Study Hacks Blog
Decoding Patterns of Success
Posts on Patterns of Success for Students
October 23rd, 2014 · 79 comments
I’m a professional non-fiction writer which makes me by default also a professional reader of sorts (the photo above shows my nightstand). I read (most of) five to ten books per month on average in addition to quite a few articles.
One thing that has often frustrated me in this undertaking is the inefficiency of my notetaking. My standard strategy when reading a physical book is to mark interesting passages with a pencil and then put a check on the upper right corner so I can later skip quickly past non-annotated pages.
The problem with this strategy is that if time passes after I read a book the only way to recreate what I learned or find a useful quote is to skim through all the marked pages.
This is why I was excited the other day to learn a better way.
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September 13th, 2014 · 42 comments
In Search of Depth
Aaron is a PhD student. This requires him to spend a significant fraction of his time thinking about hard things.
To accommodate the necessity of depth in his working life, Aaron developed a ritual he uses to quickly shift his brain into a state of concentration.
Here’s how it works:
- Aaron puts on headphones and plays non-distracting meditative music (this track is a favorite).
- He launches FocusWriter, a stripped-down text editor that hides all the features of your computer (not unlike George R. R. Martin’s use of Word Star).
- He loads up a template that contains seven questions about the deep task he’s about to begin. These questions force him to specify why the task is important and how he’s going to tackle it (see the above screenshot of the template taken from one of Aaron’s work sessions). The issues addressed in this template come from a classic Steve Pavlina post titled “7 Ways to Maximize Your Creative Output.”
Getting through these steps takes around five minutes. As soon as Aaron’s done typing in his final answer he turns immediately to the scheduled deep task.
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August 15th, 2014 · 25 comments
Earlier today, I was browsing Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog and stumbled across a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to his son Hans Albert in the fall of 1915.
This date, of course, is important in the lifetime of Albert Einstein, as this was right after he finished writing one of the masterpieces of modern science: his general theory of relativity.
(To paraphrase my astronomy teacher at Dartmouth: “most scientific breakthroughs are expected, many different people are closing in on the same idea, but general relativity, this came out of nowhere, it was magic.”)
One quote, in particular, caught my attention:
“What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.” [emphasis mine]
Einstein’s reference to “a lot of strenuous work” emphasizes an important reality: accomplishing important things is really, really hard. (He’s guilty of understatement here. The strain of proving the theory turned his hair white and nearly shattered his family and his health.)
It’s easy to play lip service to this idea, and many of us do, but what frustrates me is that there’s so little in the advice literature that directly addresses the nuances of this requirement.
It’s not obvious how to prepare yourself for really hard things. What should you expect? What changes are necessary to the way you approach your life and work? How do you know when to persist? (I mention these questions not because I have great answers, but because I want better ones.)
Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, is an important initial meditation on this subject, and one I found immensely useful, but I’m not aware of many other books that tackle this topic. This is a shame given its importance to the goal of making a mark.
April 8th, 2014 · 93 comments
The Straight-A Method
In the early 2000’s, I was obsessed with study habits. The obsession began with my interest in performing well at Dartmouth, then eventually evolved into a (surprisingly popular) book.
Something I uncovered during this period is that high performing undergraduates, as a general rule, seem to internalize the following formula:
Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity
This formula helps explain why some students can spend all night in the library and still struggle, while others never seem to crack a book but continually bust the curve. The time you spend “studying” is meaningless outside of the context of intensity. A small number of highly intense hours, for example, can potentially produce more results than a night of low-intensity highlighting.
(This is how I avoided all-nighters, for example, during my three year stretch of 4.0’s as an undergraduate.)
From Campus to Corporation
I’m mentioning this phenomenon because of the following observation:
The above formula applies to most cognitively demanding tasks.
In other words, intensity affects the productivity of a knowledge worker as much as it helps the GPA of a college student.
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March 2nd, 2014 · 47 comments
The Double Degree
A reader recently pointed me to the following question, posted on Stack Exchange:
I am studying a combined bachelor of engineering (electrical) and bachelor of mathematics; I just started this year and will graduate in 2018. The reason why I am doing double degrees and not a single degree is because I love both electrical engineering and mathematics and I could not ignore any of them. So with this in mind, I am thinking of doing two PHDs when I graduate (one in electrical engineering and one in mathematics). Is this a good path or I should concentrate on only one of them?
The responses in the comment thread for this question are fantastic, but in this post I want to add an additional thought to the conversation.
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December 21st, 2013 · 174 comments
The image above shows my plan for a random Wednesday earlier this month. My plan was captured on a single sheet of 24 pound paper in a Black n’ Red twin wire notebook. This page is divided into two columns. In the left column, I dedicated two lines to each hour of the day and then divided that time into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column, I add explanatory notes for these blocks where needed.
Notice that I leave some extra room next to my time blocks. This allows me to make corrections as needed if the day unfolds in an unexpected way:
I call this planning method time blocking. I take time blocking seriously, dedicating ten to twenty minutes every evening to building my schedule for the next day. During this planning process I consult my task lists and calendars, as well as my weekly and quarterly planning notes. My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines.
This type of planning, to me, is like a chess game, with blocks of work getting spread and sorted in such a way that projects big and small all seem to click into completion with (just enough) time to spare.
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December 2nd, 2013 · 34 comments
Wisdom from Dirty Jobs
I wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s most recent installment of its TED Weekends series. The theme for this week was “A Lesson From Some of the World’s Dirtiest Jobs,” and the motivating TED talk was by Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs program. Many of you sent me a link to Rowe’s talk when it was first released, mainly due to the following phrase he quips about halfway through:
Follow your passion…what could possibly be wrong with that? Probably the worst advice I ever got.
