best way, then the task isn’t too bad. By contrast, if you don’t, you can end up spending endless hours and still not score as high as you hoped. With this in mind, these students recommend that for every class talk to both the professor, and older students who already took the class, about the best way to study.

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The Grade Whisperer: Ron’s Feeble Focus

October 9th, 2009 · 19 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.

Feeble FocusAdvice

A student who I’ll call Ron recently sent me an e-mail with an ominous title: Loss of Focus.

“I really enjoy most of my courses,” he started. “And I’m definitely not in the wrong major…But there are some courses that I find extremely difficult and uninteresting.”

There’s nothing surprising about this observation. As I’ve said before, you have to expect that not every course is going to incite scholastic reverie — some subjects you just have to grin and bear en route to becoming “educated.”

Ron, as it turned out, was having trouble with the “grin and bear” part of this equation.

“I sit down, stare at the books, and nothing happens,” he told me.  “After reading and solving problems for 15 minutes I get bored and distracted, start surfing the web, checking email or such.”

He concluded with a key question that I receive often:

You mention that hard focus is necessary. I agree, but my question is: How can I focus on difficult, unenjoyable, painful tasks?

It sounds like a job for the grade whisperer…

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Freestyle Productivity: Balancing Systems and Simplicity When Organizing Your Life

October 2nd, 2009 · 24 comments

A Geek Goes Back to BasicsPlan.txt

I recently received an e-mail from a college freshman. He described himself as “kind of a techie person,” which he then unambiguously confirmed by noting that his productivity system made use of Evernote, his iPhone, a calendar application, and an online to-do list service.

“I like adopting new gadgets and technology,” he told me. “But I feel it’s becoming more of a hindrance than help.”

Fed up with the maintenance of his crowded stable of productivity tools, this student recently tried an experiment in simplicity: he used only a paper notebook to informally organize his day.

“These were the most productive days of my life,” he said.

Does this mean that the student was converted to productivity Luddite? Not quite. Though he had enjoyed immense productivity, he still felt a creeping dread about his new approach.

“I’m afraid that if I only depend on paper and pencil I’ll lose something important or it’d be too hard to navigate after a few days.”

This student’s problem is a common one: how do you balance high-tech rigid solutions with low-tech informal solutions when organizing your student life?

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