Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Radical Simplicity Manifesto: Doing Less and Living More at College

March 11th, 2008 · 47 comments

The Overwhelmed MassesSimplify

One of the most cited statistic in college mental health circles comes from a major study conducted in 2004 by the American College Health Association (ACHA): 94% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do.

Browsing their most recent data, it’s obvious that this trend continues. In their 2006 release, for example, the ACHA identifies stress as the number one source of academic trouble. They found that around 34% of college students report that stress has significantly reduced their academic performance in the last 12 months.

These are two indicators, among many, of a larger truth: The modern undergraduate is overwhelmed, overworked, and overstressed.

Toward a Solution

How do we address this problem? There certainly exist big picture answers, such as those that focus on restructuring the higher educational system. But I’m interested in short-term solutions: ideas students can activate right now and receive immediate, stress-reducing results.

It is with this goal in mind that I developed, over the past few months, the following new approach to college life…

The Radical Simplicity Manifesto

This manifesto espouses a single goal: simplicity. It asks you to cut loose all extraneous obligations; to construct a college life built around a manageable load of fascinating classes and a small number of extracurricular activities that hold real meaning; to schedule less than you have the time to handle.

Revel in free time. Use it to relax; to socialize; to explore new intellectual horizons. Reserve the right to spend an entire afternoon reading some random book you stumbled across in the business library. Spend time having pretentious, overly serious conversations with friends over cheap liquor and pirated Coltrane MP3s. Do all of this even if it means looking slightly less impressive on your resume. Do it because life is short, and young life is even shorter.

The Rules of the Radical Simplicity Doctrine

Adopting such a lifestyle can be hard when you’re surrounded by hordes of over-scheduled zombies. The type of time management and organizational philosophies preached on this blog are a good start. But you need to go farther. Below are four simple rules that will help you achieve this magic balance:

  1. One Major.
    There’s an increasing belief among students that the more majors the better. At some schools, double majors have become the standard. Anything less seems like slacking. Even worse: triple majors are quickly becoming the new double. This is ludicrous. Choose one major. Something that interests you. Something you can focus on and really grow to understand and appreciate.
  2. One Extracurricular.
    Find one extracurricular activity that is meaningful to you. Join it early in your college career and stick with it. If your focus is graduate school, you should probably make this activity involve research. That’s it. No running 13 clubs while starting your own business and tutoring on the side in between your non-profit work. You can certainly join other clubs, and volunteer, and get involved with other things that seem interesting. But these other activities must all be non-obligatory. That is, things you can do when you have time, but impose no obligations on you when you’re busy. In other words: only one activity should be granted the privilege of being able to demand your time and attention.
  3. One Hard Class.
    Map out the classes you need to take for your major and for your general requirements. Note which ones are unusually time consuming. Work out your schedule so that you don’t have to take two or more of these hard classes during the same semester. A balanced course load is the single easiest way to transform your terms from killer to stimulating.
  4. One Course Load.
    Another popular trend is to tack on extra classes. At MIT they use the word hardcore to describe this behavior. The idea is that if you’re not doing something unusually hard, then you’re somehow being lazy. I repeat my earlier claim: Nonsense! Never take more than the normal course load for your school. The key, once again, is to do a little advanced planning with your course selection.

The Laundry List Fallacy

The hype surrounding college admissions — among other factors — has inculcated a whole generation of students with the misguided idea that the only way to be impressive is to have an overflowing list of accomplishments. The idea is that once the list grows to a certain length, it’s size alone will covey great talent. And, even worse, without this patina of talent, you’ll be relegated to the loser’s lot in life.

Here’s the problem: Trying to apply this approach to college life leads to the type of statistics that opened this post. College is not high school. The classes are hard. The activities are demanding. Attempting the load you managed in high school will bury you at college.

More importantly: more is not (all that) more impressive. Here’s what you really need to open just about any post-graduate door:

  1. Good grades in a major you enjoyed and really engaged. (This attention is noticed by the professors and often results in numerous complementary accomplishments that come for free, such as awards, grants, and excellent recommendations.)
  2. One activity to which you showed great commitment and followed to challenging, cool places. (Quality trumps quality. And, once again, by becoming really good at one thing, numerous complementary accomplishments will shake loose for free.)

