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I Don’t Know Another Science Student Less Stressed Than Me: A Case for Simplicity

Longtime readers of Study Hacks know I have a simple philosophy for students: do less, but do what you do really well. This pattern of success is astoundingly effective. It produces superstars — the type who have their pick of post-graduation employment. It also produces a low-stress and meaningful student life.

Every once and a while I like to share examples of this Zen Valedictorian strategy in action, just to remind my student readers what school could be like.

A nice case study arrived in my inbox this morning from a University of California student. His message was titled: “The Benefits of Being a Newportian.”

“I major in Earth Systems Science,” he told me, “and I implemented my interpretation of your Zen philosophy: extreme underscheduling of classes (a conservative 12-15 units per semester) and focusing on becoming really, really good at one thing — marine science.”

“This last semester I was in lab 25-30 hours a week, voraciously reading papers related to my field, and discussing them with my advisor. This lead to a fellowship which resulted in a publication of which I am co-first author.”

Your philosophies allowed me to publish this paper, get a 3.8 GPA, spend almost every night with my kick-ass girlfriend, and sleep plenty. I don’t know another science student less stressed than me.”

As you contemplate your double major and overloaded course schedule and nineteen extracurricular activities, remember this example. The most exceptional students are not the most busy; they’re the most focused.

They’re also the students heading over to see their girlfriend while you settle into the library for yet another all-nighter.

Posts on my Zen Philosophy in College:

Posts on my Zen Philosophy in High School:

33 thoughts on “I Don’t Know Another Science Student Less Stressed Than Me: A Case for Simplicity”

  1. Speaking as a graduate student, I can relate to the idea of becoming extremely focused on a few points and doing great work in those areas. BUT I also don’t really set my own schedule, and I wonder how you might adapt this advice for graduate students who are frequently subject to the fleeting whimsy of advising faculty: “Hey, look at this project!”, “Oh, let’s submit last-minute to this conference!”, “You should learn this new method!”

    In other words, when myriad competing interests are imposed rather than selected, do you have ideas for how to optimize for activities that are likely to pay off vs. just-another-poster (or even worse, a dead-end project)…

  2. I wonder how you might adapt this advice for graduate students who are frequently subject to the fleeting whimsy of advising faculty:

    Here’s my experience: you earn autonomy in graduate school. At first, you take the directions your advisor gives you, and go after them with ferocity. As you gain expertise in your field, you’ll start to notice some directions forward that interest you. At this point, make the case to your advisor. This is where independence is won, after 1 – 4 years of building skill.

  3. Hey Cal,

    2 points:

    1) I love hearing about case studies of people using your strategies. Would love to see more of it here!

    2) In my opinion, this new blog design is significantly less aesthetic than your former design. Consider changing it back if other readers agree? Why did you decide to change it?

    Love the blog,
    Stanford Junior

  4. In my opinion, this new blog design is significantly less aesthetic than your former design.

    The practical reason for the change is that I wanted something simple that would load well on mobile devices and be easily printable.

    The philosophical reason is that I like its minimalism. It echoes my belief that you should focus on what matters (in this case, the content) and ignore everything else as clutter.

  5. “Your philosophies allowed me to publish this paper, get a 3.8 GPA, spend almost every night with my kick-ass girlfriend, and sleep plenty.”

    Cal, you made that happen.
    You can die a happy man knowing you caused that.
    Great post.

  6. I liked the old design as well because it divided the text from the navigation menu. That and the dark blue background (think of how much easier it is to read a blackboard over a whiteboard due to glare reduction) made it much easier to read.

    Reading this on a phone sounds silly to me, but I have a landline.

  7. I agree with the philisophy (although finding the right pointof focus is difficult). But i think earth sciences is an exception. What will you focus in for ME or isye? Finding the right focus is the most challenging part.

  8. “Cal, you made that happen.
    You can die a happy man knowing you caused that.
    Great post.”

    + 1

    Cal, I’m not sure how to convey the anguish that I feel after discovering your posts and books after the most painful, unfocused, and disjointed past 4 years of college life, but all I can say is that I’m really hoping by implementing your strategies in the next 1 month of summer break, I will be able to save myself from utter failure after backing myself into a 24 credit last semester with no clear future in sight.

  9. Hi Cal, I agree with Zok. The abundance of white in this new design hurts my eyes too. In any case, I’ve loaded this page on my phone before and I didn’t think there was any problem with the previous layout.

  10. +1 on fixing the web style. It’s past minimalist. I looked at it and assumed that your web server ate the stylesheet. Even a dividing line or a divided color would help.

