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Quick Hits: Deliberate Practice for Writers, Entrepreneurs, and Hollywood Superstars

January 30th, 2010 · 66 comments

Quick hits is an occasional feature where I take a breather between my epic big idea posts to share ideas, ask questions, and in general provide a catch-all place for me to catch up with you. 

Deliberate Practice in Unconventional PlacesThinking Man

I’m not the only one with deliberate practice on my mind. A variety of bloggers have been exploring this powerful idea…

Do You Love What You Do? If So, I Want to Talk with You.

You may have noticed by now my infatuation with the science of career satisfaction. I want to temper all this fancy lab learning with some good ‘ole fashioned on the ground reporting.

With this in mind, if you’re someone who loves what you do — the type of person people point to and say “that’s what I want my life to be like” — please consider sending me an e-mail at author [at] calnewport.com.

I want to hear your story.

Use the Comment Thread of this Post to Ask Me Anything!

Speaking of e-mail, if you have a question, comment, or devastating insult to hurl my direction, and you don’t want to wait the 1 – 2 weeks it can sometimes take me to get through my blog e-mails, leave it as a comment on this post. For the next few days I’ll check and respond to these comments regularly.

(Photo by envios)

66 thoughts on “Quick Hits: Deliberate Practice for Writers, Entrepreneurs, and Hollywood Superstars

  1. Phil says:

    Thanks for the very interesting list of links.

    I have a question about a slightly older post. In the chess-master post you made an interesting remark in the comment section:

    There’s actually good research on how professional physicists see problems as compared to amateurs. To summarize it (poorly), they found that through practice, physicists build up much more complex (and abstract) ways of conceptualizing a problem, while newer

    Could you please name a good paper on this or a researcher involved in this kind of research. I googled a variety of words and phrases, but unfortunately could not find anything coming close to this subject. Thank you.

  2. Blue says:

    Email sent to Cal re: why I love what I do… done!

  3. Steve says:

    Thanks for the site — I’m passing it on to the grad students I work with.

    I’d like to see more information for young faculty–especially those of us working 4/4 loads. I’m in class 19 hours a week, and that leaves only 21 hours to do my course readings, prepare assignment sheets, grade essays, answer student e-mails, read recent scholarship, write and eat — and as much as I’m trying to implement your tips, I still haven’t figured it all out yet. I know there are folks who teach 4/4 or even 5/5 and still publish, and I’d like to know how they do it!

  4. Rajiv says:

    It’s interesting that you wrote a blog post on chess and included another chess example in this post. There’s yet another former chess player out there who might be of greater interest to you. His name is Josh Waitzkin, he recently authored a book on learning, and gives talks on improving performance. It’s all a little pseud-scientific and mystical, but he has results to show for it. Google him when you get a chance.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Could you please name a good paper on this or a researcher involved in this kind of research. I googled a variety of words and phrases, but unfortunately could not find anything coming close to this subject. Thank you.

    If you read the survey paper I link to in the grandmaster article, it contains an exceptional related work section, that includes references to the physicist studies, among many others. It’s a fascinating collection of results.

    Email sent to Cal re: why I love what I do… done!

    Excellent! I look forward to reading it. You’ll be hearing from me…

    I’d like to see more information for young faculty

    With my own academic job hunt about to start, these issues are certainly on my mind as well. This might be a dumb question, but what does 4/4 schedule mean?

    There’s yet another former chess player out there who might be of greater interest to you. His name is Josh Waitzkin, he recently authored a book on learning, and gives talks on improving performance.

    A few other readers also sent me that citation, and I took a look at the book. Not surprisingly, a lot of the experience-based observations Josh shares align well with the science of deliberate practice. In other places, of course, he deviates off in his direction.

  6. Daniel says:

    Cheers

    Thanks a lot for this blog, very much appreciated.

    I’m using this year to prepare for post-graduate study while I tutor at local universities. My plan is to pursue a Masters of Japanese philosophy at Kyoto University, writing my thesis in Japanese. Subsequently I intend to complete my PhD at a high quality Western university, perhaps Leiden.

    Researching and writing on a very hard topic and in a very hard foreign language is not something I could have imagined possible seven or eight years ago, but by sticking it out as an undergraduate for six years over two degrees I have managed to learn a lot about how to learn (and write) effectively.

    Still, I think my chances of success have improved measurably by coming into contact with your ideas. Especially with regards to radical simplicity, I have quite ruthlessly disengaged myself from several commitments and winnowed down my activities to just these three for the year:

    Turning my upper intermediate Japanese to advanced
    Tutoring (income)
    Writing a journal article first sem, a presentation/possible article second sem

    I still really want to take on Chinese, as it will be useful in the future in my line of research. However I have come to realise that at this point its more important that I focus on making my Japanese as good as possible. Nobody will be impressed with the mediocre Chinese that I could learn in the next year, while I sacrifice a considerable amount of time I could be spending on attaining real fluency with my core foreign language.

    Thanks a lot for helping me make that difficult decision, among others! Lets have a good 2010.

  7. lurking... says:

    Cal, I have a bit of a problem. I started studying properly during the 2nd year of college – books, notes, tests, homework and lab assignments done properly.

