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

The Stable Mucking Method: A Freestyle Approach To Keeping the Annoying Little Stuff Under Control

November 18th, 2008 · 6 comments

This post is a companion to last week’s essay on using a plan.txt file to organize your work. Both are inspired by my freestyle productivity philosophy. However, whereas last week’s post focused on handling the big stuff, this week’s post focuses on keeping up with the small.

The Cost of FocusManure

Here’s a problem I’ve faced recently: my obsessive focus on a small number of important project causes me to fall behind on the annoying little administrative stuff that pops up on a daily basis. I’m not talking about the regularly occurring minutia, like cleaning my apartment or working out: these can be easily handled with an autopilot schedule. I am referring, instead, to the random, unexpected productivity lint that regularly clogs my inbox and emanates a powerful aura of procrastination-inducing annoyance.

Over the past year or so, I’ve tried several failed strategies to rectify this situation, including:

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Plan.txt : The Most Effective Productivity Tool That You’ve Never Heard Of

November 11th, 2008 · 56 comments

The Two Faces of ProductivityPlan.txt

Productivity can be divided into two main concerns. The first is capturing and organizing all of the “stuff” you have to do.

This is the fun part.

This is where you buy fancy notebooks and configure Remember the Milk to auto-sync with your iPhone. It keeps productivity blogs in business and makes David Allen rich.

The second concern is actually doing the stuff that you need to do.

This is much less fun.

This post is about this second concern. I don’t claim to have a universal answer. But there is a simple technique that I’ve been using since last January, and that has significantly increased my churn rate. This technique centers on a small, innocuous text file sitting on my computer desktop — a file named plan.txt

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Monday Master Class: Getting Things Done for College Students…Made Easy

October 6th, 2008 · 27 comments

Complicated GoodnessSchedule

In July of 2007, the first month of Study Hacks’ existence, I posted an article introducing Getting Things Done for College Students (GTDCS). This time management system was a modification of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), tweaked for the college lifestyle. It was meant for students who needed something more than the simple system described in Straight-A or in this infamously titled post.

Here’s the problem…

Though the original article has become a cult classic among some GTD aficionados, it has also been described as…well…long and boring and complicated and hard to follow.

There. I said it.

In this post, I want to provide a much more simple summary of GTDCS — something that doesn’t require monastic concentration to understand. Below I hit the highlights you need to get started. If you crave the obsessive details, check out the original post.

GTDCS Made Easy

The GTDCS system is built of five pieces. The first three match GTD almost exactly. The last two contain the extra magic I threw in to fit the college lifestyle.

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Monday Master Class: The Retreating Deadline Method

September 22nd, 2008 · 16 comments

Dated ThinkingRelaxed Reader

I rarely know the date that things are due. Yet I’m not disorganized. I check my calendar every morning, and it contains dozens of deadlines. But here’s the thing: few of them match the actual due dates. They are almost all earlier; sometimes much earlier.

I’m not sure exactly when I started this habit. It was sometime during college. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a clever strategy; it was, instead, just something I did to keep stress low and my feeling of self-control high. Only now am I’m starting to recognize it for what it is: a highly effective strategy for handling a college-level workload.

The Retreating Deadline Method

I can formalize this habit of mine as follows:

  • Shift the due dates of all major assignments, papers, and exams at least one day earlier on your calender.
  • For the purposes of working on the assignment, writing the paper, or studying for the exam, forget about the original date. (Obviously, for the purposes of taking an exam, remember the real date!)
  • Construct your work schedule to finish by the new date, as if it was real.

The benefit of this advice is profound. By avoiding work on the day before something is due you basically avoid ever feeling time pressure. This significantly reduces your student stress. (Even if you’re super efficient, it’s still nerve-wracking to wake up the day before a paper deadline with a lot of writing to complete.)

Another benefit is the sense of self control you gain by freeing yourself from a “last minute” mindset. When you finish assignments a day (or more) before your classmates’ final scrambles, you feel like you’re the master of your own academic universe. This confidence is exhiliarting.

But What About Procrastination?

There’s an elephant in the room here: procrastination. Some students react to this suggestion with disbelief. “I can’t finish work early!” they cry. “I’m a procrastinator!”

Let’s deconstruct this complaint. As we know, there are two sources of procrastination. The first is deep procrastination, which comes from a fundamental resentment toward to difficulty of your workload. If you’re suffering from deep procrastination, no small strategy will help you. The only solution is to simplify. Switch to a major you like, drop most of your “List A” activities, and take a reasonable course load.

