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Decoding Patterns of Success
Posts from 2007 October
October 31st, 2007 · 10 comments
Death by a Million Paper Cuts
A couple weeks back, I wrote a post for Academic Productivity about how I structure my work week as a graduate student. I want to extract and elaborate on a key idea from this post.
Let’s begin with a crucial observation about productivity: Small tasks gum up the productivity works — breaking up your momentum and making it difficult to concentrate on the big things that actually matter. One method to ease this problem is to declare a productivity-free day. Having one day free of any small tasks aids focus. But that’s just one day. What about the other six during the week?
In this post, I describe another simple tactic that can help you get big things accomplished all week long.
It works as follows…
The Administrative Day
Choose one day a week to do nothing but accomplish small tasks. Your goal should be to finish every obligation for the week that can be accomplished in less than 20 minutes and/or does not require any serious thought. For a college student, these include:
- Phone calls
- Getting your car washed
- Filling out applications
- Sending long or important e-mails
- Paying bills
- Writing blog posts
- Catching up on your online reading
- Handling any administrative work or planning for extracurricular clubs and related obligations
In reality, you will still end up having to do some small tasks on other days. Certain things have to happen on certain days. Other things might pop up after your admin day and require immediate attention. But your goal should be to accomplish as much of this scut work as possible in one big blast.
Real Work is Forbidden
The trade-off that makes the administrative day palatable is that you don’t do any serious work. For a college student, this means no studying or reading or working on problem sets. This seems like a fair trade. It’s easier to knock off a million little chores if you don’t have the threat of five hours in the library later that night looming over your schedule.
Use Mosquito Lists for Other Days
During the other days of the week (with the exception of your productivity-free day) , as mentioned, some small tasks will inevitably pop onto your radar. If you commit to your administrative day, this load should be light — which makes it easy to control. Plan for a 30 – 60 minute “Mosquito Block” on these days to tackle the small amount of admin tasks that might dribble into your schedule. This allows you stay focused and still get things finished.
Batching reduces stress. Using an administrative day takes advantage of the flexibility of the student schedule to seriously batch some of the most stress-provoking work. It’s a simple tactic. But it works.
How do you tackle the small tasks in your schedule?
October 29th, 2007 · 3 comments
Filling in the Gaps
One of the most overlooked time sinks in the study process is filling in gaps in your understanding. Think back to the last time you prepared for a test. It is likely that around 50% of your time was spent trying to figure out stuff that you missed the first time it was presented in lecture or reading assignments. This holds for both technical and non-technical courses. In the former, the gap might take the form of a technique that went by too fast on the board during lecture. In the latter, it might be a reading assignment that baffled your ability to pull out a clean conclusion.
This reality breeds the following observation: if you can find a way to consistently fill in these gaps in your knowledge as they arise, you can significantly reduce your study time.
In this post I outline a simple system for achieving this goal. To maximize efficiency, it makes use of the label and filter features built into Google’s Gmail system. The basic idea is to capture open questions quickly in your e-mail inbox and then process them once a week to prevent backlog.
The details are as follows…
Step 1: Create an Open Questions Label
For each of your classes, create an “open questions” label in Gmail. These labels will be used to organize e-mails that describe gaps in your understanding for each class.
Creating these labels is easy (for this step, as for the others that follow, click on the accompanying screenshot thumbnails to see examples):
- Click Settings in the upper-right corner of the Gmail screen.
- Click the Labels tab.
- Scroll down to the text box, type “Open Questions :: <class name>“, and then click the Create Label button.
Step 2: Setup an Open Questions Filter
The next step is to setup a filter that will recognize e-mails describing an open question, and then automatically label it with the proper label and archive it to keep your inbox clean. This will make it easy to quickly add to your collection of open questions for a given class from any internet connected computer.
To create a filter, do the following:
- On the Settings screen, click on the Filters tab.
- Click on the Create a New Filter link at the bottom of the page.
- In the to field, type: “<Gmail user name>+OQ<classname>@gmail.com“
- For example, if your Gmail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you are setting up an open questions filter for a history class, you would type: “studyhackslover+OQhistory@gmail.com“
- Click the Next Step button.
- Select Skip the Inbox.
- Select Apply the Label and then pick the label you constructed in the previous step from the drop-down list.
- Click the Create Filter button.