    However, first year of the degree was pretty shoddily done – the basic math, programming and logic stuff was glossed over and studied in a rushed way, like last minute studying. The details i missed out then have repeatedly come back to haunt me eg. programming in C and java. I am pretty ok at math. Is there any way at all I can remedy this without going back and redoing my degree – computer engineering major, year 3, no minors and my course load is relatively free this semester – few cores and electives. I also have a break from may to end of august – to plan this comeback :). Please give me some thoughts on this.

    also, what is the best way to monitor your progress with deliberate practice? i mean, it is pointless to be tricked into believing you are working hard, when it could be pseudo-work.

    tl;dr:
    i slacked in year 1 of college and being pwnd by basics. how to catch up quickly?

    i would love anyone’s view on the matter, not just Cal. Thank you very much :)

  8. I love what I do at the moment which is to write over at my blog like you do here. It is genuinely fulfilling.

  9. Denis says:

    Thank a lot for this blog. I wish I had found it a few years ago, when I was still a graduate student in physics. I now work as a research professional (same university I graduated) and been trying to use your tips, but with a lot of difficulty. For example, I want to use the Autopilot to reserve time to learn C++ and do some reading to keep me in touch with my research, but find myself stuck with so much things to look for in a week (writing grant proposals, research papers, managing grad students, etc.) that by the end of the week, I haven’t been able to do other things than what’s immediately work related. What’s your views about this?

  10. Stephanie says:

    I considered writing you an email about how I love what I do: I’m writing my dissertation for a PhD in English and teaching freshman English courses. I have the three things that you mention in your post “Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do.” I have autonomy: my research and writing are self-directed on a topic that I have chosen, my courses are completely up to me, from course design to text selection to grading. I have competence: I am a becoming an expert in my specialization. I have relatedness: my academic community is friendly and my schedule and location allow me plenty of time with my family, a criterion that is extremely important to me.

    However, I have chosen a field that is becoming ever more closed off. With my PhD in hand and glowing recommendations, I won’t be particularly hirable. There are fewer tenure-track jobs for PhDs in the humanities, and we have not been trained to consider any other options. In your “Beyond Passion” post, you indicate that Laura has made herself valuable to the market because she has mastered a rare and valuable skill. My question is: in a field that is glutted with talented, qualified people, competing for a few coveted jobs, how do you identify what that rare and valuable skill is? Especially when dealing with a system that is very much based on a rigid and traditional model of career progression.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    I still really want to take on Chinese, as it will be useful in the future in my line of research. However I have come to realise that at this point its more important that I focus on making my Japanese as good as possible. Nobody will be impressed with the mediocre Chinese that I could learn in the next year, while I sacrifice a considerable amount of time I could be spending on attaining real fluency with my core foreign language.

    This is fantastic self-reflection — I’m in complete agreement with your decisions. (It’s also a great example of the process of “becoming great at a rare and valuable sill” as it happens.)

  12. Study Hacks says:

    Is there any way at all I can remedy this without going back and redoing my degree -

    To use a computer science metaphor you might appreciate, I recommend Just In Time compilation of this knowledge. That is, as you take your current courses and come across certain specific areas where you’re weak (and it’s hurting your performance), launch an active review based crash course in filling in that knowledge or skill. This will prove more effective and efficient than trying to identify these areas all in advance.

    also, what is the best way to monitor your progress with deliberate practice?

    You need a well-developed fitness function — that is, way to objectively evaluate the value of your output. Then you can give yourself clear feedback on whether or not you’re improving. (Of course, if there is a teacher or mentor available to provide such feedback, that’s even better.)

    For some pursuits, like mastering the guitar, this function is easier to develop. For other pursuits, like writing, it can be more difficult. The key in these more difficult pursuits is to invest the time to understand what separates the good from the bad before you start investing too much effort in your own development. For example, if you want to do non-fiction writing like Malcolm Gladwell, you should first become an expert in what makes him pop compared to his pale imitators.

  13. Rachel says:

    I have really been enjoying your posts! At least ten years of deliberate practice is a pretty big commitment to make, and I was wondering if you have any tips on how to choose an area/field to focus on.

    I’m finish a math PhD this spring and there are a variety of career directions that are available and appealing to me. I’m having trouble deciding what to pursue next year, much less what I could make a long term commitment to mastering. Any advice on how to approach this?

    Thanks for your thoughtful ideas!

  14. Study Hacks says:

    For example, I want to use the Autopilot to reserve time to learn C++ and do some reading to keep me in touch with my research, but find myself stuck with so much things to look for in a week (writing grant proposals, research papers, managing grad students, etc.) that by the end of the week, I haven’t been able to do other things than what’s immediately work related.

    I’m considering writing a more detailed blog post about this topic, but at a high-level here’s what I’ve adoped in my position as a postdoc at MIT (similar, I assume, to your position as a researcher):

    I try to build my day around a small number of hard focus “attacks” on unambiguously important steps towards the completion of unambiguously important projects. In this spirit, I try to round up all of the logistical gunk that can build up during the week into a consolidated mass that I can attack with a similar animal-like intensity.

    This approach generated some important changes to my work flow. First, it made me more seriously consider what projects were actually unambiguously important — leading to a lot more ruthless culling and frequent rejection of requests from others. Second, it helped me rearrange those projects’ structures to reveal unambiguously important steps before I would devote any time to them.

    Notice, this has a decidedly different feel than the autopilot schedule, which is useful for the type of regularly-appearing structured work produced by classes.

    Applied to your situation, for example, you might put off learning C++ until you get to a point in a really important project where mastering C++ would give you a breakthrough in your results — at which point you attack the task with a well-motivated zeal.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    I’m writing my dissertation for a PhD in English and teaching freshman English courses. I have the three things that you mention in your post “Beyond Passion”

    Excellent. When tackled from the perspective of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, grad school can be an incredibly fulfilling job.

