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The Rule of One: A Simple Technique to Create a Relaxed Student Life

August 31st, 2009 · 39 comments

Note (8/31/09): I’m leaving tonight to give a research talk in Bologna, Italy (yes, it’s a tough life I lead). I’ll almost definitely have internet access, but I’ll also be quite busy, so I give my typical warnings about being slow to post, answer e-mails, and moderate comments over the next week.

The (Over) Committed StudentThinking by water

Last week, I received an e-mail from a student who I’ve advised in the past. His new semester was about to start and he was worried about his schedule.

“I think I’m overcommitting myself,” he told me. “I considered dropping some activities, but it’s hard because I want to do them all.”

He then asked me to review the following “time budget” that he created for his schedule:

  • 5 courses — 24 hours/week in class
  • Lab volunteering — 15 hours/week
  • Peer educator and mentor — 10 hours/week
  • Exercise — 6 hours/week
  • Hospital volunteering — 3 hours/week
  • Executive of a club — 5 hours/week
  • Public speaking club — 8 hours/week

After reading his e-mail, I realized it’s time for me to revist one of the main themes preached here on Study Hacks: simplicity is beautiful.

The idea that doing less can actually make you more impressive is, of course, the cornerstone of my Zen Valedictorian Philosophy. I’ve also argued that doing lots of extracurricular activities is meaningless for your job hunt, and that overloaded course schedules are like a devestating virus that can destroy your life.

In this post, I want to add a new strategy to your minimilast arsenal.

The Rule of One

My response to the student from above is that, in my opinion, he’s overcommitted. His schedule will inevitably cause stress and yield little tangible advantages in terms of his perceived impressiveness. He’s following a diligence strategy instead of an ability strategy, and he’ll eventually pay a price for it.

My advice for this student is to follow what I call the rule of one. This rule includes the following three requirements:

  • One Major: I don’t want to hear about your nonsense plan to combine a bio major with a music major so you’ll be perfectly positioned for a lucrative job studying the effects of Mozart on bacteria. Choose one major, then use your extra time to become an A* student.
  • One Extracurricular: Having a laundry-list of activities has become so outdated as a strategy that it’s almost embarassing at this point. Choose one pursuit and then spend four years pushing it somewhere exceptional. If it helps, you can ease into this lifestyle with an activity vacation.
  • One Hour of Focused Relaxation Per Day: When constructing your autopilot schedule, block off one hour each day for what I call focused relaxation. This involves going somewhere quiet where you’re completely disconnected — no phone, no e-mail, no iPod — and doing something you enjoy. Read a book. Walk through the woods. Take notes on big ideas. If you do this every day, not only will your stress decrease, but you’ll also gain a sense of control over your life which will pay huge dividends as the demands you face increase.

It’s impossible to follow the rule of one and still feel overwhelmed or stressed. Even better, if you couple this minimalist approach with a dedication to focusing hard and doing exceptionally well at your small number of pursuits, you’ll actually increase your impressiveness.

The beginning of a new semester is a perfect time to make new resolutions about your student lifestyle. I implore you to give this approach a try. If you do, let me know — I want to hear your story.

39 thoughts on “The Rule of One: A Simple Technique to Create a Relaxed Student Life

  1. Emma says:

    I haven’t gotten around to saying thanks for your great blog yet – but thanks. As I’m going into my freshman year of college, it has taken on an even more important role in my planning for a hectic year.
    (And I would love to double major in bio and music! But, fortunately, my school requires a major and a minor, so it’s pretty obvious that I’ll just settle for a music minor. Which I hope is simple enough?)

  2. vtamethodman says:

    This guy is going to completely burn himself out! Great advice Cal.

  3. fm says:

    You said that you don’t need to be able to focus hard for just normal studying but what do you do if you still have the same problems you quoted from that e-mail; writing down tasks in time-blocks and then not being able to concentrate to get things done? I am having massive issues with this and have done for ages. I looked at your proscrastination pages and it’s not always that – I am just so slow and never get anything done as I do not focus. I leave things till the last minute and fake deadlines still don’t cut it.

    Like take today: I blocked my time 9-5 with the aim of getting a lot of reading/notes done and got through 3 articles the whole day using a combo of morse-code/q-a. It’s a joke :(. I wanted to break this habit before I started my studies again but 2 months in I am no nearer. Any advice? Thanks.

  4. fm says:

    I just realised I posted this in on the wrong article as I had linked to the ‘focus’ one :/

  5. EL says:

    Uh-oh, looks like somebody forgot they need to do coursework, cook, eat, sleep, do laundry, and socialize 😉

    Thanks for the tips about focused relaxation. It seems obvious, but I neglect it far too often. It’s too easy to “relax” by checking email and reading blogs.

  6. Nate says:

    Cal –

    I have a cousin who just began high school and am looking forward to giving him copies of all of your books when he decides to go to college. I’d also like to know how your next book’s progress is going, since it is about simplicity in high school. How is it so far?

  7. Study Hacks says:

    As I’m going into my freshman year of college, it has taken on an even more important role in my planning for a hectic year.