The other type of procrastination comes from poor scheduling — “I have plenty of time…oh shit, it’s due tomorrow!” — and bad study habits — “I don’t even know how to get started.” Both are easily fixed. Get a calendar. And make a study plan for each assignment, paper, or test. (Browse the study tips archives for tactical inspiration.)

A Small Change. A Big Impact

What’s nice about the retreating deadline method is that it doesn’t require more work. It simply shifts your existing work by a small amount. This small change, however, radically transforms the way you feel you about your student life. If you’re tired of stress, try this for a few upcoming assignments. You’ll be hooked.

Monday Master Class: The Quarantine Method for Producing Better Work in Less Total Hours

September 15th, 2008 · 7 comments

Excavating CrapCalm Reading

In a 2004 interview, author Neal Stephenson noted the following about his writing process:

I did figure out that I tended to write good stuff first thing in the morning. So I had all this free time in the rest of the day that I had to occupy with something other than writing. Because if I sat and [continued to write], I’d just bury the good stuff I’d written in crap and have to excavate it later.

Neal discovered when he could write well. He also discovered where: as revealed in the same interview, he works in a basement alcove, surrounded by artifacts relating to the manuscript in progress, recording his words — believe it or not — with a fountain pen.

He then quarantined his creative efforts to this highly productive window.

His key insight: continuing to work beyond these optimal conditions could actually make things worse — forcing him to return later to clean up the unfocused crap produced when his mind wasn’t fully in the game.

From Writers to Students

I tell you this story because I think the same insight can drive you to become a more efficient student. Like Neal, you probably have some scholastic equivalent to his early mornings in the basement alcove; an environment in which your mind is really ready to rock. Following his logic, you could conclude that if you want to produce the best quality results with a minimum number of total hours, you should quarantine your work to (only) these high-octane windows.

The “only” modifier is the tricky part. It asks you to accept the idea that working beyond your peak conditions might make things worse — creating weak paper writing, or confusing your understanding of an assignment in a way that will require more time down the road to fix.

Work Without Pain

The obvious appeal of this approach is lack of pain. There are few sensations more soul-deadening than pseudo-work. By contrast, when you’re firing on all mental cylinders, and riding that Csíkszentmihályi high, even the most convoluted assignment can fascinate.

A problem, however, lurks. The average college student has a lot of work; more than maybe can be finished in a few hours each morning. I recognize this shortcoming. But I can recommend some common sense advice that can bring you closer to the dream of a Stephenson-style quarantined work flow:

  1. Increase the size of your quarantine periods by staying rested, exercising, eating well and avoiding energy sapping distractions like the Interweb.
  2. Decrease the amount of work you have to accomplish by embracing Radical Simplicity. Less courses. Less majors. Less activities. Kick ass at a very small number of things.
  3. Decrease the time required for your work by obsessing over the efficiency of your technical habits.
  4. Increase your efficiency by caring, like Neal, about your location and the artifacts that surround you. There’s a difference between working in a dorm study lounge with your Internet-connected laptop open, a chewed Bic, and an old notebook, and working in the rare books room, armed with a Black n’ Red and a Mont Blanc StarWalker.
  5. Start everything early. You might think that today requires many hours of work because you have two reading assignments and a problem set due. But if you had started those last weekend, when you had nothing else on your plate, you wouldn’t be in this trouble now.

You’ve heard many of these ideas before: location matters, time of day matters, energy matters. But I think Neal’s anecdote smashes them together beautifully, and then finishes things off with the novel twist about the danger of working beyond your quarantine.

Let’s review:

Point one: working when you’re not at your peak makes things worse.

Point two: accordingly, you should organize your student work schedule to quarantine your efforts to (only) peak-inducing environments.

Simple. But if Neal’s writing output is any indicator, also devastatingly effective.

(Photo by g-hat)

Monday Master Class: Conquer Cramming with the Same Day Rule

July 28th, 2008 · 8 comments

Bad Problem, Worse MetaphorStudent Studys

Are you a procrastinator? Not necessarily a psychologically-scarred, can’t start work if your life depended on it because you resent your major and are crushed by the weight of your parent’s expectations-style deep procratinator, but instead someone who tends to wait just a little bit too long to get started on big assignments? The type that ends up getting your ass kicked by built-up work at the end of every term?

Many students are in your same boat.

