Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Straight-A Gospels: Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work

July 26th, 2007 · 83 comments

This is the first post in a three-part series focusing on the Straight-A Gospels — the core concepts behind my book, How to Become a Straight-A Student.

Today we focus on Gospel #1: Pseudo-work does not equal work

Here are two facts: (1) I made straight A’s in college. (2) I studied less than most people I know. The same holds true for many of the straight-A students I researched for my book. If this sounds unbelievable, it is probably because you subscribe to the following formula:

work accomplished = time spent studying

The more time you study the more work you accomplish. The more work you accomplish, the better your grades. Ergo, straight A’s imply more work. Right? Then how do you explain me and my interview subjects…

To understand our accomplishment, you must understand the following, more accurate formula:

work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus

That last factor — intensity of focus — is the key to explaining why straight-A students never seem to embark on the same fatigue-saturated all-night study adventures that most undergrads rely on. Let’s take a specific example. Assume that you have a paper to write. The standard approach is to camp out in the library the day before and work until you finish.

Here’s the problem: even with little breaks, there are only so many consecutive hours of work you can manage before your intensity of focus crashes (in practice, this value is probably close to 2-3 hours for most students). Therefore, most of your time spent working features low focus, increasing the time required to accomplish the task at hand.

Let’s say, for example, that your heroic paper writing marathon takes around 10 hours (which matches my experience for a mid-sized paper written in one stretch). The following chart describes your focus over time (rating focus on a scale of 1 – 10):

Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
hour 1 : 10
hour 2 : 9
hour 3 : 5
hour 4 : 2
hour 5-10 : 1

[For math geeks, this is standard exponential decay.]

If we take the area under this curve, we see that the pseudo-worker has accomplished: 32 units of work.

Now let’s consider another approach. Assume, instead, that you break up the paper writing into two bursts. One burst you do for two hours Saturday afternoon. The other burst you do for two hours on Sunday morning. The long gap in between ensures your focus can recharge. Following the rates of focus decay used above, your chart looks like:

Intensity of Focus over Time for Short Burst Approach
hour 1 (sat) : 10
hour 2 (sat) : 9
hour 3 (sun) : 10
hour 4 (sun) : 9

Clearly, this work schedule is much less painful. Just two hours at a time. And a whole day separating the two sessions. However, when we calculate the area under this curve, we see that the short burst approach accomplished: 38 units of work!

In other words, working fewer hours, in a much less painful configuration, the short-burst accomplished more work than the marathon approach. (19% more to be exact)

Not surprisingly, most straight-A students I interviewed, myself included, admitted to studying in short, focused bursts, with plenty of time in between to recharge. As our above example demonstrates, if you integrate focus into your work equation, it becomes plausible to accomplish more work in less time and with less pain.

Here’s the cool thing: the short-burst approach doesn’t require extraordinary effort. At no point was the focus higher with this approach than it had been at some point during the marathon approach. Simply by manipulating when the studying happened, and nothing else, the productivity was significantly increased.

Jason, a straight-A student from Penn, used the term “pseudo-work” to describe the low-focus, time-intensive marathon style of work. I think this term is apt. Pseudo-work feels like work. It’s hard and time is being spent. But it’s not really accomplishing much.

It follows that one of the most important steps you can take to improve your academic performance is to eliminate all pseudo-work from your study habits. Let’s conclude with some tips for putting this idea into practice.

Tips for Eliminating Pseudo-Work

  1. Take a ten minute break for every hour worked. This helps reduce the rate at which your focus intensity decays.
  2. Never work more than three hours (with ten minute breaks) before taking significant time off.
  3. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy. Exercise. These factors control your energy. Your energy impacts your focus.
  4. Work in the morning and afternoon. Try to accomplish as much as possible before dinner. Your focus degrades quicker at night, and activities during the day will force your work into smaller bursts.
  5. Always study in a quiet, distraction-free location. Talking roommates or a TV in the background will lower your focus.

In the next part of this series we tackle the second Straight-A Gospel: Studying is a Technical Skill. Stay Tuned…

(For more coverage of pseudo-work, and how to eliminate it, see Part I of How to Become a Straight-A Student.)

