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

Anatomy of an A+: A Look Inside the Process of One of the World’s Most Efficient Studiers

May 18th, 2011 · 88 comments

Scott Young’s Graduation Gift to Study Hacks

I have to give credit to Scott Young: it was talking blogs with him back in 2007 that helped convince me to start Study Hacks. The fact that I link to Scott’s material again and again and again and again should tell you that we think in similar patterns.

The reason I’m bringing up Scott today is that he’s about to graduate from university. One of the things that intrigued when I first met him four years ago is that, like many students I profiled in the red book, he had the ability to score top grades without needing to study much.

It turns out that he kept this up: He will graduate this month with a GPA that hovers between an A and an A+, even though he almost never studied for more than a handful of hours.

In honor of Scott’s graduation, I asked him if he would share his secrets. I don’t want vague philosophies, I told him. Study Hacks readers are more interested in a blow-by-blow case study of exactly how he studied for a specific test, including screenshots of his notes and a careful accounting of his time.

Fortunately for us, Scott agreed. Below you’ll find the details of how he scored an A+ on a corporate finance exam that had a 50% failure rate at his university. His total time studying: 3.5 hours.

Take it away Scott…

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Lab Notes: I Spent 42 Hours Last Month on the Activity Most Critical to My Success

May 10th, 2011 · 35 comments

Lab notes is a regular feature in which I report on my efforts to make my life more remarkable.

A Minimalist Metric

The above image is of a sheet that hangs behind my desk at MIT. Please excuse the sloppy handwriting, it turns out to be difficult to write well on paper taped to a wall.

Starting in mid-March, I began to track the number of hours I spent thinking hard about computer science research problems. As you can see, in April I dedicated 42 hours to this task. In May, I’ve fallen behind, but am determined to catch up and ultimately beat April’s mark.

I love the simplicity of this minimalist metric. Those stupid little rows of hash marks prove surprisingly effective in focusing my attention back on what matters.

Yesterday, for example, this tally inspired me to first cut short my lunch and then relegate my weekly planning to my commute home. I love planning, and have been known to dedicate whole afternoons to the activity, but when I saw the paucity of research hours in May starting back at me, I cut and compressed and gained three ticks on the tally for my efforts.

The Core and the Periphery of Knowledge Work

This hack was motivated by my emerging understanding of knowledge work. We face two types of tasks in these jobs (my apologies to Wallerstein for bastardizing his terminology):

  • Core Tasks: The tasks that define how good you are at your job.
  • Periphery Tasks: The tasks you have to complete to keep your job, but that say nothing about your standing in your field.

Answering e-mail, for example, is almost always a periphery task, while working on something that a client paid you for is almost always a core task.

It has become increasingly clear to me that in most knowledge work, it’s those who go to battle, day after day, to defend their core tasks who end up somewhere remarkable. By contrast, it’s those who obsess over the periphery, and then get upset when no one cares, who end up tacking Dilbert strips to their cubicle wall.

Alan Lightman, Donald Knuth, Neal Stephensen, and Leo Babauta, for example, all gave up (public) e-mail. I realize now that what attracts me to their stories is that they’re examples of creatives who are willing to fight hard for their core.

This understanding of the core versus the periphery is what inspired me to track my hard research hours: this is the core task for my current job as a postdoc and my soon to start job as a professor. That sheet of tallies is not some master plan for success; it instead has a much humbler design: to give me that little boost I need each morning to suit up for yet another small skirmish in the larger battle for remarkability.