That’s it. The triple major, the pumped up course load, the 5 different club leaderships: doesn’t add much. In fact, in some cases, such super-scheduling might make you seem less desirable – like some sort of manic grind still trying to get approval from his overbearing parents.

I want to avoid tumbling into complete naivety. In some contexts, doing a lot does actually make you look more impressive. I’m happy to admit this. But as argued above, it never makes you look a lot more impressive, and it is certainly not worth the sacrifices. A slightly smaller font on your resume is a poor trade for four exciting years.

In Conclusion

Simplify. Use the rules above as a guide, and ask yourself: what could I not be doing? Once you reduce what you have to do, you can start doing the things you decide, in those wonderful moments of college spontaneity, that you really want to do.

I’ll close on the note that this manifesto is still new: something I’m working on and curious to watch grow. It raises interesting questions, and invites, in me, guilt (how closely did I eschew to this approach?) As always, I want your feedback.

47 thoughts on “The Radical Simplicity Manifesto: Doing Less and Living More at College

  1. Kate Zuser says:

    I bought your book today, How to Become a Straight A Student. I can’t put it down! Great advice Cal. Thanks for sharing the secrets that no else has dared to put out there. I’m an undergrad at URI, where we have a 24-hour room, just like the one you described Dartmouth has. Its where everyone does their pseudo-working, they gather in masses and think they will actually accomplish anything. I hope you continue writing.

    - Kate

  2. Excellent post!

    This relates to your previous post discussing action. Just because you are the president of 5 clubs doesn’t mean you are doing the best you can. If you have to divide your time among 5 clubs, are the organizations reaching their max potential?

    I believe an organization that is the most productive campus organization is better than 5 clubs that don’t do anything. And if your club becomes recognized so will you, and the recommendations are sure to follow.

    I am also guilty of overloading myself expectations. That is why I like to plan some alone time, step back from my life, and evaluate where I am and where I am going.

  3. Trish C says:

    This was an awesome reminder today. I’m an undergrad bio major trying to get into med school, and sometimes it feels like you have to run clubs, found private charties, save the whales and get on the dean’s list to be competitive…

    Any chance I could twist twist your arm into writing a post about how to write good personal statements for thing like… oh I don’t know… med-school apps? :)

  4. nicolien says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I am not from the States but did part of my MSc at NYU, and I was shocked to see that everyone believed their double majors and presidencies of x amounts of clubs, plus jobs (preferably own businesses, of course) on the side would make them that much smarter or desirable. Meanwhile, I was enjoying my life, apart from when I had to listen to them complain about how busy they were. Which was basically before, in between, and after every class (I tried to hook up with real people outside of class).
    Only after I returned to my university in the Netherlands I realized the value of the fact that our library closes at 8pm. Every day. It’s as if they have a big sign that says: GO HAVE A LIFE!

  5. Evan Meagher says:

    Great post. Simplicity is a great strategy for anything. I admit though, that my courseload for the upcoming spring quarter is going to be a bit ridiculous, as I’m knocking off three time-consuming prereq’s in one fell swoop..

  6. Alumni says:

    This study hack isn’t that useful from my undergrad experiences. At some schools, double majors have become the standard, literally (you need at least a double major to get a degree). Graduating with a double+ major within a reasonable amount of time (4-5 years) also means little flexibility in choosing courses; most courses are to satisfy requirements and prerequisites. Most people at my school take less than the “normal” course load and often take 5 years to complete their degree. I was still overwhelmed, overworked, and overstressed.

    What usually happened for me that I spent 80% of my time ineffectively grinding away at a “Problem Set Problems” of the “hard” course and 20% of my time rushing through the rest of my courses.

  7. @Alumni

    The idea of the post is to suggest living life before giving in to standards that in some cases false standards.

    Many people find themselves with a degree, but not with a job.

    Standards are also a snowball effect. It was a single major. Now its a double major. Next it will be triple major. Then some students will have to find another way to “look” better than other students do. So, they add a fourth major? And the thing is, four majors is possible, with the cost of true excellence.

    As the quantity of requirements increases, the quality decreases.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    @Kate:

    I’m glad you see the light! The 24-hour room is basically a prison for punishing students with poor study habits.

    @University:

    Absolutely. One quality activity goes a lot farther than the list. I’m glad to see you applying some simplicity to your own life; I’m working on the same.