Step 3: Create Shortcuts for your Filter Addresses
You can now use Gmail to easily capture and organize the open questions for your classes. To do so, send an e-mail describing the question to the special e-mail address you used in the filter for that class.
For example, if you’re confused by an argument in your history class, you can send a description of your confusion to the “<gmail user name>+OQhistory@gmail.com” address you used for the history class open questions filter. When delivering the message, Gmail knows to ignore the extra tag to the right of the “+” sign, so it will make it safely to your inbox. (This feature was added to simplify exactly these types of filtering schemes.)
It can be a pain, however, to type in this full address for each question. To simplify the process we can create a shortcut. To do so, first type the following into your to field:
“shortcut for this e-mail address” <address>
…then send a simple message. Gmail will bind the shortcut to the address. Next time you want to send an e-mail the same address, simply start typing the shortcut and it will pop-up in the list of auto-fill suggestions. For example, for our history example, you might setup a shortcut by sending a message to:
“OQ History” <studyhackslover+OQhistory@gmail.com>
From now on, whenever you need to record another open question for the history class, just start typing “OQ History.” After the first 3 letters your address should be automatically identified. Pressing the tab key will fill in the full address.
Step 4: Capture Your Questions
You’re in class. The professor says something that confuses you. If you have your laptop open, quickly shoot a description of the confusion to the open question e-mail address you setup for that class. If you don’t have a laptop, you can send this e-mail next time you are checking your e-mail on a public computer or back in your dorm. The same applies for reading assignments. If get confused, shoot off an open question e-mail.
Your filter system will automatically label and archive these open question e-mails for later review.
Step 5: Process Your Question Queue
Once a week, you need to process open questions that have been building up in your e-mail inbox. If you don’t, they will collect until you start the studying process. This will lead to a major time sink.
Use the following efficient method to speed up processing:
- For each class, click on the label for that class to review the open questions from the preceding week.
- Printout all of these e-mails.
- For each printout, decide how you are going to resolve the question. You have several options available:
- Ask the professor or TA during the next office hours.
- E-mail the professor or TA.
- Ask a friend in the class.
- Consult a resource that you think has an answer.
When you’re done, you’ll have made a plan to close every gap identified in the previous week. An easy habit is to just bring your printouts for a class to office hours each week. Your professor or TA will appreciate your organization and focus.
Once it’s up and running, the system is simple. You access your inbox all the time, so simply shooting off an e-mail with a question you don’t understand is an easy habit to adopt. Similarly, the processing of these questions is an easy addition to a weekly review. Do this, for example, as part of your Sunday ritual.
If you stick with it, however, you’ll be amazed at how much more streamlined your study process becomes. When you only have to review — not learn — in the days leading up to a test, the hours required to become prepared are significantly reduced.
October 26th, 2007 · Be the first to comment
Interesting links from around the web to help you through your weekend Study Hacks withdrawal…
An Extravaganza of Productivity-Infused Detritus
October 26th, 2007 · One comment
College Chronicles is a blog-based reality series that follows real students attempting to overhaul their study habits. Click here for the series archive.
Welton Wants to Study Earlier
Welton, the Harvard Linguistics major, wrote me recently asking for help. He was unhappy with his test preparation habits. Too often, he was leaving studying until the night before. He wanted to get it done earlier and with less stress.
As we learned last time — when I helped Leena inject some rationality into her chaotic MIT experience — my study philosophy dictates that the first step to improving academic performance is to add some structure to your schedule.
The Student Work Week
In the last episode of College Chronicles, I introduced the student work week. See that post for more details. The basic strategy, however, is simple:
- Count how many hours of regular classwork you need to accomplish during the typical week.
- Pick a cutoff time such that if between when you wake up and the cutoff, all you do is work in the library, eat meals, and attend classes, you will finish all the work counted in the previous step.
The strategy is straight-forward, but powerful. Each morning, you get up and work until your cutoff point. During this period you never return to your room or see friends. When you finish, you’re done for the day. As you might expect, this makes the student experience a lot less painful.
It’s time for Welton to jump on board the student work week wagon…
Welton’s Student Work Week
Welton estimates that he has 24 hours of regular work that he needs to complete each week. After analyzing his weekly schedule, we decided on a work cutoff time of 6 PM. This resulted in the following work week schedule:
Welton’s free hours before the 6 PM cutoff time are marked in orange. (Notice, I also added a half hour for lunch during the week days. Don’t forget this!)
