Study Hacks Blog Posts from January, 2011 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Of Pre-Med Schedules and the Possibility of Finishing Your Work Before Dinner

January 21st, 2011 · 98 comments

The Plight of the Pre-Med

Of all Study Hack readers, pre-meds are among the most skeptical. They tell me that although they like my philosophy of doing a small number of things well, this is impossible for them. Their course load is too demanding. Filling most waking hours with work is unavoidable.

Then there’s Nathan.

Nathan is pre-med at the University of Texas at Austin, where he’s currently tackling the weed out courses that give this major its bad reputation. Here’s what makes Nathan interesting to me: he finishes his work by 5:30 pm every weekday.

In fact, he doesn’t just finish it, he dominates it.

“On the last chemistry test, the average score was a 57,” he told me recently. “I made a 98…My professors are fascinated by me.”

Naturally, I asked him to share a typical day’s schedule:

  • 6:00 to 6:30: Breakfast/Shower
  • 6:30 to 9:30: Study
  • 9:30 to 10:20: Class
  • 10:30 to 11:30: Study
  • 11:30 to 12:30: Lunch
  • 12:30 to 1:30: Class
  • 1:30 to 2:30: Class
  • 2:30 to 5:30: Study
  • 5:30 to 11:00: Chill by meeting girls, explore the rolling hills and lakes of Austin, listen to live music, etc.

Here are two things I noticed about Nathan:

First, he’s not necessarily working less than his peers. His schedule includes 40 hours of studying per week, which is about right for his course load. He simply consolidates this work better.

“But he wakes up at 6,” you might complain, “I could never do that.”

Nathan’s out chasing girls before most students have even started their work for the day. Fair trade, if you ask me.

The second thing I noticed is that he’s obsessive about focus. He doesn’t just “study,” he works on the 7th floor of the engineering library: one of the most isolated spots on campus (see the above image). He works in 50 minutes chunks, and does 10 minutes of calisthenics, right there on the library floor, between every chunk. In three hours of this focused studying, he probably accomplishes more work than most pre-meds do in ten.

I don’t claim that Nathan represents a specific system that all pre-med students should follow. To me, he’s just a nice example of a more fundamental observation: the happiest students are those who take control of their academic experience, molding it to fit their own ideal of a life well-lived.


This post initiates a new experiment I want to try here on Study Hacks. In addition to my regular, in-depth articles, which I post about once every two weeks, I want to also post the occasional short essay, such as this one, when a particular idea or example catches my attention. These short posts don’t take long to put together and won’t affect our regularly schedule programming.

(As the alert reader may have noticed, the titling scheme of these essays is a hat tip to Montaigne, the original blogger.)

The Race to Somewhere: How to Make the College Admissions Process the Foundation for a Life Well-Lived

January 9th, 2011 · 28 comments

The Race to Somewhere

The new documentary Race to Nowhere, following the tradition of movies such as Food Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth, is less about introducing a new idea, and more about providing a clear distillation of ideas already on peoples’ minds. This film, which presents a concerned mother’s investigation of the “high-stakes, high-pressure culture” of the American educational system, provides parents a focus for their otherwise ambiguous unease about rising student stress.

As one mother reacted after a Washington D.C.-area screening:  “I think more people need to be willing to take a step back and ask, ‘Why are we doing this?'” She then spread the word about the film to her local PTA.

Like most good issue films, Race to Nowhere separates the problem from the solution.  “[The co-directors] admirably convey the complexity of the issue with considerably more compassion than prescription,” complimented The New York Times. But now that this documentary has succeeded, and the issue of student stress is once again a hot topic, commentators such as myself can safely join the “prescription” side of this conversation.

Accordingly, in this essay, I want to present my unconventional view on student stress at the secondary school level: the college admissions process, which is the main driver of student stress, doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and in fact, if approached correctly, can instead become the foundation for a life well-lived.

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