Today, I want to give you a simple rule that will turn your academic rudder and point this boat back towards shore. Where the shore, in this instance, represents the promised land of not procrastinating, and my introduction represents how to construct a terrible, strained metaphor.

A Common Scenario

Here’s the scenario. It’s October 5th, the semester is young, you’re in your art history class marveling at how much better dressed everyone in the room is than you (something about art history students always make me feel, by comparison, like I was dressed by a rabid pack of color-blind monkeys). The professor hands out a sheet describing your big scary original research paper due at the end of the semester.

Your instinct is to immediately lose the sheet and then forget about the big scary original research paper until a few weeks before it’s due. At this point you’ll start diligently adding it to the very top of your to-do list, perhaps accented by several stars for emphasis, and then promptly do nothing. Finally, with a week to go, panic kicks in and you’ll dash together the type of sloppy of paper that makes professors sigh loudly then reach for that bottle hidden in their bottom desk drawer.

I want you to resist this urge. I want you to instead do do something so stunning, so unexpected, that it may take a moment for you to regain your senses: I want you to get started on the assignment the same day it’s assigned.

Allow me to explain…

The Same Day Rule

This rule is one of the most effective procrastination defusers I’ve yet to encounter. It’s formalized as follows:

For every medium to large size assignment, do some work toward its completion the same day that it’s assigned.

It should be serious work; at least a half-hour. But it certainly doesn’t have to eat up your whole evening. The logic here is simple. Big assignments scare us so we resist starting. As we all know, once you get started, the scariness diminishes and it’s easier to make progress. The same day rule takes advantage of this reality and pushes it to its extreme.

A few implementation tips:

  • You can adjust the rule to require that you get started within a week. For example, I used to leave my Saturdays free from regular work like reading assignments and problem sets. When given a major project, I would, at first, use some time on Saturday to start making progress. There was something nice about it being the only task for the day (other than killing a hangover.)
  • The best first steps involve planning. You can’t, of course, start writing a research paper the day its assigned. You can, however, gather some books or sketch out the type of sources you need to make progress.
  • The best first steps end with the identification of the second step. If you want to reap the full benefit of this rule, make sure you end your first small piece of work having clearly identified the next small piece of work. At this point, the big scary project has been reduced to a tiny little next action that you’re happy to act upon.


It’s a simple piece of advice. But one I still use. Not only does it take away the fear of large assignments, but there’s something about starting so early that gives you a little jolt of self-satisfaction. Like some sort of academic junkie, you’ll begin to crave this jolt, and might just find yourself cured of your procrastination habit altogether. At very least, your shiny ‘A’ might impress all those well-dressed bastards who think they’re so much cooler than you.

(Photo by xb3)

Monday Master Class: A Crash Course in Student Time Management

June 30th, 2008 · 26 comments

Productivity GlueClock

I dispense a lot of academic advice on this blog. I’ve dived into the details of note-taking and exam review and paper writing. Loyal readers can casually toss around acronyms like Q/E/C and Q&R, and chat lightly about focused question clusters and flat outlines. These strategies make the academic piece of college life easier. Underpinning this advice, however, and acting as the productivity glue that holds everything together, is the arguably most crucial component: time management.

If you can’t control your time, the smartest study strategies in the world won’t help you. As you might expect, I talk a lot about time management. (Indeed, an entire third of How to Become a Straight-A Student is dedicated to the topic.)

With this in mind, I’ve rounded up some of the best Study Hacks time management articles of the past year. If you’re having trouble keeping a handle on your schedule, hopefully you’ll find the help you need in the advice presented below.

A Study Hacks Crash Course in Student Time Management

Getting Things Done for College Students
The final article in a series that adapts David Allen’s GTD system to the specific demands of college life. This basic philosophy has provided the backbone of my task management system for at least four years now.

The Visual Panic Schedule
A simple technique for turbo-charging your time management during busy periods. It’s how I survive the end of the semester crunch.

The Auto-Pilot Schedule
The cornerstone of any efficient student’s time management system: fix your regular work to a regular schedule that frees you from having to think about when (or if) to do it. I can’t under-emphasize the stress reduction this approach provides.

Fixed-Schedule Productivity
Do you feel overwhelmed by all the work, and activities, and random crap that clogs your schedule? Read this article. The basic idea is to start with the workload you want, then ruthlessly cut, reduce, and cancel until you achieve it. Skeptical? It’s what has allowed me to work a 9 to 5, weekday-only schedule in one of the world’s most intense graduate programs.

