Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Three Student Resolutions Worth Making

January 5th, 2009 · 24 comments

A New YearHappy New Year!

Making New Year resolutions proves a tricky business. We all know that setting too many goals is a recipe for disappointment, so it’s important to choose a small number of changes that will have the maximum impact.

In this post I describe three simple resolutions that I’ve learned from experience to be incredibly effective. If you’re unsure where to direct your resolve in 2009, forget the cliched crap about going to the gym more or “studying harder.” Give these three habits a try — they’ll completely transform your entire student experience.

Resolution #1: Commit to Full Capture

It’s the oldest trick in the proverbial productivity book, but it’s also the most essential. Without it, you simply cannot eliminate copious stress from your life. I’m talking, of course, about capturing every task, date, and deadline in a trusted system that you review regularly.


Let me make this simple for you:

  • Keep a master calendar and a master to-do list on your computer. I don’t care what software you use.
  • Buy a two dollar small spiral bound notebook that you carry in your pocket everywhere you go.
  • Whenever a task, date, or deadline pops into view — for example, a professor mentions a test date or you read an e-mail that requires action — jot it down in your notebook.
  • Every morning, do two things: (1) transfer new items from your notebook onto your computerized list and calendar; (2) review your lists and calendar.

It’s simple. I’ve talked about it before in my book and in these two posts, among other places, and it’s at the core of David Allen’s wildly successful GTD philosophy. There’s a reason why I keep bringing it up: without capture you will be stressed. Period. If you don’t already execute this strategy flawlessly, resolve to add it to your daily routine ASAP.

Resolution #2: Construct Assignment Folders

For every exam and paper set aside a fresh new manila file folder. While reviewing for the exam or researching and writing the paper, keep all of the relevant materials in this folder. It’s the one stop shop for everything relevant to this particular assignment.

From an organizational perspective, this makes life easier. If you want to study or write, you just have to grab a single folder to take with you to your favorite work location.

But there’s more…

At least two weeks before the deadline, you need to write two things on the outside of the folder. First, a to-do list of the specific actionable tasks you need to complete to finish preparing or writing. No vague nonsense like “study chapter 1″ or “research,” it has to be deadly precise. What specific activity are you going to do? Second, add a schedule that assigns these tasks to specific days.

In other words, the folder habit forces you to construct a study plan and schedule for every exam and paper. Furthermore, this plan and schedule will be in an easy to find and reference place — your folder. You can’t do any work on the assignment without encountering this advance planning.

There are two types of students in the world, those who study and write according to scheduled plans and those who just head to the library the day before with a vague ambition to “get some work done.” The former are happy, the latter don’t sleep much.

This habit is a simple way to shift over to the happy crowd…

Resolution #3: Practice the Retreating Deadline Method

Last September I proposed a provocative study habit: finish your studying and paper writing at least a day before the deadline. There were two strong motivations:

First, no matter how organized you are, if you’re studying or working on a paper the day before a deadline, you will feel stress. Even if you’re sure you’ll get it done, there’s always that voice in the background whispering: “what if you run out of time?”

By finishing a day early, you eliminate ever having to battle this voice. The result: huge stress reductions.

The second benefit is that it gives you a sense of control. You realize: “hey, I decide when I work, not the assignments.” It’s a simple change, but the impact is humongous. Self-determination is the source of basically everything good from a psychological perspective.

I don’t think this strategy gets enough attention here on Study Hacks. It captures the essence of everything I preach: take control of your own schedule, fight conventional wisdom, conform your work to your own comfort.

Take this method seriously. I don’t want to hear your whining about how you could never do it because you’re such a procrastinator. (See the original article for my retort to that problem.) Suck it up. Get it done. You’ll never be the same again.

(Graphic by Dru Bloomfield)

24 thoughts on “Three Student Resolutions Worth Making

  1. Jonas Park says:

    finish your studying and paper writing at least a day before the deadline.

    Just to clarify, this means that you get an assignment done two days before its due date, right? As in, if it’s due in class on Wednesday, you have it done by Monday night?

  2. I love the first.
    I’m always wondering how to do it, but how you explain it, it’s just so simple. Have a notebook with you, always, and write it down, and than write it in your calendar. So clear!
    Thanks!

