Study Hacks Blog Posts on Features: Eliminating Stress

Treat Your Mind as You Would a Private Garden

July 6th, 2010 · 56 comments


Living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time…rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.

This quote, tucked innocuously at the end of the third chapter of Rapt,  Winifred Gallagher’s 2009 ode to focus, is life-changing.

Gallagher’s book begins with a cancer diagnosis (“not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind”). She realizes that this disease wants to claim her attention, and that this was no way to live what may be the last moments of her life. So she launches an experiment to reclaim her attention, relentlessly redirecting it towards the things that matter most: “big ones like family and friends, spiritual life and work, and smaller ones like movies, walks, and a 6:30 pm martini.”

Gallagher comes away from the experiment with a good prognosis for her disease and a visceral appreciation of a surprising fact: “life is the sum total of what you focus on,” yet most people expend little effort cultivating this focus.

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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.

Are You a Guitar Player or Club Owner?

December 8th, 2009 · 29 comments

A Bluegrass SlogBluegrass

I recently began taking bluegrass guitar lessons.

It hasn’t been easy.

The style is precise, which means that it requires an abundance of repetitious practicing.  A typical session might proceed as follows:

  1. Listen to the same 10 – 30 second stretch of a song again and again, deconstructing the lead painfully, note by note, using your ear and a lot of trial and error.
  2. Play this section of the lead again and again for another 30 minutes to an hour — rarely getting through more than a few phrases without a mistake that forces you to start over.

Repeat this enough times, with an increasingly complicated progression of songs, and a weekly check-in with a teacher to correct subtle mistakes in your technique, and you’ll eventually be able to make your way through some basic bluegrass tunes without embarrassing yourself. In other words, the path to becoming even a passable amateur is long and demanding.

I’m sharing these observations because I think they provide an interesting metaphor for the task of building a remarkable life...

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Are Passions Serendipitously Discovered or Painstakingly Constructed?

November 24th, 2009 · 101 comments

Note (11/24/09): I’m leaving this afternoon for a Thanksgiving road trip. I’ll be slow to moderate comments and answer e-mail for the next week. I’m up to Nov. 10 in my reader e-mail queue. If you sent me an e-mail after that date, you haven’t been forgotten, and I’ll get to you as soon as I can.

Problems with PassionQuiet Study

My friend Scott Young recently published a blog post with an intriguing title: “What if you have more than one passion?” He reports that several readers admitted that they have “a hard time focusing” because they have “too many passions.”

My readers report their own problems with passion. Here are some excerpts from recent e-mails:

  • “I’m currently feeling great antipathy for physics…I’ve found myself questioning my passion for the subject. “
  • “My only true passion is biology, but it’s a damn big field in which I have no focus other than my general spiritual love for green things.”
  • “Yes, this particular major isn’t my passion. However, my studies are funded by my disciplinarian father…”

My point here is that “passion” seems to be a common source of problems. For some, they have too many passions and don’t know where to focus their energies. For others, it’s the lack of a passion, or maybe a belief that their particular passion won’t bring them somewhere worth going.

In this short post, I want to share a new way of looking at this troublesome concept…

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Are You Living Well or Preparing to Live Well?

September 9th, 2009 · 24 comments

Note: I started writing this article last April, when I was down in Rio de Janeiro. After my recent return from the similarly contemplation-inducing Bologna, I decided to finish it.

Ancient WisdomRio

When I began writing this article I was sitting on the balcony of a hotel room in Rio, looking over the beach pictured to the right. To my ear, the waves in Brazil are absurdly loud, which had the effect of miring me in a haze of tropic contemplation. It was in this state that I happened onto a thought that I couldn’t shake: perhaps the students who are feeling the most run down and worn out by college should take a moment to ask themselves a simple question…

Am I living well now or preparing to live well later?

This question is not new. In tribute to the death of a good friend, Tim Ferriss posted a full length translation of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I read this translation around the same time that I was thinking about this post, and one passage in particular caught my attention:

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The Rule of One: A Simple Technique to Create a Relaxed Student Life

August 31st, 2009 · 41 comments

Note (8/31/09): I’m leaving tonight to give a research talk in Bologna, Italy (yes, it’s a tough life I lead). I’ll almost definitely have internet access, but I’ll also be quite busy, so I give my typical warnings about being slow to post, answer e-mails, and moderate comments over the next week.

The (Over) Committed StudentThinking by water

Last week, I received an e-mail from a student who I’ve advised in the past. His new semester was about to start and he was worried about his schedule.

“I think I’m overcommitting myself,” he told me. “I considered dropping some activities, but it’s hard because I want to do them all.”

He then asked me to review the following “time budget” that he created for his schedule:

  • 5 courses — 24 hours/week in class
  • Lab volunteering — 15 hours/week
  • Peer educator and mentor — 10 hours/week
  • Exercise — 6 hours/week
  • Hospital volunteering — 3 hours/week
  • Executive of a club — 5 hours/week
  • Public speaking club — 8 hours/week

After reading his e-mail, I realized it’s time for me to revist one of the main themes preached here on Study Hacks: simplicity is beautiful.

The idea that doing less can actually make you more impressive is, of course, the cornerstone of my Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. I’ve also argued that doing lots of extracurricular activities is meaningless for your job hunt, and that overloaded course schedules are like a devestating virus that can destroy your life.

In this post, I want to add a new strategy to your minimilast arsenal.

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Focus Hard. In Reasonable Bursts. One Day at a Time.

August 20th, 2009 · 44 comments

Dissertation HellThesis

Writing a doctoral dissertation is a peculiar endeavor. There’s a general understanding, suspended out there in the stress-fraught ether of graduate student life, that this is supposed to be a brutal process. Consider, for example, the popular blog Dissertation Hell. Its tagline reads:

A place to rant publicly but anonymously on the many tortures of writing a dissertation.

In a recent post, titled A Last Day in Hell, an anonymous graduate student notes:

Many asked how I balance [my dissertation] with my life. The truth is I never did! … I did this for three or so months, 8 to 14 hours a day, every day of the week.

In a particularly dark twist, the student adds:

My aunt died of leukemia during that time, but I had promised her I would finish, so the night I found out I doubled my efforts and kept on going. EVERYTHING got put on hold.

Fortunately, during my own dissertation process, I was able to observe most of these frantic conventions with some semblance of objectivity. Having already written two books, and published over 20 peer-reviewed papers in my field, the task, while demanding, seemed far from “hellish.” But it did get me thinking about the conventions of student life and how we handle work.

In this post, I want to share some thoughts on why these big student projects cause so much stress and a strategy for alleviating this suffering.

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Should Your Major Be Your Passion?

July 14th, 2009 · 32 comments

Passion PlaysGrand Project

I’m proud to announce that as of this afternoon, I’m officially caught up with the reader e-mail I received during my recent vacation. While working through the final batch of these messages today, I came across a student, from the University of Melbourne, who mentioned the following in the middle of a longer question:

Yes, this particular major isn’t my passion. However, my studies are funded by my disciplinarian father who insists…

What caught my attention was his use of “passion.” I hear this term often from students in reference to their selections of college majors. (They’ll apologize or lament that they aren’t following their true passions, before moving on to enumerate the specific issues that trouble them.)

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