  11. I was so surprised to see the layout changed. It’s too white and hurts my eyes. The previous design was more soothing and comfortable to look at.

  12. Hi I think this is a great post and I thank you for sharing it with us!

    On the topic of the site template, I think it is wonderful. I reminds me of the blog Zen Habits and all the white really helps me zero-in on the text itself. I don’t find the white distracting at all.

  13. I love that this Zen student called himself a “Newportian.”

    This blog is a kind of virtual equivalent of the ancient forums where philosophers shared their insights.

    Thanks for all you do to contribute to thoughtful reflection on how to succeed in life.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  14. Hi cal,
    In one of your other posts, you told someone to ‘ditch’ their internship at a science lab. I intern at a lab for biochem and I really love it. Should I not pursue this even though it’s kind of one of my ‘deep interests’ because it’s stereotypical? I really like it and I emailed professors , many of them to get an intership?
    thanks a lot!

  15. Sadly, I agree with the others on the new website layout. Naturally, I read left to right, so the navigation part of the menu keeps catching my eyes and semi-tricking me into believing it’s part of the text. I suggest moving it back to the right side and putting a dividing line between the content and the navigation. It might also help to make sure there is an obvious difference in the fonts between the two so they don’t seem to blend together, and maybe make the navigation a different color. Maybe a slate gray or blue? Great content as always, Cal. I just prefer the old layout, or to be more accurate, I just don’t care for the new layout.

  16. SERIOUSLY THIS DESIGN REALLY REALLY SUCKS! I don’t mean to sound rude. Its now really hard to find the content I’m looking for. Minimalism is only useful if you remove unnecessary stuff from the site. It is not useful if you decrease the usability and navigation. It lacking and I am constant follower of you site. I even bought your red book. But really you need to at least restore some of the useful features back.

  17. I don’t think earth sciences is a joke major! ANd even if it was, why does it matter what major you choose?

    I know plenty of people(in engineering, biochem, music) all of them that have similar lifestyles to what this guy has.

  18. Is it possible that one of the reasons this layout is annoying is that the font is too smalled and cramped? I was comparing it to Zen Habits, which is minimalist and really nice to read, and I notice that Leo has these nice big clear fonts.

    Along these lines: does anyone like this new layout?

  19. The faint font is rather difficult for me to read, but I quite like the layout. Cal, perhaps you can darken the font and increase its size?

  20. And to elaborate:

    I like the layout, but I feel that the navigation column on the left intrudes into the article space; as a result, you have nice white space on the borders, but the middle section is cramped. Perhaps you can space out the navigation and article columns more?

    The comments are also difficult to read due to the very faint font color.

  21. I actually like the new layout direction. A couple things:

    -The sidebar at the top is too crammed–you might want to link to an about page or rework the top portion text. The alignment of the post header should sit square with the first piece of sidebar text. Visually it will look better.

    -You also have different fonts between the sidebar & main text. Visually it causes distraction.

  22. Reading on my fifteen-inch laptop screen, the comment section was especially painful. Modern browsers, however, have a really handy zoom function. 🙂 I also agree that not having some sort header/logo looks jarring, and appears as if your stylesheet was on the fritz.

    Anyways, keep up the good work!

  23. Hi Cal,
    Have always loved your site and come back to it often..but I must say that the new layout quite puts me off..would love it if you reverted back to the old one.

  24. Cal,

    Have you considered the media attribute for your xhtml? It allows you to designate the style the reader sees depending on the device he uses. i.e media=”screen” or media=”handheld”

  25. Cal, would working be considered an “extra” curricular activity?

    I am currently a junior at state university and I work a 14 hour a week job because I need the extra money to pay for school. Anyways, besides working, I am the vice president of Marketing and Communications for a student organization and I am studying studio art. I plan on taking 16 credits this semester so I can stay on track.

    I am doing too much? Should I reduce my workload?

  26. I don’t know if anyone will even respond to me but I’ve read many posts from this site. A lot about hard-focus and understanding the material.

    The question is HOW do you understand the material….when you don’t understand it?

    I have a personal tutor. He’s a smart guy, he would explain it to me, and at that moment that he’s explaining it to me. I will get it. But the minute I get home and try to understand it again, I’m lost again. And when I try to do my homework, I just can’t CONNECT the teachings to the homework, at all.

    I’ve tried to go to the TA. I’ve look online, I’ve looked at Youtube lectures. While I understand it while they’re teaching it. It seems nothing works. I can’t get it to click in my head when I have to do it myself.

    I don’t know what to do anymore.


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