    My question is: in a field that is glutted with talented, qualified people, competing for a few coveted jobs, how do you identify what that rare and valuable skill is?

    I’m asking myself this exact same question as I prepare to enter the academic job market next year. My understanding is that the answer of “what’s valuable” for a particular academic concentration is likely unique to that concentration. That being said, the step you should definitely take is to find out who is getting hired in your field, and then figure out why.

    Spend a weekend on this. Treat it like a reporting job. These answers, combined with advice from your advisor and mentors, can go a long way in shaping a smart path through the final stages of grad school.

  16. Study Hacks says:

    I’m finish a math PhD this spring and there are a variety of career directions that are available and appealing to me. I’m having trouble deciding what to pursue next year, much less what I could make a long term commitment to mastering. Any advice on how to approach this?

    It’s a great question. I have two pieces of advice:

    (1) Don’t get too caught up in the idea that some career is better for you than others. The best general criteria is to choose whatever option gives you the fastest path towards accumulating a lot of autonomy, competence, and relatednes. Because you have a math PhD in hand, the answer to this optimization problem will likely be some place that really respects that ability (i.e., as oppose to doing something completely different.)

    (2) Don’t be dissuaded by the 10-year figure. That result seems to hold for fields with clear competitive structures — like athletics, music, and chess. In most jobs, however, as I hypothesized in my grandmaster in the corner office post, much smaller amounts of deliberate practice can actually have huge benefits — as you may be among the only employees doing it.

  17. AM says:

    I’m still struggling to apply deliberate practice to activities that aren’t as focused as sports or instruments. I read Penelope Trunk’s blog but didn’t find much there in the use of deliberate practice for entrepreneurship or financial management–she wrote more about it applied to writing and figure skating. Anyways, I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts on this, it’s an exciting topic!

  18. That Guy says:

    Hey Cal!

    I am following your advice and it has been 2 weeks eversince my semester started. Everything has been going well so far, but I did have a quick question, which I doubt you can help me with, but I just wanted your input on the following:

    See, I try to get a good amount of work done in the one hour intensity block, but I usually find myself spending great deal of time understanding the material. For example, I usually end up spending 3 hrs on understanding the material from one chapter of my chemistry book and same thing with physics. In other words, I’m a little slow when it comes to understanding science material. I pay attention in class, but my chem prof just rambles around about material far away from; the prof doesnt stick to the point. So, my point is that I am basically trying to teach myself these two subjects. I am going to class, but it seems pointless.

    P.S. I sent you a friendly email about 2 weeks ago regarding a different question and I’m awaiting your response.

  19. Terri says:

    Looking back at life, I can see where I applied deliberate practice. It’s really easy to do deliberate practice with sports since they are so structured and well-defined. I think that’s a good area to start with, to see how it’s done and to gain confidence. In college, I spent about a year learning skating and hockey so I could make the varsity hockey team. I went to a couple PE classes and then spent as much time as I could at public skate and intramural hockey.

    Here are my general thoughts about how to apply deliberate practice. The obvious factor everyone has already mentioned is practice time. Then read as much as possible about your subject. That could mean reading books, talking to people, or watching videos on the internet. Learn good technique and learn good taste (why do people think successful person X in your field is so great?). If you really want to get good fast, move to a place where you can fully immerse yourself in the topic. For example, if you want to become an artist, move to New York. If you want to learn a foreign language, move to that country.

    Then refine and tailor the learning technique to yourself. Not all training methods will work for everyone. Find a way to maximize the efficiency of your learning technique. In hockey, professionals don’t practice hours everyday. They practice one hour at maximum intensity, just like a game situation. It is better to practice small amounts of time at high intensity then for long periods at low intensity.

    If you want to become decently good at multiple things (as opposed to the 10,000 hour expert), I think it’s good to choose a hard fundamental area of the topic. If you want to become a scientist, physics is a great topic because it forces you to appreciate deep understanding. Physicists find it really easy to jump into other sciences like biology or linguistics. (Disclaimer: I am a physics grad student.) If you want to become a great visual artist, I would pick drawing/painting over photography. I’ve studied bits of both and I can already see that the technical aspects of photography are really easy to pick up. Drawing is much more skill-oriented and really forces you to think hard.

    I agree that deliberate practice can be done in different amounts. Committing ten years of your life isn’t really realistic. What I think one should do is do deliberate practice on one thing for a year at a time and evaluate at the end of the year.

  20. charpsp20 says:

    All my classes are technical now. The downside to this is that I dont believe i can come up with a rigid auto-pilot schedule since you never know when you will finish a problem. I was wondering if you could give critical advice on my general study attack method. Any further advice is welcomed too.

    I am taking 3 ENGR classes and 2 ENGR labs (1 long, 1 short) about 13 hr load.

    1) Since my classes alternate btwn 9 and 9 30 in the morning, wake up early (hard but doable) and spend an hr before class every day either priming a problem set or reviewing lecture notes and equations.

    2)Generally, I have alot of time in the afternoons so time block as efficiently as possible (2-3 sets of 2hr hard focus) to rotate btwn prob sets. if possible find a study partner to compare methods of attack/answers but dont exclusively depend on them (pseudo work/procrastination and sincere grinding is prevalent in ENGR)

    3) 1 lab is wkly so that one, i can do an autopilot on it. the other lab is rather lengthy (20-40p) 3 write ups every 2 wks from what i hear. For that one, ill probably have to block off time most days and maybe a wkend exclusively to the project.