83 thoughts on “The Straight-A Gospels: Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work

  1. Sunnybayes says:

    Hey awesome. I hoped someone would start a blog about this. Thanks.

  2. Albert says:

    I noticed it too. There’s something about that dinner…

    What great tips here. Thanks.

  3. zeep says:

    This is really great advice. I’m guilty of digging my heels in some low-level task, and then shorting the time needed for more important academic work because it felt like I was being superproductive.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    @zeep:

    glad to hear you’ve seen the pseudowork light. Welcome to the cult…I mean, club… :)

  5. Udoka says:

    I am pseudoworking right now. I am ALWAYS pseudoworking. Yesterday I did an hour of almost not pseudowork. Its HARD. :(

  6. Study Hacks says:

    @Udoka:

    If you work when you’re rested and in some place isolated and you have a plan for exactly what you want to accomplish…it’s surprising how quickly the pseudowork instinct melts away. (It is still hard sometimes!)

  7. Lien says:

    Hi Cal. I’m a freshman undergrad, still new to the concept of how much work is necessary to ace your class. During orientation, the staff emphasized spending about 2 to 3 hours studying/reviewing notes for every hour spent. Is this case also true for you as an undergrad? I am asking, because in one of books, I think you pointed out the methods professors recommend in their books are too tedious and inefficient.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    During orientation, the staff emphasized spending about 2 to 3 hours studying/reviewing notes for every hour spent. Is this case also true for you as an undergrad?

    Ignore how many hours professors say you should study. Instead, you should be studying however many hours its takes for you to learn the material. If you’re unhappy with this amount, start looking for ways to make your habits more efficient. Going back through the archives of this blog (especially the Study Tips category), will be a good starting place. Also the red book will get you moving.

  9. Burt says:

    “Never work more than three hours (with ten minute breaks) before taking significant time off. ”

    How long is “significant time off”?

  10. Study Hacks says:

    How long is “significant time off”?

    At least an hour.

  11. Burt says:

    At least an hour.

    Thanks!

  12. Taras says:

    Hi Cal. I’m unemployed now and I have all day for studying. I would like to know how long should be time off between 3 hours study sessions and how many hours a day can I efficiently study every day.
    I have spent a lot of hours trying to find something about this subject on the web, but I found completely nothing. So, if you know, please provide me with some researches on this subject.

  13. Study Hacks says:

    I have spent a lot of hours trying to find something about this subject on the web, but I found completely nothing. So, if you know, please provide me with some researches on this subject.

    It differs depending on the person and your energy levels throughout the day. Generally speaking, studying in roughly 50 minute chunks with 10 minute breaks in between, works pretty well. I usually recommend doing no more than 3 of these chunks before taking a much more extended break to recharge.

  14. Taras says:

    How long should be extended break? Should it be one day in a week? Or half a day once in a week?

  15. Golden Bear says:

    Great post, I found myself reflected in it.

    My follow up question to you is: Being a perfectionist I have this psychological need to work on something until the last second. Because of this I believe I developed a coping mechanism (an unhealthy one) where I just put off stuff ’till the last second so that the deadline provides me with a solid stop point.

    I’ve tried working on things earlier, but when I do I never get that “I’m done feeling” and if I force myself to stop I feel like I’m still wasting time by not fine-tuning my work even more (adding more to an essay, or doing more problem sets). Any tips on how to counteract this?

  16. Nlelith says:

    I’ve been trying to implement this method (along with many others of yours) for a few weeks now but I still have one question. What exactly can be considered “significant time off”? I generally have class until early to mid afternoon and so I won’t finish any 2-3 hour work session until 4-7. What would be a good amount of time to wait before another session? I usually start it around 8pm.

  17. Nlelith says:

    Actually, disregard that. I should figure out what schedule works best for me by myself.

    Oh, and thanks for the advice you’ve given us. It’s made a lot of people’s lives easier, I’m sure.

  18. Study Hacks says:

    Actually, disregard that. I should figure out what schedule works best for me by myself.

    When you do decide on a schedule, consider reporting it here. I think helps other students to see what their peers are trying.

  19. Nlelith says:

    When you do decide on a schedule, consider reporting it here. I think helps other students to see what their peers are trying.