Adding up the free hours bordered in orange, we find that this schedule provides the needed 24 hours of work. Here are the important details:
- Welton’s work day doesn’t start until after his 10 AM class. This means he can get up at a reasonable hour and have plenty of time for breakfast and getting ready for the day.
- A 6 PM cut-off time is quite reasonable. It leaves, more or less, the entire evening free for Welton to do whatever the hell he wants. Trust me, this is a wonderful thing.
- Saturdays are free. A good time to relax and to sleep off the damage inflicted Friday night. Also, as discussed, declaring a productivity-free day on a regular basis is an effective way to stay balanced and energized.
- Welton’s Sunday Ritual requires four hours. This is within the safe range of Sunday work hours. If this number grew larger than 5 hours, we might consider putting some work on Saturday or extending the work cutoff time. (Too much Sunday work makes it hard to recharge for the upcoming week.)
Some Rules for Scheduling Studying
Now that Welton has a student work week, we can address test preparation. The key rule to keep in mind: test prep should never kick regular work out of your student work week schedule.
If a class cancels its normal workload for the week because of an upcoming test, Welton can re-purpose the hours for this class within the student work week to study for that test. In addition, he should consider adding two evening work blocks (2 hours each) and one long Saturday work block (3-4 hours) for the last full week before a test. Combined, these three additional blocks, which exist outside of the student work week, provide an extra 7-8 hours of studying. This should be sufficient for most tests.
If multiple tests are coming up. Welton should consider studying for one test two weeks in advance and the other one week in advance. In general, the rule here is to try to confine all test preparation to these preselected extra studying blocks. This certainty in the schedule reduces stress and keeps the work spread out in intense, short blocks — therefore avoiding pseudo-work.
After Welton adjusts to the student work week, the next steps in his transformation include:
- Introduce more efficient note-taking and reading strategies to reduce the cutoff time for the student work week — freeing up more time for relaxation!
- Use instant-replay booths and on-the-fly quiz-and-recall to reduce the time required to prepare for tests.
- Introduce some regular study blocks within the student work week to reduce test prep to a non-exceptional activity.
October 24th, 2007 · 22 comments
The Importance of Your College Major
Late last week, Ryan Healy, over at the Employee Evolution blog, put up a post titled: Choosing a college major. His message was simple:
I believe the smartest thing a confused undergrad can do is to choose a major with a good job market.
The response was quick and heated. Within days, 15 comments popped up. Many of the reactions, including one written by me, strongly disagreed with Ryan. “Employers don’t care what you major in,” we said. “Choose something that interests you and do well.”
But were we right?
The Experts Weigh In
I decided to do some research. The first study to catch my attention had been conducted by the job search web site CollegeGrad.com. They had recently conduced a survey of “top entry level employers” to determine what they were looking for in a new hire. The results:
#1 – The student’s major (42%)
#2 – The student’s interviewing skills (25%)
#3 – The student’s internships/experience (16%)
#4 – Other miscellaneous qualifications (10%)
#5 – The student’s computer skills (3%)
#6 – The student’s personal appearance (2%)
#7 – The student’s GPA (1%)
#8 – The college the student graduated from (1%)
In other words, this particular survey supports Ryan. Your major, it seems, is important. Choose the right major for the job market or you won’t get a good job.
Before closing the book on the topic, let’s be good scientists, and take a closer look. The press release for the study includes quotes from 22 of the participating companies. A review of these quotes reveals the following:
- Four companies said major matters because their employees need a specific technical skill. For example, Intel really does need people who majored in computer engineering.
- Three companies said that major matters in the more general sense. For example, a business degree might look more attractive than a liberal arts degree.
- Five companies didn’t explicitly describe what they are looking for in their hires.
- Ten companies either explicitly said that major doesn’t matter or listed traits other than major as the most important in their hiring criteria.
This paints a completely different picture.
Only 3 out of 22 companies in the sample quotes described one’s major as being important outside of the case where specific technical skills are needed for the job.
This suggests a different interpretation. Perhaps, most of the 42% who choose an applicant’s major as being the most important were companies that were hiring for a specific technical skill. If this is the case, then we haven’t learned anything new. Aspiring rocket scientists know they need to major in engineering.
But what about the rest of us…
A Better Study
The CollegeGrad.com survey makes me nervous. For one thing, the sample data doesn’t square easily with the summary results. For another, the survey is not scientific. It was a voluntary web-based poll. And, in general, I tend to treat with skepticism any study that is presented alongside banner ads of dancing aliens hawking low mortgage rates.