    4) For tests, grab as many old test prob sets/notes and make sure i understand each concept presented…start 1 1/2 wks early ideally. I think there is a potential danger only using your own notes and hw sets to use for megaproblem sets because you can get lazy and think you understand them since youve seen them before.

    5) I also have a part time job tutoring…I am planing on keep my available hr toward the later evening so i use my most valuable study hrs for myself.

    The general goal for me is to have a working 8-7 study/class period and minimal on the wkend. The rest will be either tutoring, cooking/cleaning, and relaxing. While this is still heavy, it will hopefully beat the stress of all nighters which never worked for me. I hope this will improve efficiency grades as Ive never been a really slacking student just a grinder that squeaks out B’s

  21. Bernardo says:

    Hey Cal, great blog, really interesting, but I have kind of a specific question…

    I’m a computer science undergrad from Brazil and I’m a bit worried about the rareness and worthiness of this skill, I don’t see it as something that impacts directly people lives, most don’t care, so it generally becomes something that’s lowly regarded in a social and professional context. I’ve had some work experience and even in companies that work exclusively building software the business aspect seems to be the one that is highly regarded.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog!

  22. Study Hacks says:

    I’m still struggling to apply deliberate practice to activities that aren’t as focused as sports or instruments.

    I’ve been collecting some interesting examples of DP in unexpected places, hopefully for use in an upcoming post. I agree, this field is new and hard to navigate — but that’s what makes it exciting to me.

    So, my point is that I am basically trying to teach myself these two subjects. I am going to class, but it seems pointless.

    If the professor is impossible to follow, use the class to get related work done; i.e., working from the textbook. Actually going to a lecture hall twice a week is one of the best study locations you can find!

    I can see where I applied deliberate practice. It’s really easy to do deliberate practice with sports since they are so structured and well-defined. I think that’s a good area to start with, to see how it’s done and to gain confidence.

    Definitely. Learning an instrument or a foreign language (in a relatively short timeframe) are other challenges that ingrain a good sense of what the DP should feel like.

    Here are my general thoughts about how to apply deliberate practice…

    Excellent tips. A related piece is getting good feedback — which, as I discussed in a previous comment, can be a result of the immersion you mentioned. That is, if you know what makes a great photo better than a good photo you can tell if your photos this month are better than they were last month.

  23. Study Hacks says:

    P.S. I sent you a friendly email about 2 weeks ago regarding a different question and I’m awaiting your response.

    Sorry about that. I spend 30 minutes a day on blog e-mail after my lunch. This is enough time to more or less keep up with the volume of messages that come in. However, what happens is that occasionally something pops up in my schedule that cancels these blocks for a few days, which puts me behind. Then a few more and a few more — each time pushing my response time back. Eventually, I have to put aside a big block of time to catch up back up with the present.

    Probably what I should do is be more diligent about making up the missed blocks soon after I miss them.

  24. Study Hacks says:

    The downside to this is that I dont believe i can come up with a rigid auto-pilot schedule since you never know when you will finish a problem. I was wondering if you could give critical advice on my general study attack method

    It is hard to fully autopilot problem sets, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t autopilot the first steps of tackling a problem set (search for my post on solving hard problem sets). That will help.

    I am taking 3 ENGR classes and 2 ENGR labs (1 long, 1 short) about 13 hr load.

    This seems like an unusually hard load. All engineering classes!?

    3) 1 lab is wkly so that one, i can do an autopilot on it. the other lab is rather lengthy (20-40p) 3 write ups every 2 wks from what i hear. For that one, ill probably have to block off time most days and maybe a wkend exclusively to the project.

    You can probably autopilot this as well once you get a sense of when during the two week period you have what you need to handle each part. (It’s okay for an autopilot to differ week to week. My advice is to lock in your autopilot for the week during a Sunday ritual check-in.)

    Your plan, in general, sounds well thought out to me. The key for you will be ruthless and frequent self-evaluation. Every few weeks ask yourself what’s working well, what’s not, and what are you not doing that might work better. Be very careful about becoming entrenched in the first schedule/strategy that came to mind. If you instead treat your semester as if you were researching a book on the best way to tackle a hard engineering course load, you’ll continue to see gains.

  25. Study Hacks says:

    I’m a computer science undergrad from Brazil and I’m a bit worried about the rareness and worthiness of this skill,

    You don’t need the whole world to find a skill valuable. In fact, the most valuable skills are valuable only to selective niches. As an undergrad, focus on becoming an A* student in your department. Once you land your first job, then turn your attention to identifying what skills in your particular field are particularly valuable. Then it’s time to start thinking about how to get there from where you are.

  26. Andrew says:

    Hey Cal. First of all I love your blog and it has really helped me. I was wondering. Do you think you can achieve autonomy,competence and relatedness in any field you pursue? Are there fields that lend themselves better to this type of lifestyle?

  27. Beth says:

    Hi, I wanted to ask for some advice. I’m currently in sixth form (the last two years of high school in Britain) and I’m thinking about doing a degree in economics. I know that to get into a great university to study economics (my favourite subject), I need exceptionally high marks in maths. I’m definitely capable of those marks, however I simply don’t like maths. Can you suggest any way of creating a liking for a subject? It would make the next year and a half a lot easier!

  28. Study Hacks says:

    I was wondering. Do you think you can achieve autonomy,competence and relatedness in any field you pursue?

