Study Hacks Blog Posts from April, 2010 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

The Upside of Deep Procrastination

April 29th, 2010 · 47 comments

Earlier this afternoon I read an e-mail from a sophomore at Yale.

“I’ve always been a good student and I know that I’m smart and capable, but lately I’ve been having such a hard time,” she began.

“I’m having trouble completing assignments, even though I have sufficient time.  I avoid seeking out help, preferring instead to just freak out alone in my room.”

This student recognized her trouble as deep procrastination — the exceedingly common student affliction of losing the will to work.

While responding to her message, I had an interesting realization: deep procrastination, though scary, represents something important and perhaps even exciting. It marks that key transition where the momentum of “this is what you need to do” — the momentum that carried you through high school and into college — begins to wane, leaving you to discover a new source of propulsion — not just new, but also more durable and more personal.

It’s important to side step the self-help cliches in this situation. It’s unlikely that you’ll unearth a burning life’s mission hidden conveniently just below the surface of your psyche. What you seek is more fundamental: an acceptance that doing things well is hard, and always will be, and that you need to spend more time than you thought was necessary deciding which such hard things gain rights to your attention.

None of this is easy. All of it is exciting.

With all of this in mind, I had no magical solution to offer this worried sophomore. I could only suggest that she take a step back and reduce the frantic Yale pace, maybe for just one semester, leaving space for her new propulsion to build a head of steam.

Quick Hits: Searching for E-mail Renegades, Rethinking Work, and Listening to Ramit’s Take on Student Loans

April 26th, 2010 · 19 comments

Quick hits is an occasional feature where I take a breather between my epic big idea posts to share ideas, ask questions, and in general provide a catch-all place for me to catch up with you.

E-mail RenegadesE-Mail Zero

As part of an exciting writing project, I’m looking for people who have taken drastic steps to reduce the distraction generated by electronic communication tools — e-mail, social networks, twitter, etc. I’m more interested in big changes — e.g., getting rid of public e-mail addresses — than I am in moderation — e.g., checking e-mail only twice a day.

I’m interested in stories from knowledge workers, entrepreneurs, and folks in academia — be it professors, grad students, or undergraduates.

If this describes you or if you know someone like this, please e-mail me: author [at] 

Interesting Links

  • “When it comes to student loans, financial aid, and higher education, everyone’s got an opinion. They just usually happen to be wrong.” Thus opens Ramit Sethi’s barnburner of an article on the costs of higher education.
  • “Comfortably situated in Chicago outside of the ‘start-up’ echo chamber, 37Signals is focused on getting sh*t done instead of chasing the Silicon Valley venture capital death spiral” This is Tim Ferriss’ description of the tech firm 37Signals. I’ve been fascinated by this Chicago-based company since I first read about their four day work week policy. Ferriss’ article is a great introduction to their unconventional thinking on integrating work into a full life.
  • “This would suggest that sometimes you’re not going to be interested in something right out of the gate.” This is one of several interesting conclusions from Ben Casnocha’s recent article on the science behind interest development. (A topic, incidentally, that I cover in-depth in my new book on college admissions. Did I mention that I had a new book coming out?)

Coming Up

I have two provocative posts in the works. One describes recent research on people who describe their work as “a calling,” while the other explores the controversial idea that competitive college admissions can actually be good for students.

Stay tuned…

Why Does the World’s Top Mathematician have a Public E-Mail Address?

April 16th, 2010 · 27 comments

Math Classroom

The late summer of 2006 was a heady time for Terry Tao. First, in August of that year, he received the Fields Medal, an elite prize, given only once every four years, that honors the world’s top mathematicians. (One of Tao’s fellow prizewinners in 2006 was Grigori Perelman, the eccentric Russian who roared to international celebrity by solving the long-standing Poincaré conjecture.)

Next, less than a month after his return from the Fields ceremony, Tao learned that he won a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant” — leading the LA Times to dub him a “Mozart of Math.”

Here’s what interests me about Tao: on his well-trafficked web site, he has a contact page that starts…

The best way to contact me is via e-mail.

It then goes on to list 22 different types of e-mails that he will not respond to — a list that includes invitations to “collaborate,” “contribute data to a project,” “give [a] talk,” or “attend seminars or conferences.” He also declines requests for “career advice” and “copies of his work.” On a separate page, he notes that he’s “not giving [media] interviews at this time,” and diverts all other queries to a representative of the UCLA office of media relations.

In other words, Terry Tao doesn’t want to hear from you.

And this is completely understandable.