    Alright, here’s a simplified version of the schedule I worked out:

    Mon-class from 9-4, HW from 5-7pm

    Tues-HW from 11am-1pm, class from 2:30-4, 1 hour of reading (for a class), class from 5-6:30, and HW from 7:30-9:30pm

    Wed-Class from 9am-1pm, HW from 2-4pm and 6-8pm

    Thurs-HW from 11am-1pm, class from 3-4, 1 hour of reading (for class), class from 5-6:30, and HW from 7:30-9:30

    Fri-Class from 9am-1pm and possibly some HW
    Sat-Possibly some HW
    Sun-2 hours of HW starting about an hour after I wake up, and another 2 a few hours after that

    The homework I do is pretty regular and I do certain assignments at certain times. I’m still trying to work out how to include studying and irregular tasks.

    Also, I’m taking 17 credits (13 credits of technical classes, 3 for a social science, and a 1 credit choir class).

  20. andres jimenez says:

    @Golden Bear,

    I’m sometimes on the same road as you, I wonder if Cal could have some suggestions.
    Other than that, plain GTD should work, that is; start something having well defined when is going to be checked as “done”

  21. Study Hacks says:

    I’ve tried working on things earlier, but when I do I never get that “I’m done feeling” and if I force myself to stop I feel like I’m still wasting time by not fine-tuning my work even more (adding more to an essay, or doing more problem sets). Any tips on how to counteract this?

    Treat it as a short-term experiment. For example, say that for one half of a semester you are going to construct work plans in advance and stop working when you get to the end of the plan. The experiment is to see what happens with your grades. Because it is short-term, worst-case scenario is that a few assignments are a little bit below part. But, on the other hand, if your grades continue to be fine then you can trust this method in the future, always referring back to the experiment results when you feel the specter of perfectionism rising.

  22. Andresito says:

    I’ve tried working on things earlier, but when I do I never get that “I’m done feeling” and if I force myself to stop I feel like I’m still wasting time by not fine-tuning my work even more (adding more to an essay, or doing more problem sets). Any tips on how to counteract this?

    For academics, I’m trying this;

    i- Today’s lecture I learned about XYZ
    ii- This week’s homework I was tested on XYZ and I needed to learn X’Y’ through doing XYZ
    iii- [weekly review] From lecture and hw, I successfully learned XYZX’Y’ and I memorized Z’ (a cause due to XYZX’Y)

    NOTE; To memorize Z’ I took 3-7 days of short 15 min or less using an SRS approach. Memorizing applies also for technical classes.

    I took reference to Ben’s post on writing the book review before writing your book

  23. anne says:

    Also, this advice is for girls especially, don’t get carried away by the mirror to check your looks every minute, because you think you’re hot or see that cute guy/girl from class on facebook, refreshing the page every couple of seconds. In short, remember that judging people by looks is shallow and almost always a wrong judgment. Be true to yourself and patient enough to listen to people when they talk facts(namely professors/TAs/friends who really want to teach you). There’s a saying, dumbest people talk about things, dumb people talk about people, smart people talk knowledge. Don’t get carried away in character judgment and backbiting. Listening to knowledgable neutral people who want to make a difference is the most satisfying feeling and satiates the human desire of accomplishment in the long run. Be a genuinely good person and good things will happen automatically to you.Be a supporter of knowledge and respect people who give it to you. You are extremely lucky to have access to knowledge, so don’t get carried away by impatience, ego or people who may deviate you from attaining love for knowledge and respect for people who spread the knowledge

  24. Tommy says:

    How many of these chunks can/should you do per day? And how long is the break in between them?

    Also..do you only do one of these chunks in your autopilot schedule or can you do more?

    I’ve got a lot I need to study for and Need to definitely do more than 3 hours of real work per day..

  25. Study Hacks says:

    How many of these chunks can/should you do per day? And how long is the break in between them?

    Do 50 minute chunks with 10 minute breaks. After three such chunks (i.e., 3 hours) you need a more significant break before starting more work. How many you fit into a day depends on the day. During finals period you might get 6 hours of work. On a typical day, maybe 2 – 4 of these chunks spread throughout…

    Also..do you only do one of these chunks in your autopilot schedule or can you do more?