    My hypothesis is that you can find those in most fields. I’m sure, however, there are some where it’s near impossible.

    Can you suggest any way of creating a liking for a subject?

    Become excellent at it, and do so in a manner where you have more time than you need to dedicate to this task (i.e., not as part of a crowded, stressful schedule).

  29. Cameron says:

    I’m a high school student shamelessly soliciting advice. I’ve already cut out the majority of my extracurriculars, leaving only French club (for fun and food), debate (VERY time intensive, but which I love…most of the time), and creative writing–though as ancillaries to these interests, I am also helping run a debate program at a local middle school and starting a French club at my old middle school as part of my senior project.

    For the most part, I manage to balance my eight IB/AP classes on top of these activities, but the one area I fall short is creative writing. I have a sort of “internship” with a poet in my state where I send her work to be critiqued. Unfortunately, my writing well has run a bit dry from lack of practice. It’s not necessarily that I don’t have the time, but that I don’t have the time to get into the “zone” that is so essential to writing, and my distinct lack of poetry production for my internship is a testament to this. I would love to write in the mornings, when my mind is clearest, but I get up at 5:30 for school, and I doubt I could mentally adjust to getting up any early. Any ideas?

  30. Study Hacks says:

    I’ve already cut out the majority of my extracurriculars, leaving only…

    Just as a mild point of correction, you listed five projects that remain — that must be better than what you had before, but we can agree that you still have a crowded schedule…

    I manage to balance my eight IB/AP classes on top of these activities,

    That’s a really heavy course load…

    but that I don’t have the time to get into the “zone” that is so essential to writing,

    This is an easy problem to solve: stop trying to get into the zone. That will come 20 – 30 minutes into your writing session. To paraphrase the artist Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs.”

  31. Johnny says:

    I will be a post-doc in March. How do you see yourself as a post-doc actually? I am scared as I am pretty young (26) while the other post-docs in the group are over 30! Also, what should we doif we have a busy advisor who always changes his ideas?

  32. Johnny says:

    how do we overcome the sense of helplessness when no one in the group knows what you are doing except your busy advisor?

  33. Study Hacks says:

    I will be a post-doc in March. How do you see yourself as a post-doc actually? I am scared as I am pretty young (26) while the other post-docs in the group are over 30! Also, what should we doif we have a busy advisor who always changes his ideas?

    Don’t worry about age (I’m only 27, myself), and learn from your advisor. The fact that he’s running a lab means he probably has a well-honed ability to identify research problems worth attacking. His idea-shifting might reflect on-the-fly reprocessing of what’s important and what’s not. Try to crack his code.

    how do we overcome the sense of helplessness when no one in the group knows what you are doing except your busy advisor?

    Be so good that they can’t help but respect you. Keep in mind there’s a ramp up period that might take months before your efforts in this area can start yielding results.

  34. Cameron says:

    I guess my question was more along the lines of where would you suggest putting writing in my student work day? My course load is fairly standard for my school (and I’m genuinely interested in the classes, so all is well on that front), and 3/5 extracurriculars are intermittent.

    But the main issue is that when bedtime rolls around and the homework’s done and the debate cases edited, there isn’t enough energy left to commit to writing–or, at least, sleep seems like the infinitely more appealing option. Is there any time that would be best for avoiding that energy drain that I can hopefully integrate into my autopilot schedule?

  35. charpsp20 says:

    ME:
    I am taking 3 ENGR classes and 2 ENGR labs (1 long, 1 short) about 13 hr load.

    Cal:
    “This seems like an unusually hard load. All engineering classes!?”

    Actually, I think this is a fairly average engr schedule. The degree plan is set up so you have to take 16 credit hrs/semester if you want to get a degree in 4 yrs and have no previous AP credits. Ive exhausted most of my elective options from APs/community college so the rest of my classes are going to have to be engr unless i get a minor. Plus, im not heavily involved in any clubs other than tutoring, though sometimes i wish i was just for a change of pace. I tend to always put school over clubs though so i usually avoid substantial involvement and wouldnt know what to join anyways. Some really ambitious guys ive seen do up 16 or more hrs engr.

  36. Cara says:

    I agree with charpsp20. Three engineering classes and 2 labs is pretty typical for engineering school, especially in junior and senior year. When I was in school, I carried between 19-22 credit hours (typical course load at the school I went to) of all engineering courses, including 2-3 labs. I suspect it’s part of the weed-out process or something.

  37. Judith says:

    Hi Cal,
    Do you have any advice for beating afternoon drowsiness? In the 2-5PM range. I find I experience this even after several nights of good sleep.
    Thanks.

  38. David says:

    An article devoted to illustrating DP in a wide variety of areas would be much appreciated. This seems to be a relatively novel idea in traditional business (I’m probably the only reader here that works in a corporate setting), and some examples would be really helpful.

  39. Jacob says:

    I’m a sophomore CS major, and I want to go into a PhD program in either Math, Theoretical CS, or Operations Research (my actual interests are pretty specific, but they happen to be at the intersection of these fields). I’m in a situation where I have some good news and some bad news.

    First the good: My GPA increased last semester to 3.8, from 3.25 the semester before and a 3.4 before that. I feel pretty confident that I’ll be able to keep up this trend and achieve at the very least a respectable GPA this semester. The changes I made to get here were basically working a more regular schedule, staying on top of concepts in class, and doing improbably well on every single final. I aim to do even more to stay on top of my classes this semester.

