This book, How to Be a Straight A Student by Cal Newport, changed my life. In high school, I succeeded in my classes not by employing the most efficient study strategies but rather those which were brute force. Because of the upfront time costs, I didn’t really think about applying myself to learning more about the better ways to do something.
When graduation came and my friends and I wished each other goodbye, I was still staying in New Jersey and I found that I had a lot of time on my hands the last few weeks of summer. On one of my last hangouts with my friends, I noticed that there was a book on my friend’s coffee table. It was red and caught my attention. When he was in the bathroom, I picked it up and started reading it. I liked it so much that I read the two other books available in my Barnes and Nobles by the same author. Because I didn’t have any money to buy it, I asked my parents to drop me off at Barnes and Nobles and read the book in the store.
This led me to learning about the principles which would change my life. I’m borrowing a lot from the book, so definitely if you get the chance read it for yourself. It has a no-BS way to approach any college class you will ever take, and surprisingly offers many tips that Cal Newport re-uses for the work environment in his subsequent books.
The first principle that he mentions is the equation time spent times intensity equals work accomplished. If you work at a high intensity, then you don’t need to work for long periods of time because you get the same amount of work done. If you work for 1 hour at a high intensity, you will get the same work accomplished if you worked for 10 hours at a low intensity. You have two levers which you can pull—either you can ratchet up the time spent and continue to work at a lower intensity, or you can ratchet up the intensity.
To increase intensity, you need to better your technique. If you’re trying to study less, then you have to think about three simple variables. You need the right location, the right time of day, and the right duration of intense studying. From this principle, you can see where productivity YouTubers get their techniques from. They are adjusting their environment by not keeping distracting variables next to them, they are making a habit of doing productive knowledge work, and they are splitting up their work. You don’t need fancy tools, or buy an app, to tell you these.
The right time is often in the morning or early afternoon, so decision fatigue has not hit you. The right place is anywhere which is isolated, where the mind can focus on the work that needs to get done. The duration is optimally an hour at a time. These are variables which work for me, but I find that they are good starting points as well.
Manage Your Time to Get Things Done
There are only 2 parts to this system: a calendar lie Google Calendar and a Piece of Paper. Every day you have to take the sheet of paper and fold it horizontally. On the left-hand side, you’ll write Today’s schedule and on the right-hand side you’ll write Things to Remember. Every day, you’re going to wake up and write the assignments or homework or tasks that you need to remember to do on the right-hand side and then the next morning, you transfer new items from the list to the calendar.
Rather than hunting down various to-do apps, all you have to do each morning is find the list from the night before, put the to-do’s on a date which you will do them, and anything from yesterday’s list that was on the left-hand side that you didn’t complete transfer to your calendar for the week.
Since you’re only as good as your system, some pointers which make it easier include labeling your things to remember with realistic times. You should remember that today’s schedule is a blocking of time of activities, and also label these with realistic time. For example, when I was writing this script, I proportioned out 1 hour to write it, as it’s realistic to write that much and expect to have a first draft at the end of the session. Make sure that you leave time for lunch and other social obligations because it’s hard to plan around 12-hour days. The Today’s Schedule Isn’t hard and fast—you can be flexible if unavoidable detours come up.
By using this method, it’s low-cost and gets the job done. All you need is a few minutes to schedule your time, and remember to write all the things that you might forget in your Things to Remember category.
The trick that I’ve found that beats procrastination is to have a routine. When I’m on autopilot, I either compound good or bad habits. To stave off procrastination, have a Work Progress Journal which you can write “all completed” at the bottom if you completed all of Today’s schedule. If you don’t finish, rationalize to yourself why you didn’t finish. When you look back at your work progress, and you see days when you didn’t complete things, it could be a nice way of looking back and figuring out why you didn’t complete tasks.
I’m a massive fan of this quantified self theory, and to track my tasks, my calendar is split into two. To track the tasks which are more project focused, and not time focused, I use Todoist. It’s an app which allows me to see how many tasks I completed that day and how many I have left to do. I still use a notebook to keep track of my tasks as I go throughout the day. The mind is a wonderful thing, but the brain is still catching up to the artificial environment of social media that we have created for ourselves.
To train it to get things done, you might need a day of hard work. Never schedule two days of hard work in a row, and try to get off studying by 5 PM, so you could have fun later on in the day, even if your work might not be done. The quickest way to burnout is to schedule too many hard days at once.
Emphasize Active Learning
While Newport has a lot of advice about note-taking, I wanted to cover a principle which has come up time and time again when learning new material. Newport talks about quizzing himself on the materials and trying to recall how to solve problems or conclusions that the professor says. To me, this is just active recall and spaced repetition in another name. He is just trying to quiz himself to learn more about the topic at hand to learn the most about the material. Anki is a great program to do this if you’re trying to memorize information, but in college, I’ve found that note-taking the way Newport says really helped me succeed.
To take notes in classes like English and History, you need to emphasize a big question, then put evidence based on what your professor is saying, and then come to a conclusion about a big idea. If you’re trying to figure out why the Affordable Care Act needed an individual mandate, then your professor will probably give some claims and then come to a conclusion about the reason. Then, you can fill in gaps in understanding by using other texts and add to your mental model about that particular part of the lecture. I found that most lectures had 4-5 big questions, and this made it straightforward to study from by using those questions to systematize learning.
For technical classes like math, I just used problems which I did over and over again to learn everything that was needed on the test. During the test, I reviewed all the questions first, and built a time budget by subtracting 10 minutes from the total time to review and budgeting equal time for each of the questions. If there was an essay question, I would outline the essay and build it into chunks, just like my question and bits of evidence. If there was a big question, I would break it up into small parts. I would proceed from easy to hard from my questions to finish the exam.