    @Trish:

    I wish I did. But did this falls outside of my competencies. I bet, however, that a careful web search will turn up some good articles on med school mojo.

  9. Study Hacks says:

    @nicolien:

    Oh yeah, NYU biz students are huge believers in the laundry list fallacy — more type A’s than a blood bank.

    @evan:

    good luck! simplify the rest of your life this term to make it a little less painful.

    @Alumni:

    Where do you go to school that requires a double major?

  10. Kate Zuser says:

    Any advice for getting back into the groove after spring break? I’ve got my due dates planned out, but unexpected things may come up as I’m leaving the country for the week.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    @Kate:

    Here’s what I do. In the days leading up to the break, make sure you take care of any time sensitive tasks. You don’t want to miss a deadline while away or have one loom immediately upon return. Construct a rough plan of what you have to do when you get back. Then clear your mind for the trip. If you have to do some work on the vacation, do a search for my article from December about working over Christmas Break.

  12. Ilham says:

    This was a great post, but I would like to add an idea to your manifesto. Certain students tend not only to choose more than one major but they also choose one of the tougher majors at the school. They think that it will give them a better chance to get into a Masters program or professional program.

    An example where this is false. Over at my university, there is a Masters program in Biotechnology. Also there is a Molecular Biology undergrad and a Biotech undergrad. What’s interesting is that the Masters program has no preference for the biotech undergrads, and most students enter this degree thinking it will give them a better chance. Only in the long run they find out that it was a tougher degree than the Molecular Bio one.

    So I think, it isn’t only enough not to take more than one degree. But you also should ask yourself what your goal is afterwards and what options are easier.

  13. Study Hacks says:

    @Ilham:

    Great addition.

  14. Daisy says:

    this was an interesting read. doing too much does seem a bit ridiculous; no one’s even heard of having a triple major where I come from!

    I’ve been following this idea in a general way most of my life, and I agree that there’s more distinction when you do a few things really well. even my professors discourage us from doing too much!

  15. Coleman says:

    In “How to Win at College” you suggested adding a minor or another major. Have you changed your mind about that advice? Or do you still think it’s worth it if it would add only a few courses to your schedule?

  16. Study Hacks says:

    @Coleman:

    Great question. I still do advise adding a minor as a way of focusing the elective courses you have to take anyways. (That is, instead of adding extra courses). I think, however, that I would revise this advice to no longer suggest adding another major. From more recent experience I’ve seen that double-majors create too many hard courses to avoid doubling or tripling up in some semesters.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    @Daisy:

    Where do you go to school? I like your style…

  18. zeep says:

    I really like this article, but I was wondering if you might write about students whose studies require a heavy course load or who are balancing work and school or family/school? Kind of how to simplify the inherently complicated? :)

  19. Study Hacks says:

    @zeep:

    These situations probably demand more attention to simplicity than any other! I think the key points of trying to keep your course load as reasonable as possible and not filling free pockets with too many additional activities would go a long way to help keep things under control when a job, or hard major, or family is in the picture.

  20. Jeff Spires says:

    As a professor at an elite university, I read this post with great interest. I agree with just about every point made here, and I try to communicate this same message to all my first-year advisees. I would simply add one thing that seems to me needs saying. To the best of your abilities, try to choose the best professors to take classes from, not the most interesting course descriptions. A good professor can make even the most boring-sounding subject really come alive, while a bad professor can make the most cool-sounding class a real nightmare. And keep this in mind: if you are inspired, if you respect your prof and want to do a good job, even a demanding class can be a lot easier, because it the assignments feel like a challenge, not work.

  21. Mel says:

    Before I entered university I read this post, and I have to say it’s really helpful. I’m significantly less stressed, while my peers are all burning out. And it’s only been four months into uni.

  22. Study Hacks says:

    Before I entered university I read this post, and I have to say it’s really helpful. I’m significantly less stressed, while my peers are all burning out. And it’s only been four months into uni.

    Glad to hear it. I would love to hear some specifics of your story if you get the chance…

  23. Pete says:

    I believe (2)…quality trumps quality should read quality trumps quantity
    what has helped me mechanically is to take my time-consuming but not too intellectually deep classes — talking frsh/soph labs here — in the evening after supper when possible. This keeps day-time for study & concentration.