    Unfortunately, that’s where the good ends. I have 15 hours of work-study each week (it’s an unexciting job, and I can rarely study while doing it), and I have 6 classes, 1 philosophy with lots of reading and 5 math/CS classes with regular homeworks (minimal programming projects though, thankfully). In addition, I’m studying and extra few hours a week for one class (Linear programming) so that I can take a PhD level course in the subject next year. The first few weeks have been okay, and I think I could even get through the whole semester without changing things up. But “could” is far from desirable.

    While I’m doing well, and my stress levels are low, I have less free-time than I have ever had before in my entire life. I have weekdays where, excluding meals, I have less than two leisure hours the whole day! I’m also sleeping less than I’d like (say around 6.5 hours weekdays, a little more on weekends). I’ve adopted an exercise regimen, and what’s supposed to have been a 5-day-a-week thing is more like 3ish-days-a-week.

    My main plan is probably to start skimming readings from my philosophy class more (they’re long readings), put in a couple more hours work on the weekend (so I can grab some leisure in the weekdays), and maybe not put my fullest effort into a couple classes: accept a few A-’s, getting >4.0 isn’t worth the sacrifice. Finally, I’ll use my free time more efficiently: don’t surf the net aimlessly or spend a half-hour at the grocery-store deciding whether to buy bacon or pancetta – just have some sort of loose plan that keeps me on track for relaxation.

    Even all this, though, won’t get me near the sort of time I used to enjoy. To illustrate, I watched all 7 seasons (23 episodes each) of “the West Wing” over the course of a month and a half freshman year. I’ve been working on “the Wire” diligently for almost 4 weeks, and I haven’t even finished the 4th season (12 episodes each). At this rate, I won’t be able to begin on Big Love until March! (hey, don’t judge)

  40. charpsp20 says:

    Exactly my point Cara; I think because of this its almost impossible to hold an average engr course load, maintain an A GPA, and still be “zen” even with excellent time organization skills. Grading is not cut and dry; even the smartest students who get A’s dont always know the material as well as their grade suggests. Anyone who thinks this is a extra hard load, hasn’t hung around the engr buildings long enough.

  41. Study Hacks says:

    But the main issue is that when bedtime rolls around and the homework’s done and the debate cases edited, there isn’t enough energy left to commit to writing–or, at least, sleep seems like the infinitely more appealing option. Is there any time that would be best for avoiding that energy drain that I can hopefully integrate into my autopilot schedule?

    If you’ll excuse some well-intentioned bluntness, either drop 3 – 4 of your extracurriculars or acknowledge that writing is not a priority in your life. We only have the capability of doing one or two things really well, at some point you have to choose.

    Three engineering classes and 2 labs is pretty typical

    I think I misinterpreted “2 labs” as 2 additional science courses with lab components.

    Do you have any advice for beating afternoon drowsiness? In the 2-5PM range. I find I experience this even after several nights of good sleep.

    Three things help: eating real food; exercising; really believing the work you’re doing is important and that you’re doing it really well.

    An article devoted to illustrating DP in a wide variety of areas would be much appreciated.

    I’m in the process of writing a post on DP among teachers — which highlights general lessons about applying the skill in unusual places. Stay tuned…

    I have 15 hours of work-study each week (it’s an unexciting job, and I can rarely study while doing it), and I have 6 classes, 1 philosophy with lots of reading and 5 math/CS classes with regular homeworks

    That’s a ridiculous schedule! No wonder you don’t have any free time. I wrote a blog post about this once — the most important piece of advice students ignore is the idea that avoiding overloaded schedules is the single best thing you can do to prevent stress. Yet students seem attracted like magnets to these killer loads. Ugh.

  42. Steve says:

    This might be a dumb question, but what does 4/4 schedule mean?

    It means I teach 4 courses each semester, which is common for folks at small schools and for non-TT faculty (like myself) at R1s, where the TT folk often only have a 2/2 load with lots of opportunities for course release.

    Fortunately, our department doesn’t assign us more than 2 preps per semester, but I’ve heard of schools where it’s common to teach three different classes. I’m sure that would send me over the edge!

    My field is very reading and writing intensive, so my prep times are much longer than those of faculty in other areas. But I know people teach 4/4 and still get publications out. My question is: How? I’m up until midnight most nights just trying to stay on top of my most immediate responsibilities!

  43. Stanford '13 says:

    I was wondering if you could give some specific-CS advice since you graduated summa cum laude with a major in CS. I was in a CS class last quarter and the assignments had irregular due dates and they could take anywhere from 5-15 hours. It made running an autopilot schedule pretty difficult. Can you/will you write any CS-specific blog posts?

    Thanks and keep up the great blog =]

  44. Jacob says:

    I’m in the process of writing a post on DP among teachers — which highlights general lessons about applying the skill in unusual places. Stay tuned…

    you should check out this article from the Atlantic:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/201001/good-teaching

    It mentions that the best teachers, as identified by Teach for America, almost all practice extensive self-reflection. They examine exactly what did and did not work in their lesson plans and try hard to change accordingly.

    Sounds like deliberate practice!

  45. Study Hacks says:

    you should check out this article from the Atlantic:

    It’s the foundation of my post…

  46. Steve says:

    That being said, the step you should definitely take is to find out who is getting hired in your field, and then figure out why.