As I usually do in this situation, I turn to my favorite academic journals. In this case, I soon found my way to the always illuminating: Economics of Education Review.
The article that caught my attention: Education and job match: The relatedness of college major and work.
This study was conducted by John Robst of the University of South Florida, and was published in August of 2006. Robst analyzes data from the 1993 National Survey of College Graduates dataset. He was interested, roughly speaking, in how many students enter careers that are related to their college major and how this affects their wages.
The study includes several interesting findings:
- Around 55% of graduates land a job that matches their major. Another 25% have jobs that partially match their major. The remaining 20% have jobs that don’t match at all.
- The majors that are most likely to lead to unrelated jobs include: “English and foreign languages, social sciences, and liberal arts.” Majors such as computer science, engineering, library science and business management tend to lead to related jobs.
- Graduates with jobs unrelated to their major tend to earn less money than graduates with related jobs. If their job partially matches, however, the difference in wages from having a matching job is small.
- This “mismatch penalty” comes almost entirely from graduates with technical majors taking on unrelated jobs. If you major in “business management, engineering, the health professions, computer science or law,” you can face a more than 20% drop in wages by taking a job unrelated to your major.
- For liberal arts majors whether or not your job matches your major does not effect your wages. The results here were statistically insignificant.
The Robst study illuminates the some interesting mechanics lurking behind this issue. My read of this data is as follows.
- Jobs that require a specific technical skill — such as engineering or computer science competency — pay more money. This is not surprising. Therefore, if you want to maximize the amount of money you make out of college your best bet is to major in a technical major.
- Outside of these technical majors what you study doesn’t matter when it comes to later wages. The Robst analysis demonstrates that for liberal arts majors your salary is basically unaffected by whether or not your job matches your field of study. For social science and education majors there is some effect, but it’s minor.
- More analysis is needed to tease out the importance of business majors. The study shows that business majors that take business jobs make more money than if they take jobs unrelated to this field. That is not surprising. Business management jobs tend to pay more than other non-management jobs. The question, however, is whether these same business jobs are open to non-business majors. The data could be read two ways. One is that these jobs are not available to non-business majors. This is why we do not see liberal arts majors having an increase in wages by working in unrelated fields (which includes business). The other interpretation is that liberal arts majors, in general, are not interested in business jobs. So the increased salary effect doesn’t show up due to lack of interest, not lack of access.
My conclusion for undergraduates looking ahead to the job search:
- Major in what you like. If you don’t like science or engineering, but major it in for the money, you are likely to end up, down the line, in an unrelated job you like more. And once you leave your field of study your salary benefits disappear. You would have been better off studying something you liked in the first place. Similarly, if you are not interested in a technical job, then choose the liberal arts or social science major that interests you most. The data shows that it won’t matter whether or not your job matches your major.
- In some sense: all non-technical majors are created equal. And if you like what you do, you are more likely to get better grades and become involved in the type of projects recruiters like.
What is your experience regarding the importance of the college major in the job searching process?
October 22nd, 2007 · One comment
The TA Factor…
In many classes, your Teaching Assistant (TA) is your most important resource. This is particularly true in technical subjects. If you establish a good relationship with the TA and ask good questions, he or she can make your life in that class significantly easier.
On the other hand, if you abuse the relationship, and badger the TA with aggressive questions, or try to weasel answers, you’ll lose this resource, and your life will become significantly more difficult.
Having spent time on both sides of the student/TA divide, I want to provide some simple rules for managing this relationship. This post lists 5 common things you should never say to your TA. Each is accompanied by an example of the right (and more effective) way to accomplish the same goal.
In your experience, what worked and what didn’t work for forming a good TA relationship?
Rule 1: Don’t say: “I don’t know how to do this problem. Help!”
TAs know that this is code for: “I spent a few minutes and the solution wasn’t immediately obvious so now I want you to give me the answer.” This pisses them off. No matter how exasperated you act, they won’t give you the answer.
Instead: Be specific! Explain what you tried. Where you are stuck. Why you are stuck. And, most importantly, exactly what type of information you need from the TA that would help you without solving the problem for you.
Rule 2: Don’t say: “I don’t understand what this problem is asking.”
