Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Single Most Useful Lesson I Learned as a Student

August 4th, 2011 · 17 comments

Start things earlier than you think you need to, aim to finish them well before they’re due.

If you want to produce great work, and really enjoy your life while doing so, I’m yet to find a strategy that works better.

17 thoughts on “The Single Most Useful Lesson I Learned as a Student

  1. darwin says:

    Well said! Love the succinctness of your post.

  2. Keith Sakata says:

    So much advice in one sentence.

  3. Aaron says:

    Love the mini-posts. A Cal Newport “Twitter Style” Blog would be great. You could even block it out as part of your e-mail time, so as to not disrupt the rhythm of your day.

  4. Aaron says:

    ^^^In addition to the more substantive posts.

  5. nXqd says:

    Me too, I apply this on every project/exercises in school. It works pretty well if I have one people project, but team work doesn’t. Some of them have habit to finish everything at the end :P

  6. Aaron says:

    Short and to the point. I’ve been working in a lab this summer and this point has been really drilled home. Being ahead of schedule means you are right on time. :)

  7. The worst test score I ever got was a MicroEcon exam where I’d met with friends before the Exam to ‘review a few things’… By the time I sat down, I was all wired, “What were they talking about? Memorize the three formulas? What’s the third one again?? Oh Crap!”

    Ever since that time, I vowed to finish all studying the day before the exam/midterm. I’d space it out in 3 to 5 days.

    Monday- Study Chapter 1-2
    Tuesday Study Chapter 3-4
    Wednesday Study Chapter 5-6
    Thursday- Take Test (Ch 1-6)

    The point is not the order, or the number of days studied but that the day of every test after that, I prided myself on never looking at any books/papers/cheat sheets, etc. none. As such I was prepared, and emotionally, was totally relaxed. Had to learn it the hard way, but boy what a world of difference it made.

  8. Kent Healy says:

    For the most part, I completely agree. Unfortunately, I’ve been burned in school by being overly proactive. I used to joke and say that school was the only place you got penalized for being too proactive.

    Believe me, the word “procrastinate” makes me cringe. I hate it because I am a Type A person. Any unfinished projects looming overhead make me very uneasy. It’s not in my nature, but I have learned that being overly proactive in some circumstance can sometimes be a disadvantage. Here are three examples I share on my blog.

    1) Things that are easily tackled should be prioritized, grouped, and completed when possible, but tasks that involve multiple steps, interdependencies, and have specific recall requirements should be strategically scheduled. For example, I was often assigned long essay assignments early in the semester. My inclination was to get started immediately so I would not need to think about it again. However, whenever I did this, I found myself revisiting the essay several more times through the semester due to new information I had learned or adaptations to the assignment brief (something that really aggravated me). In the end, I probably doubled the amount of time invested into some projects.

    2) From a young age I was told to study a little bit each day or at the end of each week to increase my performance on tests at the end of the semester. It took a while for me to realize it, but this was largely a waste of time. My engagement was low and I still had to review all of my notes again before the exam. The total time spent reviewing my notes was inordinate for only a slight improvement in retention. Consequently, I stopped studying in advance. It was much more productive to schedule intense and uninterrupted time (see tip 3 for more detail) a few hours from the test.

    3) My daily to-do list is always long. Being a Type A person, I would often place important projects on hold just so I could cross certain bite-sized tasks off the list and not think about them. My intentions were good, but I realized that doing some things too far in advance meant that many things eventually proved to be unnecessary and unneeded. In other words, in the passing of time, some items on my to-do list would naturally fall by the wayside as life took unexpected turns. So, the time I invested crossing certain things off my list was wasted. Talk about sunk costs.

    Ergo, some things in life are best delayed until absolutely necessary. Focus on what is most important in the current window of time rather than always trying to clear your plate of future tasks and projects that are prone to being changed.

    Curious if you’ve ever had the same experience.

    – Kent

  9. Study Hacks says:
    Love the mini-posts. A Cal Newport “Twitter Style” Blog would be great. You could even block it out as part of your e-mail time, so as to not disrupt the rhythm of your day.