    I’m in a similar boat with Stephanie (#10) — I breezed through my PhD because I was doing work I loved. But it’s on an interdisciplinary topic that isn’t easily marketable (because almost no school offers classes on the topic) and the market is glutted — I am consistently hearing that the jobs I’m applying for are receiving 200+ applications for one position. And I bet a lot of those applicants have degrees from more prestigious schools than mine and/or have found more prestigious postdocs, VAPs or even TT jobs (i.e., folks who are trying to find better positions, locations, etc. than what they have now). So I’m competing against a lot of people who have much more experience, credentials and/or marketability (i.e., working on “hot” topics) than I have.

    (I recently heard that in one department at U Chicago–a great pedigree–the market is so weak that only ONE person got an interview at the national conference. What does that say for those of us at lesser schools?)

    As for who IS getting hired, I recently spoke with someone on a current hiring search, and she said that any of the top 24 candidates would be perfectly qualified for the position. Eventually, it comes down to which candidate best “fits” with the department–both in terms of fitting in as a colleague and in terms of having the right combination of secondary areas that would be of use to the department. And most of that is completely beyond our control as candidates.

    Honestly, what every one who’s been on a search committee has told me is that the job search is a crap shoot — there is so much that is out of our hands: hiring committee politics, the applicant pool, administrative interventions, etc.

  47. ZS says:

    Hi Cal,
    I have been reading your blog for over a year and its not only enjoyable to read but rather insightful as well. I very much wanted to purchase your books but apparently there seem to be shipping issues with the one titled “How to win at college” I have sent you an e-mail at author [at] calnewport.com with details. Please do reply if you think the problem can be solved. Much thanks and regards.

  48. lurking... says:

    Exactly my point Cara; I think because of this its almost impossible to hold an average engr course load, maintain an A GPA, and still be “zen” even with excellent time organization skills. Grading is not cut and dry; even the smartest students who get A’s dont always know the material as well as their grade suggests. Anyone who thinks this is a extra hard load, hasn’t hung around the engr buildings long enough.

    hey man! well, most of the other computer engin students i know that get straight As work like this:
    1. they pay attention in every class and never skip classes. if they do, they ask their friends to video it for them using handphones.
    2. they have other smarter friends that they ask for help every time they cannot do a question.
    3. they do the same questions over and over again, until they no longer need to refer to their notes as a crutch.
    4. they memorise the formulas and concepts needed and deliberately apply them to tutorials and past year exam papers. this might seem grindish but just understanding the formula and not memorising means you may not be able to use it later to apply it.
    5. they refer to a lot of other peoples’ lab work and do their own thing – to get the desired outcome of the lab.
    6. they are not overly concerned with social life – it’s their other engineering friends they hang with and their student organization buddies.
    7. they always seek out people who have already done the course before and ask them all the hacks there are.
    8. they ask questions in class and after class.
    9. Deliberate practice vs. Grinds that do pseudowork. that is the most pertinent question i am facing right now.

  49. lurking... says:

    a few more i just remembered :S
    10. they treat their degree like a full-time job – so when they are studying, they study without distractions – i see them in quiet classrooms, libraries and reading rooms.
    11. They seem to study all the time – but it is more like immersion, they truly enjoy what they do so it is not a chore. i think loving your major and thinking about the future jobs/ income / your life purpose is pretty important.
    12. they are constantly going to all those talks around campus.
    13. they seem to disregard the haters – it’s not about social approval. it is about marks.
    14. Killer Focus. They sit with their books, green tea and no handphones, laptops or what not.

    i kinda seem to be describing the Yellow Book, Cal :P Though they may not have read it, it kind of intuitively comes to them – DP of dedicated smart work and expansion of knowledge.

  50. Mr. Snake says:

    Hey Cal:

    I know this is extraneous, but how would you suggest studying for a basic technical drawing class? I can’t imagine how Q-and-R would be used with more complicated drawings, and it seems to evade all of your suggestions.

    I always blank out when reading the textbook (partially because it is a preview of what the instructor will teach) What would you suggest?

  51. MCG says:

    You wrote, “I try to build my day around a small number of hard focus ‘attacks’ on unambiguously important steps towards the completion of unambiguously important projects. . . .” Somewhere, maybe in Indian American, Atul Gawande answers an interviewer who asks how he gets so much done: “I try to finish some little thing every day.”

  52. Cal,

    I hope you’re still checking this particular post, but I found a lot of the comments on your post about Laura and deliberate practice to really interesting. What direction do you head in? And when/ how do you evaluate whether the direction is the right one, or whether the direction needs to be tweaked or completely overhauled? It’s great to do deliberate practice (and it’s important), but how does a person transition from one area of practice to another? Most people do undergo these transitions between areas of focus, whether because of an internal choice or external forces.

    I feel like choosing this correct direction is essential for a person’s happiness (perhaps this correct direction might be termed their “calling” or their “passion”? :) )

    I agree with much of what you write, but the idea that working really hard at something (and even experiencing success) will you make you love it doesn’t resonate with me. I feel like you have to choose the right thing to work really hard at. And what if you never get really good at the particular area of?

  53. Maria says:

    Hi Cal,
    Lots of comments on this post, but I’m sure your inbox is equally cluttered so I’ll ask my question here.
    I’m a currenty sophomore at Columbia University and taking 5 classes at 16 credits. I have been pondering dropping one of these classes. Two of the classes are for my major, two are gen eds, and one is a subject I’m interested in. I worry about putting off the major reqs because they’re prereqs for other courses–but 1 of these, macroeconomics, is my least favorite class this semester, proving to be more difficult than I thought, and I’ve already fallen behind on the work. Putting it off, however, means I wouldn’t be able to take it for another year, possibly interfering with study abroad hopes and/or meaning I might miss the chance to take an upper level econ class that has macro as a prereq. The last class I listed, the one I’m interested in, is a sustainable development course that I find really interesting and is the type of material that drew me to college in the first place, but I also feel like I haven’t been able to devote enough time to it. It’s typically taught once a year, but I worry that I might not have the room on my schedule to take it at a later date. I’ve handled similar workloads in the past with relative success in terms of grades…but I don’t feel as though I’m learning as much as I’d like to. Any advice?