That is not helpful. Once again, most TAs will assume that you are fishing for an answer; e.g., you hope that in his or her haste to help you understand, the TA will accidentally give away the goods.
Instead: Provide a list of specific things you find ambiguous. For each, explain the differing interpretations that seem possible. Many questions are, in fact, ambiguous, and the TA will appreciate this specificity and be happy to help you clarify.
Rule 3: Don’t say: “I think the problem is unsolvable.”
It is. Okay, sometimes there is a mistake in the problem write-up. But this is rare. And, when this does occur, it’s usually minor and easily identified if you know what you are doing. Most likely you’re just stuck, and you’re frustrated that you’re stuck, and you’re trying to displace this frustration on the rest of the world.
Instead: Refer to the advice given for Rules 1 and 2. Try to identify exactly where you are stuck, and make sure you have listed any specific parts of the problem you consider ambiguous. Nine times out of ten, this exercise will miraculously make the problem become once again solvable.
Rule 4: Don’t say: “Can I swing by your office if I have any questions?”
Many students abuse this privilege. They use it as an excuse to bother the poor TA, all day, with the type of irritating questions proscribed in the previous 3 rules.
Instead: It’s okay to try to meet a TA outside of official office hours. This is especially true if office hours are held the day before a problem set is due (a tendency I really disagree with from a pedagogical point of view). The key, however, is to schedule a specific meeting with a specific purpose. Suggest a duration and a list of the specific topics you want to discuss. For example: “I’m getting stuck on the first question because I’m still shaky on how to formulate a quality inductive step, I’m hoping we can go over some examples so I can use it more confidently.”
Rule 5: Don’t say: “Can you tell me if I’m on the right track here?”
TAs know this is code for: “can you tell if my answer is right?” They are not going to tell you this. You’re being less subtle then you think.
Instead: Make sure you understand the problem. Ask questions where things are unclear. Check your work your group members. Then, just trust yourself. It’s just one problem among hundreds you’ll solve as a student.
October 19th, 2007 · 4 comments
Interesting links from around the web to help you through your weekend Study Hacks withdrawal.
Assorted Productivity Gems
Cal Gets Inexplicably Prolific
October 19th, 2007 · 12 comments
The Productive Day
I follow a variant of Getting Things Done. On a good, productive day, I live in my next action lists — making sure that things that need to get done, get done. My inbox is emptied every night. People get prompt responses to e-mails. When I promise to get back to someone, I do. I meet deadlines. I follow-up. In short, I’m everything David Allen preaches.
Here’s the problem. Though this behavior ensures I’m “productive,” it doesn’t get the big stuff done.
For example: I study applied math. This means I prove theorems. I can’t break this up into next actions. This isn’t “cranking widgets.” It’s coming up with original, often devilishly tricky ideas, and following them through to their implications. This can eat up hours upon hours.
Here’s the thing: This type of work is completely incompatible with running a productivity system. If I’m going to spend a day trying to find a crack in the armor of a recalcitrant conjecture, I can’t also be returning phone calls, and handing in an overdue form, and updating my blog, and sending out some e-mails, and all the other gunk that sluices out of my next action universe. “Come up with original idea,” is not something I can schedule for 2 – 4, between the gym and updating my web site.
This same property applies to many other activities. Developing a big idea for a book. Re-thinking the direction of a business. Figuring out a new direction for your life. Exploring topics for a major term paper. Working on a major new project for your employer.
We need a way to balance productivity and big project focus…
The Solution: A Productivity-Free Day
Here’s a simple piece of advice to handle this reality. It’s based on the techniques that work for me.
Declare at least one or two days each week to be “productivity-free.” During these days, there are only two pieces of workflow management you should consider:
- You still need to capture. If a task pops into your head, jot it down. But that’s it. Don’t think about it further.
- You need to check your calendar to make sure you’re not missing an appointment or have a deadline due. (I typically take this into account when choosing which days to be productivity-free.)
Other than these two simple caveats, you should do nothing during the day but think, and work, and reflect on one or, at most, two really big problems or ideas. Let your e-mail box fill. Ignore voicemail. Don’t run little errands. Give over your whole day to one or two things.
You can do this without stress because, the next day, you can process your collection bins and once again be productive. Nothing’s lost. And big strides have been gained.
The key is to find a rhythm of productivity and focus that keeps you on top of the little things while still allowing the big things the time they require to thrive.
It’s a simple idea, but produces big results.
How do you tackle big projects?