My productivity project

First, a disclosure: This entry's going to get a little personal.

For the last year, I've been frustrated by what I felt was a decrease in my productivity at work.  It wasn't from lack of effort.  I was still working about ten hours a day during the week.  I was busy all day.  I wasn't shirking my responsibilities.  But I'd still go home too often feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything really important or meaningful.  There were too many cool projects that were unfinished or not even started.  And in an effort to reclaim the personal life I gave up for much of the first ten years of Collegewise, I didn't want to start coming in earlier, staying later, or working for long stretches on the weekends.  That just wasn't the answer.   

But in the last month, I've gotten more done than I have in the six months before it. And this is in spite of the fact that I took a 7-day vacation during which I didn't do one second of work.  I'm feeling better about what I'm accomplishing every day, and it's showing in the quality and quantity of what I've been producing here. 

I am far from an expert on productivity especially since I've only recently started reclaiming mine.  But I thought I'd share a few discoveries I've made in the hopes that if anyone is feeling the same frustrations, maybe some of this will help. 

1.  Don't try to remember it–just write it down.

I've always been proud of my ability to keep everything in my head without writing things down.    I've never missed a deadline or an important appointment.  Remembering without writing it down has always worked for me.  Secretly, I thought it made me smarter than people who spent all day checking off to-do lists.  

But remembering everything was taking up an awful lot of my mind's space.  My IQ doesn't break the bank, and spending that mental energy recalling all the things I had to do meant there wasn't a lot of brainpower left to figure out the best ways to actually do them.  Writing things down has freed my average, over-worked brain from the responsibility of actually remembering.  Now I'm thinking about how to best attack the to-do lists, finding new approaches to the challenges at work, and dreaming up exciting projects I want to add to the list.  That–not the remembering–is the fun stuff.  And when it's all written down, I never feel overwhelmed, no matter how long the list is.  I can relax knowing that each item will be there waiting for me until I'm ready to deal with it.  I don't have to work at all to remember it.

2.  I've started recording voice memos.

Part of my "Don't try to remember it–just write it down" change is that now when I think of something I need to do and I'm not at work, I record a quick voice memo on my Iphone.  It takes two seconds to do it.  And then each morning, I listen to my voice memos and add them to my list.  Just like #1, it's a relaxing exercise to record it and not have to remember it. I feel a release of responsibility every time I record one.

3.  I close my email and turn off my web browser for 2-3 hour stretches while I'm working. 

Email wreaks havoc on my productivity.  I just can't resist reading a message the second it arrives, even if it's just some dopey reply to a Facebook thread I don't even care about.  I can't stop myself from responding to an interesting email right away.  I can't help but check my favorite blogs several times a day to see if there are any new posts (and yes, I visit Facebook more than I need to).  So the day becomes a constant stream of interruptions that kill my productivity, interruptions that I'm actually inviting into my life.

Now, I just eliminate the interruptions.  I shut off my email and my web browser for 2-3 hour stretches. It felt irresponsible to do that at first.  But then I realized something; I'm not a heart surgeon.  Nobody is going to die if an email to me goes unanswered for a few hours.  My favorite blogs (and Facebook) will still be there.  With all that shut off, I can do 2-3 hours of focused, door closed, get-after-it-like-I-mean-it kind of work.  Then when I feel my focus starting to wane, I'll take a 10-15 minute break and satisfy my email, blog and ever-present Facebook curiosity.   It's like a reward for myself before I get back to the work.

I can't understate what a difference this has made for me.  I'm not even popular enough to receive that much email, but even 2-3 messages an hour means 2-3 interruptions when the work and the focus just grinds to a halt.  I can't turn focus on and off like that.  I have to get into a zone and stay there.  And the best way for me to do it is to eliminate the things I know will distract me.

4.  For big projects, I'm using Cal Newport's Ice Bath Method.

When a project was so big and scary that I didn't even know where to start, I would inevitably leave it behind and divert my focus to more immediate things, like paying our bills, writing this blog, or ordering more coffee for the office (OK, that one really is critically important).  But the Ice Bath Method is working for me.  Here's the gist: 

  • Start with a half-hour brainstorming session where you think about the big ideas for your project.  Do it in an interesting place like a coffee shop (I use my office, but I close the door and open the blinds so I can look out the window).  Use only a pad of paper and a pen (read his post–there are good reasons not to use a computer).  For me, coffee is a big plus here, which is why I do this brainstorming in the morning.
  • Later that day, give one hour of hard focus to the results from your brainstorming session.  Make some short-term to-dos that need to happen first. 
  • Then leave it alone for at least a day before you come back to it and start attacking the list.

What happens is that instead of staring at an overwhelming project that you can't even imagine finishing, you build in time to actually think about the best way to approach it.  Then you can break it into little pieces and focus on what you have to do to move it forward, rather than being overwhelmed by how much you have to do to actually finish it.  Even a little momentum feels good.  Your results may vary, but it's working for me.  I have four big and progressing projects underway that I hadn't even started six months ago.    

