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Monday Master Class: The Activity Filter

[Originally sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 7/16/07]

Earlier this year I got the opportunity to chat with a group of
freshman at Dartmouth College about the challenges they face. One
young woman admitted an affinity for history. She wanted to study it
at grad school. Maybe, at some point, even become a professor. But she
had a problem. Her extracurricular load was fast becoming too much to
handle. She worried about being able to maintain this demanding suite
of activities for three more years.

Before I could respond, a dean who was also attending the event, and
who happened to be a professor of Medieval History, jumped into the
conversation: “Why are you doing all of this stuff if your interest is
studying history?” The dean continued: “Forget the other activities,
if you want to study history in graduate school, you need to focus
only on activities that lead you toward becoming one of the best
history students in your class.”

Though she might not have used these terms, the dean was providing the
student with what I call an “activity filter” — a simple rule that
can be applied to determine whether a potential activity is worth the
time commitment.

The great thing about college is that you have discretionary time and
numerous opportunities. The downside, however, is that it’s easy to
completely fill your schedule yet still end up graduating having made
little progress on the aspirations most important to you. An activity
filter is a solution to this problem. It’s a simple way to keep your
commitments focused.

Here’s how it works:

(1) Select an aspiration that excites you.

(2) Determine the type of accomplishments that would make that
aspiration most plausible. If necessary, you might to do some research
here by reading the paths taken by others who accomplished similar

(3) Find a concise description for the type of activities identified
in the previous step.

(4) Now, when deciding whether or not to take on a new time
commitment, ask yourself whether it fits this description. If not,
ruthlessly bypass it.

You probably have more than one aspiration, so you probably need more
than one activity filter. More than three, however, is too much.

As an undergraduate, for example, I had two filters. One applied to
academics (“Will this help distinguish me as one of the top computer
science talents in my class?”) One applied to writing (“Will this help
hone my skill and reputation as a writer?”)

If you’re interested in campus politics, you might focus only on
activities that help establish you as someone who gets useful things
done for his class. For film-making, you can ask if the activity is
helping you craft an original visual voice.

This advice is simple enough to border on triviality. But it works.
The simple act of having a simple slogan can go a long way toward
consistently taming the day-to-day chaos of college life. At times, it
can feel heartless to eliminate, so ruthlessly, the diverse
opportunities available to you. But this is what it takes to
accomplish things worth accomplishing. If you relinquish control of
your attention, you will, in an perversion of the famed expression
“death by a million paper cuts,” find yourself facing “mediocrity by a
million activities.”

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