    The autopilot schedule captures any regularly occurring work. Anything else is done outside the schedule.

    I’ve got a lot I need to study for and Need to definitely do more than 3 hours of real work per day..

    “study” is a vague word. Read my “Straight-A Method” article…there might be a lot of time-saving (hidden in everything from your notetaking to review tactics) that could make your life easier.

  26. pinkygirlz says:

    I always have this same problem of studying real hard and spent many hours studying for my exams but will only ends up with a B. What can i do to improve myself and how can i study more effectively? Please help

  27. vann says:

    Glad I stumbled upon this site. Amazing insights. Learning is a life-long process, so everything you’ve expounded applies equally well for professional development where we are tested on a continual basis on the work we produce. Looking forward to the Red book from Amazon. Wished I knew this information while I was in college.

  28. Desiree says:

    I’m a second year college student in the Philippines and my views on studying and college has changed radically by reading Study Hacks.

    Learning new things, listening to lectures, reading literary works and self-help advice is simple, and to me, always enjoyable and invigorating. Deciding to apply what we’ve learned is the tricky part. Therefore, vowing to practice, practice, practice the timeless life strategies we acquire is crucial if we really want to see concrete results in our work.

  29. ming says:

    would a study plan of 90 mins study 30 mins break be effective? or is that too short of a study time?

  30. Study Hacks says:

    would a study plan of 90 mins study 30 mins break be effective? or is that too short of a study time?

    Ideal is closer to 50 minutes on, 10 minutes break.

  31. Woody Stodden says:

    Another reason to break up your studying:

    When you sleep, your brain assimilates new knowledge, i.e. moves from short term to long term memory.

    When I reach a point where I’m no longer making any progress, I usually sleep on it. When I come back, most of the concepts that I had a weak grasp on the day before are much clearer at this point, so I’m approaching the more complex ideas with a fresh mind, and a better grasp on the simpler ideas.

  32. Tom says:

    I’ve got a test coming up that’s longer than 3 hours in time. There are ten minute breaks in between.
    I’m assuming to prepare for it, I should ‘build up’ to studying for the amount of time the test is (approx 5 hours) of time straight?
    That way, come test day, I’m not fatigued?

  33. Will Geiger says:

    This works within the classroom certainly, but how does work within the confines of a job?

    Personally, I think school is poor preparation for the working world, just because of that. Your schedule is much more rigid. Additionally (and this could be an entire digression), while every class and semester of school brings an engaging new project, work is a bit more linear.
    Thanks!

  34. Tyler says:

    This may seem like a stupid question, but does your focus go down even if you change what you’re studying? For example:
    Hours 1-2: Art lab 1
    Hours 2-3: Art lab 2
    and so on. (Obviously I’m an art student) and this upcoming semester I have an English class, 3 art classes, and a media class. So, if I work on things for one class and then change, does that change my focus or does it not matter?

  35. David says:

    This is good advice, I’ve been following it for quite some time and have had very improved results. And seriously, thank you very much for writing these articles and blogs. I have transformed from a borderline high-school dropout to one who was accepted to a rather selective school of pharmacy.

    I have a question regarding this article, however. Would you consider attending a 50 minute lecture as a use of your complete focus? I myself find that it’s hard to focus and take in information during the lecture when you are moving at the lecturer’s pace and not your own. I find that lectures are good for “priming” you for the material that you have to learn, but ultimately, the only real studying of the material begins when I am sitting at my desk and trying to analyze it for myself. I am concerned that I am not using all of my focus during the lectures.

    Therefore, should I schedule a 1 hour break after every three 50-minute lectures, or should I use a 1 hour gap between lectures for studying?

    Thank you very much for everything you do.

  36. Sarah says:

    Hello Cal!
    I’m a 1st year med student.
    You might be familiar with the the fact that we have to learn ALOT. I’m struggling quite a lot with Pseudo-work because there is just so much to learn in so little time ( You end up trying to do as much as possible to catch up)
    I feel like breaks that last an hour are far too long.
    I currently using the pomodoro method that is 25min work and 5 min break. I take a 20 min break every 5 Pomodoro sessions. Is that effective?

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