5.  I'm figuring out how I work best.

Some people love to be busy all the time.  I'm not one of them.  Busy is great, but if I'm going to do good work, I also need some quiet time when I can think without distractions and focus hard on what I'm excited to do.  So if I need quiet time now, I take it.  I'll work from home some days when I know I need to make more progress on a project.  I'll take the 1-2 hours necessary to just think about a challenge at work and figure out how to best approach it.  Not everybody needs to do this, but it works for me, so I might as well capitalize on it. 

I'm not going to let myself off the hook by saying that I work ten-hours a day.  The number of hours you work doesn't mean anything.  I've worked at other companies where totally ineffective employees spent all their time talking about how many hours they were putting in, while the effective workers were getting a lot more done in a lot less time.  The hours don't matter; what
matters is how much I'm actually getting done, and how good the actual
work is.  So it's up to me to do whatever it takes to produce the best work I can.

I think most successful people can articulate how they work best.  Late at night, early in the morning, under pressure, without pressure, in teams, solo–the key is to find how you work best.  I've been thinking about that a lot lately and trying to spend as much of my work time as possible working in the ways I've found I can do it best. 

My productivity project is still a work in progress.  But I'm getting a handle on it now.  If you're experiencing similar challenges, this book and this blog were good starting points for me. 

How to dramatically cut down your study time

Why is it that the most successful students, the ones who always get the best grades, often say, "I barely studied for that test."

Sure, a few of them are just ridiculously, annoyingly smart, the type who seem to understand everything the first time it's explained to them.  I always hated (read "worshiped") those kids because I wished I were like them.

Most of the successful–but still mortal– students maximize their time in class, a technique I described in this January, 2010 post.

But one thing they all do is make the most of the time they spend studying.  As Cal Newport describes in this post, if you study in short, focused one-hour bursts, the total time you'll need to understand the material will be a lot less than if you try to do it all in one marathon session.

If you tend to procrastinate and study at the last minute, Cal's technique might inspire you to change your ways. 

Collegewise turns 11

It's our birthday today, as it was August 16, 1999 that I officially filed papers with the County Clerk of Orange County to start Collegewise. 

At that time, the Backstreet Boys had the number one CD.  Neither the Ipod nor Facebook had been invented yet.  Google was still privately owned and (founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were still in graduate school at Stanford).  And I was driving to kids' houses to help them fill out college applications at their kitchen tables.  Yes, things have changed a lot for all of us since then.

But rather than celebrate everything that's happened to us in the last 11 years, I thought I'd share some the things we're going to accomplish before our 12th birthday:     

  • Sometime next month, we'll be rolling out a new version of our website.  One of the features will be an online storefront where we'll soon begin selling products like online videos and written guidelines to help students find, apply to and attend the right colleges.
  • We'll be launching Collegewise University, a series of workshops for counselors on topics ranging from basic college admissions training, to how to help kids find their best stories for college essays, to how to build and run a successful college counseling business. 
  • In the next few months, students anywhere in the world will be able to work with a Collegewise counselor or essay specialist.  We're not ready to release the details just yet, but this one, we're particularly excited about.
  • Arun Ponnusamy of Open Road Education and I will be working together again on all of these projects.  Arun helped me build and grow Collegewise from 2004-2009, and we've both done some of our best work together.  As part of our collaboration, Arun and I will be doing regular installments of the tentatively titled "Collegewise Live," a series of free webinars where we'll be answering live questions and sharing our advice for students, parents and counselors.

So those are some of the things we'll be looking to celebrate by the time we turn 12.  If you'd like to be kept up-to-date with our progress, subscribe to our blog or join our Facebook page. Then you'll be the first to know when each shiny new product is released. 

Thanks for reading, and happy birthday to us.

What weddings remind us about college

Katie from our Bellevue, WA office got married yesterday. With the Collegewise counselors and the dean of admission from Katie's alma mater in attendance, this was the event to attend if you needed a little college admissions advice.

But what I noticed most was the importance college experiences played in event. All of Katie's college roommates flew out for the wedding (one of them was also the maid of honor). The groom met all of his groomsmen while he was in college. Every toast that celebrated the couple's history and the role they've played in their friends' lives mentioned something about …"back in college…".
I think it's fair to say that none of this would have happenend, none of these people would have met, even the happy couple would never have found each other, if each of them hadn't gone to their particular colleges.

These are the kinds of college benefits that you can't predict or measure. You can't ask about them during the college tours and they aren't factored into the US News rankings.
So much of what you will take away from college are the relationships you form while you're there. That's one of the reasons we believe so strongly that you don't have to go to a famous college to be happy and successful.

If I ever needed a group of people to prove that was true, Katie's wedding was it.