    Stefan/DSK
    TheDutchSchoolKid.blogspot.com

  3. Study Hacks says:

    Just to clarify, this means that you get an assignment done two days before its due date, right? As in, if it’s due in class on Wednesday, you have it done by Monday night?

    Right.

  4. #2 is really good advise. What I tend to find is that I start term well but a month in, I’ve got papers around my room and am back to being disorganized. Sometimes just taking out time to re-organize yourself can really help.

    Plus, there’s something to be said for being organized so that when your coming up to an essay deadline you’ve got most of what you want right in front of you!

  5. Bubs says:

    Great blog and great advice…I really like number #2 and plan on using it for all my assignments/projects

  6. Great advice–I’ve found these really work.

    Two tools that have helped me implement this system:
    -I bought a simple Z22 Palm about three years ago to replace my planner or your notebook (and I still use the same one). It is awesome because you can easily carry it in a purse or pocket and immediately add events to your calendar or to-do list and synch with your computer.

    -In Getting Things Done, David Allen highly recommends you buy a Brother label maker for your file folders. I know it sounds corny, but it’s amazing how this really helps you to actually want to file things and to easily retrieve them.

    Happy studying!
    Elizabeth

  7. orientalist says:

    I understand how these methods help to organise between different papers, but what about within indidivual papers? All I have at the moment is one long thesis that I need to work on, yet I find it difficult to be productive/organised because I’m in the reseach stages and haven’t yet decided the title of my paper (though I know the general topic).I never know what I’m going to do next unless one piece of reading leads to another, which is not always the case.
    Aminah

  8. Study Hacks says:

    I never know what I’m going to do next unless one piece of reading leads to another, which is not always the case.

    Let’s think this through. See if you can come up with 3 new rules that would help organize this research better. Post them here, and I’ll give you some commentary.

  9. Great advice Cal. One tool that I find that helps me is either an iPod Touch or an iPhone (with or without a plan), if students can afford the initial $200 investment. Some of the productivity apps out there are amazing (ex. Remember the Milk), and either have syncing abilities to PC software or provide Gmail or Outlook integration. The best part is that with WiFi coverage on most college campuses, mundane items like checking email and remembering a location on Google Maps can be done in between classes without needing a data plan.

    Just my two cents. Keep up the great posts!

    Nolan

  10. Nickie Yue says:

    Hi Cal,
    I am a college student in Taiwan. I am in the best university in Taiwan, where it’s also quite competitive.
    I’ve read your books and now I am reading your blog, I really want to thank you since by applying principles you taught I am kicking ass in National Taiwan University!!! On top of that I am having a happy social life!!! Thank you so much!
    I love you. lol!

  11. Study Hacks says:

    Great advice Cal. One tool that I find that helps me is either an iPod Touch or an iPhone (with or without a plan), if students can afford the initial $200 investment. Some of the productivity apps out there are amazing (ex. Remember the Milk), and either have syncing abilities to PC software or provide Gmail or Outlook integration.

    You’re the second student I’ve met who recommends this approach. Supposedly with RTM you add tasks when you are on online and it will automatically synch with their servers next time you connect. Cool stuff.

    I’ve read your books and now I am reading your blog, I really want to thank you since by applying principles you taught I am kicking ass in National Taiwan University!!! On top of that I am having a happy social life!!!

    Excellent. What advice has worked the best for you?

  12. Nickie Yue says:

    I would say it’s all about being self-disciplined. Always work hard before having fun.
    I really appreciate your advices. I am only a freshman, but due to your books I am really getting somewhere while a lot of classmates and friends of mine are still goofing around and basically not doing anything. I am highly participating in a club, acing all my courses, and enjoying friendships. Thank you very very much!!!! A lot of people are paying respect to me, cuz I am like a superwoman, capable of performing outstandingly in many tasks at the same time.
    Seriously, I appreciate you a lot. So see all the concepts you’ve been preaching are universal. :)

  13. Viking09 says:

    These are some great pointers. I began reading your blog later this autumn, unfortunately a little too late to implement all of the advice before my exams. Anyhow, I have scheduled all my classes, deadlines, extra curricular activities (sports etc) using Outlook. I use a HP mini, so there is no problem to carry my plan with me to whichever lecture I have. Also, by synching with my mobile, I can have my plan with me whenever I do not have my pc. With a regular notebook as well, there is no way that any deadlines will slip past this system :)

    I am really looking foward to this semester, and do not feel stressed out at all.