  54. charpsp20 says:

    lurking:

    You make good pts, but most above avg engr students not just the A, do this. Generally people’s old hw/tests are somewhat available so people do review these before tests. Most of the time, however its really difficult to look at extra problem sets when youre trying to meet that weeks already. And of course we have to love engr to a degree, or we wouldnt stick with it. BTW according to Cal, there are technically no “smarter” people, just more experienced. :)

    This comes down to a spiraling problem that comes with problem sets: you can’t do them alone. I think there is an optimized set of time when you have to look at them individually before trying to crack them as a group: you are only as strong as the weakest link.

    This is difficult but doable balance: work too long alone, and you have the potential of going nowhere, work too long as a group and pseudoworking creeps in. At the same time reexplaining a problem to a straggling member is helpful in itself. This is the balance I feel I still need to tweak.

  55. Study Hacks says:

    Honestly, what every one who’s been on a search committee has told me is that the job search is a crap shoot

    My sense is that this is a way of the search committee making people feel better. From my experience of watching hiring at MIT, there are almost always clear stars that the school wants, and then a pool of qualified people that they won’t hire. I guess what I’m interested in is working backwards from those stars, and figuring out how to be like them.

    Please do reply if you think the problem can be solved. Much thanks and regards.

    Ugh. Sorry about that. I don’t really have any interaction with the shipping facilities that stock and send my book. I’m hoping it’s a fluke that’s easily resolved.

    hey man! well, most of the other computer engin students i know that get straight As work like this:

    Cool summary. This is, indeed, something I encountered a lot that when researching both the red and yellow books. The non-A students say that getting A’s would eat up all of their time. The A students say it doesn’t. The difference: all the type of stuff I talk about in my books and here on Study Hacks.

    I know this is extraneous, but how would you suggest studying for a basic technical drawing class?

    Wow. I have no idea! Ask a student doing well how he prepares.

    What direction do you head in? And when/ how do you evaluate whether the direction is the right one, or whether the direction needs to be tweaked or completely overhauled

    My working hypothesis is that the choice of the main direction is less important than we think, and the evaluation of whether your approach needs to be overhauled is more important than we think.

    I’ve handled similar workloads in the past with relative success in terms of grades…but I don’t feel as though I’m learning as much as I’d like to. Any advice?

    If you feel overwhelmed, drop one of the courses. Things will work out.

  56. supergirl says:

    That’s a really heavy course load…

    Just thought I’d mention that if she’s going for the IB Diploma and the school structures it so that you take your exams in senior year the normal courseload is 7 IB classes (six normal ones and the core interdisciplinary class), a major research project, and mandatory extracurriculars. I know some American schools will split it so you do 2 in junior year and 5 in senior, and I agree that she should drop the 8th, but it’s a lot more manageable than it looks.

  57. Steve says:

    From my experience of watching hiring at MIT, there are almost always clear stars that the school wants

    I imagine that at the schools I’m applying to, there’s no chance of the stars being an issue — they’re to busy applying for Harvard, MIT or Berkeley, not to small teaching schools in flyover states. Even at the state R1 where I work now, we aren’t getting stars in the applicant pool.

    Example: I heard this last week from a grad student who was on the most recent search in our department: They had 12 top choices, but the second-tier 12 were all also perfectly qualified for the position. Yet, the candidate who got the job is not only not finished, but doesn’t even have a firm graduation date. He does, however, have a wife who is a grad student at our university.

    Another colleague told me that given his lack of teaching experience and lack of a defense date, this candidate would not have been hired as a lecturer. But now he’s tenure-track.

    So, what gets you hired at this R1? Being ABD with almost no teaching experience and no defense date, but with a wife working down the street.

    And I’m applying for jobs at much smaller schools in much less desirable locations. It can’t be the case that departments go for the stars — I’ve heard too many stories from people who serve on these committees about the importance of fit — and that’s something they can’t advertise for, and that there’s no way we can possibly include in our cover letters.

    Sigh…..

  58. Steve says:

    P.S.:

    I guess what I’m interested in is working backwards from those stars, and figuring out how to be like them.

    I’m finding your Pyramid post really helpful for that. I want to focus on building up some credentials in the field instead of relying on the happenstance of being the right match for a department in a field where over 200+ are applying for the same jobs. But it’s hard when your teaching load leaves you so little time to do any large projects.

  59. charpsp20 says:

    Just wondering, how I know youve talked about how to write general research papers and such, but how do the techniques differ for technical reports and/or excessively long lab reports (like my my 20-30 pg one)? Or are the steps the same? 1)research 2) photocopy 3)annotate

  60. Patricia G. says:

    Hey Cal,

    I recently got your book How to Become a Straight-A Student and the tips you said on there are life changing haha, especially about time-blocking!

    One thing I have to ask though is that, you said there are readings that students should not do (such as the textbook, because it is covered in class). But later on when you discuss favored sources, you said to always do the assigned readings. What should I do?

    Thanks for your help!

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