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

From “To Do” to “Will Do”: Using the Case Method to Defeat Procrastination

July 30th, 2011 · 38 comments

The Remarkable Life of Erez Lieberman

Last week, a reader sent me a profile of the scientist Erez Lieberman. Now I’m obsessed.

Lieberman is a Junior Fellow at Harvard’s elite Society of Fellows and a Visiting Faculty member at Google. He’s a boldly interdisciplinary mathematician who prizes interesting projects above all else. “I’m always on the lookout for new methods that I think will open up whole new domains,” he explained.

Lieberman cracked the 3D structure of human DNA, showing that our genes are packed in an esoteric geometric whimsy known as a fractal globule.

He used graph theory to improve our understanding of evolution.

He sifted through Google’s massive database of scanned books to search for statistical evidence of cultural shifts.

The six papers he lists on his web site were all published in either Science or Nature. Two were cover articles. He’s been featured on the front page of the New York Times, was a Tech Review 35 under 35, and won the $30,000 MIT-Lemelson prize for innovation.

He’s also only two years older than me.

Lieberman represents my dream of an academic career done right. He swings for the fences with wildly interesting projects which earn him recognition, but more importantly also earn him freedom. At this early point in his career, he can work on what he wants and where he wants. He’s constructed a life centered on intellectual novelty, and it’s remarkable.

The reason I’m writing this post, however, is what happened after I first encountered Lieberman’s story.

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I Don’t Know Another Science Student Less Stressed Than Me: A Case for Simplicity

July 25th, 2011 · 33 comments

Longtime readers of Study Hacks know I have a simple philosophy for students: do less, but do what you do really well. This pattern of success is astoundingly effective. It produces superstars — the type who have their pick of post-graduation employment. It also produces a low-stress and meaningful student life.

Every once and a while I like to share examples of this Zen Valedictorian strategy in action, just to remind my student readers what school could be like.

A nice case study arrived in my inbox this morning from a University of California student. His message was titled: “The Benefits of Being a Newportian.”

“I major in Earth Systems Science,” he told me, “and I implemented my interpretation of your Zen philosophy: extreme underscheduling of classes (a conservative 12-15 units per semester) and focusing on becoming really, really good at one thing — marine science.”

“This last semester I was in lab 25-30 hours a week, voraciously reading papers related to my field, and discussing them with my advisor. This lead to a fellowship which resulted in a publication of which I am co-first author.”

Your philosophies allowed me to publish this paper, get a 3.8 GPA, spend almost every night with my kick-ass girlfriend, and sleep plenty. I don’t know another science student less stressed than me.”

As you contemplate your double major and overloaded course schedule and nineteen extracurricular activities, remember this example. The most exceptional students are not the most busy; they’re the most focused.

They’re also the students heading over to see their girlfriend while you settle into the library for yet another all-nighter.

Posts on my Zen Philosophy in College:

Posts on my Zen Philosophy in High School:

How to Cure Deep Procrastination

July 15th, 2011 · 60 comments

The Deep Procrastination Crisis

Above is a snapshot of my blog e-mail inbox, filtered to only show e-mails from students struggling with deep procrastination. Notice that there are close to 60 such messages. If I include blog comments in the search, the number jumps into the hundreds.

Deep procrastination is a distressing affliction. Students who suffer from it lose the ability to start school work. Deadlines pass and they hand nothing in. Professors provide special extensions, but the students still can’t bring themselves to do the work. And so on.

As evidenced by my inbox, this issue is surprisingly common, especially at elite colleges. Yet it’s also almost entirely off the radar of traditional student counseling, which is why I dedicate time to it here.

In my previous post, I introduced a dubious evolutionary explanation for an otherwise very real phenomenon: procrastination, in my experience, is not a character flaw, but instead evidence that you don’t have a believable plan for succeeding at what you’re trying to do. In this post, as promised, I want to apply this evolutionary perspective to help better understand, and therefore better combat, the deep variety of this common issue.

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The Procrastinating Caveman: What Human Evolution Teaches Us About Why We Put Off Work and How to Stop

July 10th, 2011 · 75 comments

Survivor: Paleolithic Edition

Rewind time 100,000 years ago: several different species of humans co-exist on earth.There was, of course, our own species, Homo sapien, but we were joined by our more athletic siblings from the Tree of Life, Homo erectus, who had left Africa and colonized Asia long before we ventured beyond the mother continent, all the while another sibling, the stocky Neanderthal, was hunkered down in a European ice age.

Advance another 90,000 years, however, and our species is the only game left in town.

Scientists have worked hard to figure out why we survived while other early humans did not. The answer to this question lies at the core of our species’ story, but it also provides insight into a topic of significantly less importance on the grand scale, but nonetheless one that haunts many of us in our everyday lives: procrastination.

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