His contrarian streaks seems to have struck a nerve. His talk has been viewed over 1.3 million times.
In my article, I try to explain what made Rowe’s talk so disruptive. You can read the full text at the Huffington Post, but I want to summarize here the take-away message, as I think it’s important:
In his talk, Rowe points out that many of the happiest people in the country have jobs that no one would ever identify as a pre-existing passion. He cited a sheep herder, a pig farmer (“smells like hell, but God bless him, he’s making a great living”), and a guy who makes flower pots out of cow dung, as examples of unexpected professional contentment. These observations are powerful for a simple reason: They separate career satisfaction from the specifics of the work.
We’ve heard the passion hypothesis so many times that it’s easy to accept as fact that matching the right job to a pre-existing interest is the primary source of occupational happiness. But Mike Rowe’s focus on the satisfaction found in the trades, in jobs for which no kid ever thinks, “that’s what I want to do when I grow up!”, have dealt a devastating blow to this belief.
If you’re twenty-three, in your first job out of college, not yet that good at what you do and starting to wonder if maybe this isn’t your true calling, or if you’re nineteen, and thinking about switching your college major because you don’t love every minute of every class, and worry that a “true passion” should always feel inspiring: I suggest taking an hour or two to watch some episodes of Rowe’s show.
“Roadkill picker-uppers whistle while they work,” he said at one point during his talk. “I swear to God — I did it with them.”
It only takes a few examples like the above before you begin to realize that career satisfaction is about something deeper than simply picking the right job.
October 3rd, 2013 · 110 comments
Why I Never Joined Facebook
Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about why I never joined Facebook. For those who are new to this discussion, here’s the short summary:
I have limited time and attention. I try to devote as much of it as possible to creating valuable things and spending time with my family and close friends. For a new tool to claim some of my time and attention from these activities it has to offer me a lot of value in return. Facebook falls well short of this threshold.
This post generated a lively debate in its comment thread. To be honest, this comments discussion is probably more valuable than the original post, as it covers a lot more ground, often quite eloquently.
A natural follow-up question, however, is whether this discussion changed my mind on the issue. The short answer: No. Not at all.
To provide a longer answer, I summarize below the four most common arguments in favor of Facebook that I received in reaction to my post (both publicly and privately), as well as my explanation for why the arguments didn’t move me closer to clicking “join.”
Argument #1: Facebook makes it possible to maintain lightweight, high-frequency contact with a large number of people spread around the world.
Facebook essentially invented this new type of social connection. Some people enjoy it. Some even use it as a replacement for a normal, in-person social life (usually, to their detriment). I have no interest in it. I’m close to my family and have good friends. I’d rather keep my time and attention focused on interacting deeply with them instead of pinging a thousand “friends” with exclamation-point laden wall posts.
Argument #2: Facebook might offer you personal or professional benefits that you don’t even know about. You cannot reject this service until you have tried it for a while.
I hear this argument a lot. I find it to be an incoherent approach to managing the tools in your life. If I had to test every potentially useful tool before deciding not to use it, I would end up spending the bulk of my life testing. My time and attention is valuable. If some company wants to make money off me using their service, they better have a compelling pitch for why it’s worth me taking away time and attention from my work, family and friends — even if just temporarily.
Argument #3: Facebook will not take your time and attention away from things you currently find important because you can access it on your phone during times, like waiting in line, that would otherwise be wasted.
This vision of Facebook use terrifies me. Facebook, like most social media, is addictive, because it offers, at all points, the possibility of finding out something that someone is saying about you. Once you get into the habit of seeking this distraction when temporarily bored, your ability to concentrate during other times will be reduced. If I start checking Facebook during my downtime, in other words, I’m convinced that the overall quality and quantity of time I can spend doing hard things — like writing or solving proofs — will, rather quickly, begin to decrease.
Furthermore, the idea that you can restrict your access to this addictive service to only downtime is naive. Think about the behavior of people you know: Facebook checking soon pervades all areas of your life, including those times when, in a pre-Facebook era, you would be interacting with family or friends. “You can access Facebook anywhere!”, in other words, is not the right way to persuade me.
Argument #4: Your general philosophy of only adopting a tool if it provides a clear and valuable benefit will deprive you of serendipity — think about all the interesting things you might be missing out on.
My careful approach to tool adoption almost definitely means I’m missing out on opportunities, trends, connections, and entertainment.
This doesn’t bother me.
As a consequence of my approach to tools, I have few electronic inboxes to monitor or online services to fiddle with. This means I spend a surprising fraction of my work day actually doing hard work, leading to a professional life that is fulfilling and, to date, pretty successful (knock on wood). It also means that when I arrive home in the evening, I don’t touch a computer until the next morning — allowing me to spend my time focused on my family and friends, and giving my full attention to any number of things I already enjoy, like reading. (I read a lot.) I would be a fool to dilute this to chase the possibility of something “new.”
Fear of missing out, in other words, is not a valid argument for trashing what you already have.
On an unrelated note: My friend Todd Henry (of The Accidental Creative fame) recently published a new book, Die Empty. Here’s the blurb I wrote for the jacket: “Die Empty looks past simple slogans to highlight detailed strategies for building a meaningful life; a must-read for anyone interested in moving from inspiration to action.” If you’re interested in these questions of work, meaning, and legacy, I encourage you to find out more…