    Excellent. If you start your first year with the right mindset (plenty of free time, using smart study strategies, trying to excel at a small number of things) you’ll have a great experience.

    I am having massive issues with this and have done for ages.

    Hard focus is a practiced skill. Start by putting aside a 1 – 2 hour block each day. Go somewhere very isolated with a definitive task to complete. Make sure it is a task that will easily fit into the block. When you arrive at your isolated location, put all of your attention on to task for the short time you allotted. Absolutely no other actions are allowed. After a couple weeks of one isolated block a day, add a second, then, eventually, expand them. You’ll get better…

    It’s too easy to “relax” by checking email and reading blogs.

    Right. With the exception of this blog, which is always okay to check.

    I’d also like to know how your next book’s progress is going, since it is about simplicity in high school. How is it so far?

    I just handed in the first two-thirds of the manuscript, and the final third, which I’m polishing in Italy, will be handed in later in September. The current schedule has the editing done by November and the book published in July. Once the editing is done, I plan to start discussing it more and more here on this blog. I love the way it’s coming together. Study Hacks fans are going to *love* it — regardless of their age.

  8. Mike says:

    I’m really interested in your next book Cal, I’m going to be a junior in high school this year which means tons of work for me. Hopefully with your guidance I can present myself as a well rounded student for colleges.

  9. I love your posts about real life situations. More, please!

  10. Jelica says:

    I completely agree with having just one extracurricular. I was on two student groups, designing their websites. Little did I know, designing websites was time consuming and even frustrating when the presidents of the groups had no idea what they wanted (yet were so picky about what I had worked on for them). It was not a communication problem; rather, it was an incompatibility issue with the people I was working with. For me, the key was to stick to the group that I had the best chemistry with and taught me the most skills/events that were unfamiliar to me.

  11. While I admire the simplicity of this approach, I’m afraid that I can’t apply it into my current life as a high school student. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible to do only one activity and still be competitive in admissions. Whereas future employers really don’t care how many extracurricular activities you did, colleges—especially top ones—do.
    Consequently, I still have to do multiple demanding activities. What I’ve started experimenting with is a major/minor model. Essentially, I have one major activity which I pore my heart into (debate) and excel at, and one minor activity which I enjoy but is not a top priority (computer science). Still, I’ve had trouble letting go of other activities and saying no to new opportunities. What’s your advice for applying the rule of one to high school?

  12. Florian says:

    The best advice to give to this student is to sum up all the hours and divide them by 7 (if he/she actually wants to work 7 days a week) and then he / she has to aks himself if he /she really wants to spend over 10 hours a day working over a long period of time and if this is really healthy …

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Unfortunately, it’s just not possible to do only one activity and still be competitive in admissions.

    You need to read my new book! As I’ve been promising, as we approach the new year I’ll start sharing more information about it here on the blog.

  14. David says:

    “Overloaded course schedules are like a devestating virus that can destroy your life.”

    Ok… what would be your advice for someone who has 10 difficult courses left with 10 labs, and a quickly diminishing bank account?

    I can work my butt off and finish my major in April, or I can take 2.5 courses per semester and finish a full year later.

    It wasn’t poor planning that got me into this situation either, it was poor circumstances 🙂 .

    Do you have any antirvirals for me?

  15. supergirl says:

    So I’m guessing your advice, in blunt terms, translates to: cross off the bottom three bullet points and drop a class.

    Where does the lab volunteering fit in, assuming that lab volunteering means meaningful research in the student’s major? Is it your one extracurricular, part of your one major, or something you do on top of that?

  16. Jon C says:

    Cal your post are great.

    “One Hour of Focused Relaxation Per Day” sounds really good, but one hour is a big chunk of time, do you think half an hour would be good enough or does one hour work the best?

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Ok… what would be your advice for someone who has 10 difficult courses left with 10 labs, and a quickly diminishing bank account?

    It’s going to be really tough. If it’s unavoidable, then I would recommend abandoning extracurriculars and being very smart about your study systems. (You can use my Straight-A Method as a starting point, but you should also seek out advice from your professors, TAs, and students who have already taken the course to help squeeze out any inefficienies in your studying.) Finally, I would still recommend keeping the hour of relaxation in your schedule (perhaps built around a meal to save a little time). This will help preserve your sanity.

    Is it your one extracurricular, part of your one major, or something you do on top of that?

    It’s an interesting question. I think it’s okay to consider it part of your major work and then have one (and only one) non-academic extracurricular. At the same time, however, it’s perfectly reasonable to make lab work your only activity and really do well at it. Depends whether or not you think you need something unrelated to help balance out your life (like I did by writing for the humor magazine).

    hour is a big chunk of time, do you think half an hour would be good enough or does one hour work the best?

    If you can’t find an hour each day to relax than your schedule is too busy. It’s a simple exercise to enforce an appropriate level of simplicity.

  18. Kathir says:

    Dear Cal,
    I loved your book, Straight A but would like to know what are the most comman studying ineffiencies besides pseudo-working? Also, what areas of academia are the question evidence conclusion format used, in all liberal arts, or only some areas? Also, do you think student ability evolves and develops over time, somewhat like an professional athlete?

