Study Hacks Blog Posts on Tips: Time Management, Scheduling, & Productivity

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.)

Freestyle Productivity: Balancing Systems and Simplicity When Organizing Your Life

October 2nd, 2009 · 24 comments

A Geek Goes Back to BasicsPlan.txt

I recently received an e-mail from a college freshman. He described himself as “kind of a techie person,” which he then unambiguously confirmed by noting that his productivity system made use of Evernote, his iPhone, a calendar application, and an online to-do list service.

“I like adopting new gadgets and technology,” he told me. “But I feel it’s becoming more of a hindrance than help.”

Fed up with the maintenance of his crowded stable of productivity tools, this student recently tried an experiment in simplicity: he used only a paper notebook to informally organize his day.

“These were the most productive days of my life,” he said.

Does this mean that the student was converted to productivity Luddite? Not quite. Though he had enjoyed immense productivity, he still felt a creeping dread about his new approach.

“I’m afraid that if I only depend on paper and pencil I’ll lose something important or it’d be too hard to navigate after a few days.”

This student’s problem is a common one: how do you balance high-tech rigid solutions with low-tech informal solutions when organizing your student life?

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The Ice Bath Method: Easing Into Painful Projects

September 22nd, 2009 · 22 comments

A Difficult Talk

Bailey Next week, I’m giving the Theory Colloquium lecture here at MIT’s computer science laboratory. This means I’m facing one of the most common and most dreaded tasks of academic life: writing a talk.

Constructing good talks slides is grueling. The task is not so large that it can become a harmless background task in your life, and it’s not so small that it can be dispatched in a single inspired dash. In other words, like all medium-sized hard projects, it’s a catalyst for procrastination.

Here’s how I’m handling it…

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The Unsinkable Student Organization System

August 25th, 2009 · 27 comments

Back to BasicsFiling

As the back to school season transitions from looming to present, it’s time I turned our attention back to the technical details of becoming an outstanding student. In this post, I want to tackle a topic that’s relevant on the very first day of your new semester: staying organized.

Here’s the thing about student organization: what seems like a smart, comprehensive system to today you, will be later seen as a terrible prison that blackens your heart and steals your freedom by the future you mired in the middle of the semester. As you might have guessed, this future you will abandon your smart system and fall back into unorganized chaos.

I want to help you avoid this fate.

Below I describe a dead simple student organization system. It’s a collection of the three basic rules that I’ve used for the past nine years to keep on top of the information in my student life.

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What is Your Time Worth?

August 8th, 2009 · 29 comments

The Lecture After LastSchedule

In a talk given at the University of Virginia, soon after his famous Last Lecture, the late computer scientist Randy Pausch tackled an apropos subject: time management. Early in the talk, he revealed an interesting tidbit:

“When I meet with my new grad students,” he said, “I ask them how much their time is worth.”

His goal was to get them thinking about their time as a valuable commodity. It costs a university around $80,000 a year to support a doctoral student (sadly, only a small fraction of that is passed on in the student stipend). If you follow the standard grad student schedule, showing up in the afternoon and working into the night, then your time is being valued at around 30 to 40 dollars an hour.

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My Focus-Centric Work Day

May 13th, 2009 · 18 comments

Blocking TimeFocused

Earlier this year, I made an important improvement to my infamous 9 to 5 student work day. Instead of treating these hours as one undifferentiated mass, I added the following simple structure:

  1. Writing
  2. MIT #1
  3. Midday
  4. MIT #2
  5. Shoulder

The accompanying rules were simple. The first thing I do when I arrive at my office is write. I wrote my first two books predominantly between the hours of 9 and 10:30 am, and I’ve finished 2/3 of my new book during this same interval.

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The Shadow Course: A Simple Technique to Produce Extraordinary Work

May 4th, 2009 · 11 comments

Better AutopilotsThinking by water

As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I’m a big promoter of the autopilot schedule. In case you’re new, let me briefly review: The autopilot schedule is a set of fixed times and locations for finishing your regular work each week. For example, you might decide to always tackle your history reading assignments Monday morning, from 9 am to 11 am, in the study carrels found on the 6th floor stacks of the main library.

The shadow course, described below, is a simple optimization to the autopilot schedule that can generate huge benefits.

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4 Weeks to a 4.0: Adopt an Autopilot Schedule and a Sunday Ritual

March 30th, 2009 · 29 comments

4 Weeks to a 4.0 is a four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student. Each Monday between 3/30 and 4/20 I’ll post a new weekly assignment to aid your transformation.

Welcome to Week 1Time to Change

This is the first post in a new four-part series I’m calling 4 Weeks to a 4.0. Each Monday, for the next month, I’ll be posting a new weekly assignment. I can’t guarantee that you’ll immediately earn a 4.0 if you finish all four assignments, but your grades will definitely improve and your stress will definitely plummet. If you want to overhaul your study habits, but feel overwhelmed by all the changes this requires, then this series is for you. Your first assignment, presented below, covers some scheduling basics.

Week 1 Assignment: Autopilots and Rituals

The goal of this first week’s assignment is to help you reclaim your schedule. I don’t want to overwhelm you, so we’ll start small with two easy ideas: starting an autopilot schedule and initiating a Sunday ritual. Your assignment for this week is to adopt these strategies, which I detail below.

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