  14. RF says:

    Nickie where do you buy the books in Taiwan? I’m currently in Taiwan for the holidays and couldn’t find them in Australia and would really like to get them. Thanks. Btw I go to the shopping place right opposite your university all the time. :D

  15. Nickie Yue says:

    WOW!!!! Fancy meeting you here! lol! Well I was reading its Chinese version though.

  16. orientalist says:

    Let’s think this through. See if you can come up with 3 new rules that would help organize this research better. Post them here, and I’ll give you some commentary.

    Okay,
    well I guess i could try and divide tasks into categories,e.g. reading primary material, secondary material, notetaking, writing, etc, so that it breaks down a bit more.
    2-having a separate place where i write comments or ideas that could be followed up-as I usually write them in with my notes and then I don’t always come back to them in time.
    3- maybe making a list of possible next actions at the end of a work session, as that is when i have most ideas, whereas by the next morning my mind is blank.

    Thanks for making me look at my researching technique this way. I look forward to reading your commentary

    Aminah

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Okay,
    well I guess i could try and divide tasks into categories,e.g. reading primary material, secondary material, notetaking, writing, etc, so that it breaks down a bit more.
    2-having a separate place where i write comments or ideas that could be followed up-as I usually write them in with my notes and then I don’t always come back to them in time.
    3- maybe making a list of possible next actions at the end of a work session, as that is when i have most ideas, whereas by the next morning my mind is blank.

    This is a great start. My main point in this exercise is to demonstrate that it doesn’t make sense to throw your hands up and say “I’m terrible at paper research” when you haven’t actually tried out different better methods.

    From your above list, I think breaking down the tasks and keeping a better next action list will help. I would also schedule regular blocks of time during the week for you to general paper research. This will keep you working consistently. To help structure your work during these blocks, read the following articles:

    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/09/08/monday-master-class-the-paperback-writer-method/
    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/05/05/monday-master-class-how-two-extra-hours-can-make-your-paper-two-times-better/
    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/03/31/monday-master-class-how-to-transform-your-professer-into-your-paper-writing-partner/
    http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/01/14/monday-master-class-how-to-edit-your-paper-in-three-passes-or-less/
    http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/12/17/monday-master-class-the-most-important-paper-research-advice-youve-never-heard/
    http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/11/05/monday-master-class-how-to-use-a-flat-outline-to-write-outstanding-papers-fast/

    Trust me, the 30 minutes you spend reading this articles will payback huge dividends.

  18. RF says:

    Nickie, did you buy the chinese version in Eslite or somewhere else? They’ll probably have an english one…

    Thanks~

  19. Felipe Araújo says:

    Keep a master calendar and a master to-do list on your computer. I don’t care what software you use.

    Could you suggest one good software?
    Thanks.

  20. Study Hacks says:

    Could you suggest one good software?

    I keep my to-dos using Remember the Milk. I have the gmail plug-in so I can manage this from GMAIL and also easily convert e-mails into tasks. I use Google Calendar for my calendar.

  21. Nickie Yue says:

    Yeah! I bought them in Eslite! You really should read them, very inspiring! :D Good luck with you finding.

  22. Margaret Gouin says:

    Maybe this would help with long research papers… When I did my PhD, I had a different folder for each chapter, plus a folder for ‘bibliography’ where miscellaneous notes about books and articles waited for attention, and an ‘ideas’ folder for things which didn’t seem to fit anywhere at the time (but often came in useful later). I changed my PhD structure several times but that just meant pulling folders apart and re-organising them and sticking on new labels. With a big paper, it’s also important to review your folders regularly to make sure they’re all still going in the same direction.
    The best piece of advice I had for writing my PhD was ‘Start writing your dissertation the day you register for your degree.’
    The best piece of practice I learned was to never be afraid of pulling things apart and reassembling them.
    One of the best pieces of software I used was (still is) Compendium, free mapping software; and the ‘outline’ view in MSWord was invaluable, I wrote most of my PhD in Outline mode.
    Thanks Cal for this great website.

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