  24. I can’t agree with the one-major rule. Yes, if you’re just doing two (or three!) majors to look impressive that’s a bad idea. BUT, I think moving between two different worlds can be a major eye-opener. I ended up doing the rather unusual dual-major combination of physics and sociology in college and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

  25. Brian says:

    “Quality trumps quality.”

    Did you mean quality trumps quantity? And yes, I back that 100%.

  26. R.S says:

    I think you meant “quality” trumps “quantity”.
    Nice post btw!

  27. Jason says:

    I just bought your book How to Win at College, and in it you promote the double-major (albeit a distributively convenient double-major) and taking hard courses to maximize your potential learning in college. Yet, on this site, you seem to advocate a single major and easier classes. What changed your mind?

  28. ryan says:

    I’m brand new to you/your blog, and my first impression was “I’m not quite sure about this whole simplicity thing, I think I should try to do a bunch of stuff”.

    I gotta tell you, this post WAYYYY changed my mind about that, and what’s better, you are now one of my favorite people for that line about having pretentious conversations over pirated Coltrane MP3s! that’s so funny

    Anyways, I look forward to reading around the rest of your site and picking up a book or two of yours :)

  29. Claire says:

    I’ve been trying to use suggestions from Study Hacks for years, and this year (my junior year) I definitely kept things in consideration when choosing my classes and making my schedules. However, I hit the same wall as I always do: working. Now, the deal is that to get all the money federal work study offers, I need to work at least 12-15 hours a week without missing any days during the duration of the school year. I know for sure that I’m not the only one in this boat, and I’ve already dropped choir– my only extra-curricular since coming to college, and a huge form of stress relief– because no matter how efficient I try to be, working make my schedule too unmanageable otherwise. I was wondering if you ever addressed this and I just missed it, or if not, there’s any good way to approach working. Even if you manage to get jobs that can give you special skill sets, work is still work and it takes up more time than a regular extracurricular.

  30. Kai says:

    I need help…
    currently, i’m having 3 club activities, and my major exams are coming close. It makes be so busy and difficult to judge all of them. I have so much work to do that in order to revise for my work to catch up, i have to stay up late at night, usually until 3am. The next day, i will wake up at 5pm and get ready for school. The problem is, i do not want to give up on any of my clubs!

  31. Charl says:

    Hey Cal,

    I am one of the statistics that you reference in the beginning of your article. I foolishly overcommitted myself last year to a triple major, president of a fraternity, running a society or 3 and trying to get a business off the ground. End result – i failed one major, am barely coping with the rest of my life and health has now become a secondary objective to coping. Stress and ulcers aside I have cut almost all of my non-academic commitments and only have a single major left – life is much better now. Study Hacks has really proven to be an excellent resource in simplifying my life! Thanks so much!

  32. Angelique says:

    Thank you for this post (and for your most recent post, dated 3 March 2014, which deals with the same issue). I am a serial do-gooder/ over-committer. To give an example: whilst doing a PhD, I also attempted to do a ‘start your own business’ competition at my Uni; take art classes; paint commissioned pictures for my friends; become an actor; write novels; host dinner parties; go to yoga classes; sit on boards; volunteer with the homeless; make homemade birthday cards for everyone and help people with their coursework; the list goes on and on. I felt guilty about not focusing on my PhD enough (over which I slaved away endlessly as it was) and I felt annoyed at myself for ‘not making the most of the opportunities’ my city offered (I lived in London) and for not enjoying enough free time. In the final year of my PhD, I seriously considered volunteering for the London Olympics as a ‘performer’, which would have meant complicating my already very messy life by having to attend rehearsals every week, somewhere on the outskirts of the city, in the middle of nowhere. I am glad I never did.

    Why I do such things, I do not know. It’s partly because I haven’t quite decided what to do with my life (‘maybe I SHOULD be a professional painter!’), and partly because I like a lot of things (and have a lot of dreams…) Your post reminds me never to spread myself so thinly again, and it makes me grateful for the fact that, having come home from work, I have just spent a happy afternoon eating a salad, having a nap, and then taking a walk (instead of trying to produce masterpieces or something). And, of course, reading your blog and loving it. Thanks!

    Your post also made me think of a book called ‘I Could do Anything if I Only Knew What it Was’, by Barbara Sher, which has a chapter called ‘I’m all over the map’, and which is for people who ‘like too many things’ – helpful pointers on how to get over the ‘I want to do everything’ syndrome.

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