The world’s top math mind is most valuable to society when it’s solving our knottiest combinatorial quandaries. Dedicating hours to interview requests and career advice seems somehow wasteful.

But this motivates an intriguing question: why have a public e-mail address at all? Certainly it would be simpler for him to omit any contact information from his web page.

I don’t know the specific reasons for Tao’s pseudo-accessibility, but his story emphasizes a general trend I first identified in my essay on quitting Facebook: our society has a warped relationship with communication technology. Instead of deploying tools like e-mail to maximize our effectiveness, we grant them default positions in our lives protected by an impossibly high threshold for disuse — a threshold usually articulated as: “If there is any possible negative consequence of abandoning full-throttled use of this technology, I won’t.”

The scenario that intrigues me is not to move to an opposite extreme and promote a world of techno-Luddism. I like to ponder what the middle ground might look like — a philosophy of work where communication technology is isolated and tuned to specific circumstances where it provides unambiguous benefit, and ruthlessly culled elsewhere.

I’m not sure what such a future would look like, but I can only hope that it doesn’t include contact policies so complex that only a mathematician can fully understand them.

(Photo by Christopher Albert)

Corrupted Callings: The Subtle Difference Between Finding Your Life’s Work and Loving Your Life

April 9th, 2010 · 66 comments

McKibben at Home

The Lonely Rise of Sonya Sotomayor

Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Bronx, not far from Edenwald Houses, the borough’s largest public housing project, sits the Cardinal Spellman Highschool — a private, yet still affordable catholic high school (the annual tuition is under $7000), that has been for the past fifty years, as Lauren Collins put it in a recent New Yorker article, home to “strivers of assorted ethnicities” attempting to better their situation.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that a young Sonya Sotomayor found her way to Spellman in the fall of 1968. After distinguishing herself academically (she was valedictorian), Sotomayor graduated from the Bronx to Princeton University and then on to Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Law Review. After paying her career-appropriate dues in the New York District Attorney’s office, she moved into corporate law.

In 1991, Sotomayor was appointed a district court judge, and in 1997 she advanced to the court of appeals. Even at this early stage, her potential to become a Supreme Court justice was recognized (Rush Limbaugh dedicated an entire show during her appeals court confirmation to stalling her “rocket ship to the Supreme Court”). Earlier this year, Sotomayor realized this potential when President Obama nominated her to fill the seat vacated by David Souter.

Sotomayor is great at what she does and loves doing it. Translated into the vernacular of modern career advice: she found her calling.

But at what cost? 

In a column written during Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, David Brooks describes the ambitious jurist as an exemplar of a “meritocracy that gets more purified and competitive by the year, with the time demands growing more and more insistent.” As Brooks noted, Sotomayor divorced twice and is candid about her workaholism.

“Certainly the fact that I was leaving my home at 7 and getting back at 10 o’clock was not of assistance in recognizing the problems developing in my marriage,” she once said.

Sotomayor’s story and Brooks’ commentary were brought to my attention in a trio of posts written by Ben Casnocha. In these posts, Ben argues that a calling — which he defines, quoting Michael Lewis, as “an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it” — is usually pursued at the expense of the other important areas of your life.

“If you want a calling, you don’t have time for a family,” Ben proposes.

Casnocha and Brooks are correct to notice that true callings are often truly corrupting to the overall quality of their subject’s lives. High stakes fields like law or finance, for example, are rich with Sotomayor-style workaholics. But this Faustian trade-off is not inevitable.

In this post, I highlight a different path; one that preserves both elements of the remarkable life — professional engagement and deep enjoyment of daily living. To do so, I’ll enlist the aid of a provocative personality who started life on a similar trajectory as Sotomayor, but then split off in an unexpected direction.

Read more »

I Got a C on My Orgo Exam! What Should I Do?

April 1st, 2010 · 71 comments

Note: Though my new format focuses on publishing in-depth articles twice a month, I still reserve the right to occasionally publish one my classic-style student advice articles. 


The Pre-Med’s Lament

I recently received the following e-mail:

“I’ve failed both of my tests in Organic Chemistry 2…I don’t know what I’m doing wrong…no matter how much I review or study my class notes, nothing seems to work.”

This is a familiar lament. I recently reviewed the student e-mails I’ve received so far in 2010, and discovered that I average around one “I failed my Orgo exam!” e-mail per week.

That’s a lot of unhappy pre-meds.

I decided it was time to write a definitive answer to this common issue.  This post details my famous three-step plan for turning around a chemistry disaster.

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