  19. Study Hacks says:

    what are the most comman studying ineffiencies besides pseudo-working?

    Learning material that won’t be covered on the test, or learning material in a way that doesn’t match how you’ll have to use it on the test. In other words, sticking with a study technique for the sake of stability without questioning whether it’s most efficient.

    Also, what areas of academia are the question evidence conclusion format used, in all liberal arts, or only some areas?

    It seems to work well in most liberal arts courses.

    Also, do you think student ability evolves and develops over time, somewhat like an professional athlete?

    Yes. If, like an athlete, you keep evaluating and improving your technique.

  20. Kathir says:

    Dear Cal, thanks for the reply! Another question I had was what does it mean to focus at an intensity of 10, do you have examples from your own life?

  21. E. Sheppard says:

    I totally agree with you. I believe that a student CAN be over-committed. Plus, it is dangerous to keep on shlogging away with too many activities. A healthy balance is the best… Great post!

  22. Tik says:

    I understand that while it may not be favorable to the student with this hell of a schedule, if he gets good grades (A’s and B’s), parties on the weekend, and still does all those activities…why not give him major props for it? I know sometimes it isn’t logical to do all that but for those who can and do it well, go for them!

    Btw, I feel like that student exaggerated on the hours. According to him, he does all this stuff for a total of 71 hours. If you are awake for 14/15 hours a day, that allows you only have 4 hours a day to eat, hang out with friends and do homework. I find this impossible.

  23. David says:

    Thanks for the reply Cal. I ordered a copy of your book, it arrived yesterday, and I finished it today. It definitely gave me some good ideas on spending my time more wisely.

    Regards.

  24. Aaron says:

    I am a member of several overlapping political organizations (Kennedy Political Union, Roosevelt Institution, College Dems, etc), do you think that the one extra-curricular rule still applies to me? Because it seems that the focus and drive to excel in one area is supported by other entries.

  25. Katie says:

    Cal, this post has helped me to whittle down my insane number of extracurriculars to a neat tidy number: 1. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t do it sooner in my academic career (I’m a senior in college). It feels great – maybe I can have a social life now 🙂 Keep up the good work!

  26. Lynn M says:

    I enjoyed your post. I think there is something to be said for focus. These days it seems like people advise college students to do it all or commit to nothing. What is wrong with having a major and focusing on a path? Sure, I understand you may not know what you want to do for the rest of your life, but who does? Finding out what you want to focus on and doing that will lead to learning where you can go and give you a better foundation than do a little of this and that or trying to do a lot of this and that. Thanks for giving some credit to the idea of the college student with a major. The Mozart of Bacteria….indeed!

  27. Drew M. says:

    I think that choosing to do a double major is perfectly fine if the student is willing to both spend an extra year and college and choose majors with multiple concepts and courses in common.

    Doing Music and Biology is obviously insane, but Math and Computer Science or Electrical Engineering and Physics – cases where most of the major courses overlap on major concepts, and the major sequence for one can easily be used for the other electives or whatever.

  28. Jonny says:

    hey Cal, this article http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath
    reminded me why being good at one thing impresses people nowdays.

  29. Bruce says:

    OH CMON, Cal. It has been proven in many laboratory studies that bacteria love Bach, not Mozart.

    Sheesh.

    I don’t want to hear about your nonsense plan to combine a bio major with a music major so you’ll be perfectly positioned for a lucrative job studying the effects of Mozart on bacteria.

  30. Study Hacks says:

    OH CMON, Cal. It has been proven in many laboratory studies that bacteria love Bach, not Mozart.

    My bad! 🙂

  31. Steve says:

    Hi Cal. Nice post.

    What major activity do you suggest one geat involved in to feel and appear impressive (to others and to graduate schools)? Say if I aspired to attend medical school, what major activity ought I do (found an organization, research, something exciting!, etc.)?

    Thanks!

  32. Tessa says:

    Hmm, Cal, I’m confused. I bought all 3 of your books and am reading them off the Kindle app on Amazon. In “How to Win at College,” you advise on the 38th tip/chapter, to tack on an extra major or minor.

    This book was written in 2005 so is it correct to assume that your most current advice re:majors is on this blog?

    Also, what’s your thoughts on doing a major that has a
    concentration versus double majoring or majoring and minoring?

    I am thinking of majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in biology. This is considered a “combined major” as UCSC.

  33. Gillian says:

    The New York Times just published an article that really supports your ideas: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/opinion/sunday/relax-youll-be-more-productive.html?src=me&ref=general

  34. david says:

    Awesome article. I love you, Cal.

  35. Jackson Gaskill says:

    I found this interesting as most students seem to overload themselves to make them look as impressive as possible, when in reality sticking to one’s strengths is really the best option. Combining majors is often pointless and can take too long, when most training is done on the job. Overloading extracurriculars is also a bad idea. Focusing on success in a few areas instead of participation in many is the best option in the end.

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