Time Arbitrage
Not all time is created equal. This article teaches you how to rearrange your hours so that the activities that need the most attention get the spot in your schedule that can best provide it. Adopting this mindset can significantly reduce the number of hours you work without reducing the work accomplished.

Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work
This popular articles lays out the philosophy of pseudo-work: the hidden killer of student schedules. The core idea is simple: hours alone mean nothing. You have to factor in your intensity of focus. If you’re not managing your energy, and studying in long, fatigue-saturated, late-night marathons, you’re not really getting much done.

Don’t Use a Daily To-Do List
To-do lists by themselves are terrible time management tools. This articles introduces time-blocking, the only reasonable way for a student to plan his or her day.

A Time Management System for Students Who Are Terrible at Time Management And Tend to Hate it More Than Slow Torture Involving Electrical Current and Sensitive Anatomy.
An article from the early days that walks through a drop-dead simple system for students who are terrible at time management…but need something that’s better than nothing. I like to think of this as a solid first step toward a magic world of auto-piloted, fixed-scheduled, GTDCS super-studentdom.

Apply the Weakest Link Theory to Time Management
An important — though under-appreciated — article that focuses on a often overlooked piece of any time management system: how hard it is to restart after you fall of the wagon. (The savvy reader will appreciate the irrelevant, Malcolm Gladwell style, too long narrative-driven introduction. I believe it involves the space shuttle…for some reason.)

Monday Master Class: The Visual Panic Schedule

May 12th, 2008 · 17 comments

Visual Panic Schedule

Busy, Busy, Busy…

I have, once again, entered one of those delightful busy periods that threatens to rip all of one’s best laid productivity plans into a pile of once good intentioned but now useless shreds. The reasons fit the standard litany: end of the semester work colliding with a random cluster of grad student-ey administrative work colliding with three trips in four weeks.

We’ve all been here…

The Panic Schedule

Most students follow a similar strategy to cope with this scenario: the panic schedule. The idea is simple: you list out everything that needs to get done during the crazy period and then make some attempt to come up with a schedule that covers the crunch. Sometimes, however, this mega-list approach fails to provide the desired salve to your aching productivity soul. You don’t trust it. You find yourself constantly reviewing what’s coming up and trying to re-convince yourself work will get done. Deadlines collapse into other deadlines. Too much work is squeezed into too tight spaces, and soon your days fall back into chaos.

In this post I want to describe a simple variation to the panic schedule that helps me both plan busy periods and remain calm throughout.

Go Visual

For me, my panic schedules begin and end with the visual. Specifically, the first step I take when faced with a busy period is to print a blank calendar for the month(s) ahead. (I get my blank calendar templates from this web site.)

I then follow, roughly speaking, a process that looks something like this:

  1. List out all the projects that need to get done during the hard period. Label each with its deadline.
  2. Add all deadlines plus relevant travel, appointments, and other date-specific obligations to the calendar. (I tend to draw dark boxes around these items to make them pop out.)
  3. Estimate the number of work days needed for each project.
  4. Start adding project work days to the calendar. I sometimes invent extra visual flourishes to help distinguish certain important work. This helps me quickly visualize exactly when the most important projects are going to get done. (A necessary stress reliever.)
  5. Shuffle, edit, and tweak until you feel confident that no one day is unrealistically packed and everything has a place.
  6. Panic when you realize there is too much and you can’t satisfy (5). At this point start canceling and negotiating. Following the 4D method, you might start getting rid of obligations or re-negotiating different future dates for non-urgent tasks. Then go back to (5).

Case Study: My Visual Panic Schedule

I’ve included at the top of this post a scan of the visual panic schedule fueling my May. Notice the visual improvisation. I have stars around the editing work for my big research paper due next Monday (because not getting this done is a particular source of worry). In some places I added arrows. The big deadlines and travel dates have nice drop-shadows because, as everyone will admit, drop-shadows are awesome. Etc.

The big picture idea here, however, is that I have taken a lot of work that has to get done in a short period of time, and then made the plan to handle it visual. A 10 second glance at the calendar reassures me that everything will get done and that the schedule makes sense. A long list containing the same elements would not provide the same relief. My mind sees a list and thinks: “This looks long, is this really going to happen?” And then it stresses. On the other hand, it sees this calendar and can say: “Oh, I edit today. Good. ” And then it relaxes.

It’s a simple trick to improve a common strategy. And like the best simple tricks, its impact is significant.