    Not a bad idea. In fact, that was the context in which I published out this mini-post (i.e., was responding to a few e-mails when the thought hit me).

    Being ahead of schedule means you are right on time

    This is very true.

    but I have learned that being overly proactive in some circumstance can sometimes be a disadvantage. Here are three examples I share on my blog.

    Kent, these are good nuances to throw into the mix. (Or, to use my new terminology, “subtle patterns of success.”) I love the deep thinking here!

  10. Kent, I feel like the fact that you ended up spending more time total on your essays — because you revised them more — is part of the point of starting early. I imagine your final project was much, much better than it would’ve been had you written it straight through at the end. Whether that outcome was worth the added time is something only you can answer.

    On the other hand, it may be that what you’re pointing out is that one shouldn’t approach essays very early in the semester in a way that will make it difficult/time-intensive to revise in light of new material later. For example, early on in a semester I wouldn’t try to produce a polished draft of something where I expected later topics to become relevant. I would keep running logs of my thoughts on the topic of the final paper and efforts to find a defensible and interesting thesis. So perhaps there’s more that could be said here about the kind of work to pursue early in the semester.

  11. CM says:

    2) From a young age I was told to study a little bit each day or at the end of each week to increase my performance on tests at the end of the semester. It took a while for me to realize it, but this was largely a waste of time.

    For most subjects and courses I took I liked to do the majority of studying in several long study-sessions, but for languages studying a little bit each day does help with your overall performance on tests (and actually learning the language, not forgetting German declensions once the test is over). Memorising Chinese characters for example can only really be done by constant practice – it’s not possible to cram 500+ characters in one (or several) sitting(s) (unless you have photographic memory).

    One of the most important things I learned in secondary school is how to study different subjects. I didn’t really have a specific learning routine. Whenever we were set a test I would find out what I needed to know or be able to do, and then just stick to that. I always got good grades and didn’t think a lot about why I did it that way. Until my brother started the same school and had a bit of trouble. I found out he would just try to remember every little detail and doggedly learn the textbook chapter(s) from beginning to end – which is an incredibly exhausting and time-consuming way to prepare for a test, not to mention it doesn’t help you much in remembering the main concepts or most important information very well.

  12. Tebello says:

    Hey Cal thanks for the classic reminder once again. This is totally unrelated to this post, but I really need your advice concerning bouncing back from being academically excluded. I was an A student (through rote-memorisation) during High School, and that stopped when I attended college. I was a mechanical engineering student who thought grinding and long hours of memorisation were a prerequisite of being an academic superstar, but I got disappointed as the classes progressed. Deep procrastination set in, not because I was failing but because I was constantly getting average grades. As you would have guessed by now I’d stopped studying and submitting assignments all together, and then I got expelled for achieving a low GPA.

    Now I’m 21 years old, and your blog has really helped me in identifying my past mistakes as a college student. Sadly, I cannot erase my academic record but I want to go back to college. My question is, do I have a chance of being enrolled in a college again? Or should I just enrol at a community college instead?

  13. Tebello says:

    And, is it possible to be an exceptional community college student who stands out to the point of impressing college admission officers?

  14. Chris says:

    @Keith – but is it actually a sentence?

  15. Josh says:

    @Tebello:
    I know it’s a lot later than you were hoping for and I’m certainly not an expert (just a first year college student myself), but I would guess that if you apply to schools, especially state schools (which really can be pretty good), and note on your application that you had made mistakes, but have figured out what the problem is and have a plan to work on it, you should be able to be admitted.

  16. Ricardo T. says:

    Hi Cal,

    Great advice as usual. However, I think that starting early is really second in line after the closely related “do (much) less, do better”. I find that I start projects or activities naturally early provided I don’t have too much on my plate. In contrast, and to be honest, if starting projects earlier was another task or goal on my to-do list I think it would add up to my stress as it would be one more thing to do. If I could choose a one liner, it would be “do less, do better” by which everything else falls into place :)

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