Ask Collegewise: What do you have against the highly-selective colleges?

Travis asks:

“It would appear that there is a consistent theme on your blog encouraging students to look away from the best colleges like the Ivies.  I was curious what it is about those schools that turns you off to them and why you think a student would be better served at a lesser college?”

First, I disagree with your premise that the Ivy League schools are “the best,” and that anything else is “lesser,” but that really gets to the heart of your question.  We have nothing against the most selective colleges.  In fact, we work with students every year who go on to all of those schools and end up blissfully happy.

What we’re trying to share with our families at Collegewise, and here on our blog, is that the famous colleges don’t necessarily offer better educations or experiences than the less famous schools. A lot of people assume that selective is inherently better, but that’s just not the case. It’s like a student saying that he will only be happy if he can date the head cheerleader whom everyone wants to date. There may be nothing wrong with the head cheerleader.  She may be smart and funny and totally deserving of her popularity. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other equally smart, funny and datable girls in the class.

There’s no evidence to support the assertion that students who attend highly selective colleges end up smarter, happier, more successful or better looking than those who attend less famous schools. It’s what you do while you’re in college that counts.

And the mistaken belief about the inherent superiority of highly selective colleges causes a lot of the problems with college admissions today. Kids don’t feel good about their college prospects. They feel inferior if they don’t have perfect grades and test scores. They believe the only validation for all their hard work will be an admission from one of the chosen highly selective colleges. People aren’t enjoying the ride to college like they should be.

So we have nothing against famous colleges; we just don’t think they have the market cornered on great college experiences.

Thanks for the question.  If you’ve got one of your own, send it to us at

Sizing a student up

Without seeing a transcript, test scores, or a resume, we can learn a lot about a student in 10-15 minutes.  I can't necessarily tell where he'll get into college without more information, but I can tell whether he's going to be successful in the college application process, and even in life after college. 

Here are a few signs (for us) that a student is going places.

1)  He smiles, looks us in the eye, and shakes our hand when we meet him.

2)  He's respectful of his parents, but doesn't let them talk for him.

3)  He's engaged in the conversation.  He doesn't look bored by a discussion of his education.

4)  He asks thoughtful questions.

5) He's self-assured, comfortable talking about himself, while at the same time not seeming too self-impressed.

6)  He admits what he's not good at, where he's made mistakes, or areas of his life where he needs to improve.  He doesn't blame those shortcomings on other people.

7)  He's genuinely interested in the things he's doing.  He can't hide his enthusiasm for water polo, drama or collecting stamps.

8)  He has a favorite class and teacher.

9)  He seems genuinely happy and excited about life after high school.

10)  He thanks us at the end of the meeting.  

I don't care of a kid is a C student with the worst scores in the history of standardized tests.  If he can show us some or all of these qualities, he's got potential, and the right college will help him fulfill it.

Any kid can develop and benefit from these traits.  Almost all of them are about attitude more than they are ability.  So even if your SAT scores are low, or you just can't seem to grasp chemistry, or you didn't make the varsity soccer team, remember that success in the college application process and in life are about more than just your numbers and your accomplishments.


How doing less can help you get into college

"More" has somehow become the mantra for getting into college.  More AP classes.  More activities.  More work, more hours, and more accomplishments.  But the sad truth is that you are never going to do "more" of anything than all the other students applying to college will do.  So here's a radical concept–do less.

Doing less can be a great way to differentiate yourself and actually be more successful.  Here are ways I'd recommend students try doing less.

1.  Do less test prep. 

It might seem surprising that I'm leading with this considering that several of our offices offer test prep.  But the amount of time a lot of students spend studying for these exams is often totally disproportionate to the tests' importance.  I'm not saying you shouldn't prep at all.  But if you're spending more time doing test prep than you are doing homework, running with the cross country team, or spending time with your family, stop–it's time to do less.

2.  Focus less on trying to fix your academic weaknesses.

It seems every high school kid has a tutor for at least one subject.  I don't think that's a good thing.  Sure, if you're getting a C or a D in trigonometry no matter how hard you try, it's reasonable to seek outside help.  But a lot of students are tutoring just to get the "As" in courses that don't come naturally to them.  So they're spending almost all their time focusing on their weaker subjects.  It's no wonder a lot of those kids are burned out and don't enjoy school.  What would happen if you spent less time trying to fix your academic weaknesses?  Yes, you might not get an "A."  But how much better could you be in your stronger classes?  How much time would you free up to read a book you've wanted to read, or to take on a project in a class you really enjoy, or to teach yourself computer programming, cooking or how to sew?  Maximizing your strengths will help you stand out a lot more than trying to fix your weaknesses will.     

3.  Spend less time being interrupted by Facebook, email, texts, etc.

Today's high school students have a huge challenge I never had–constant interruption.  We ask our Collegewise students to turn their cell phones off during our meetings because if we don't, their phones beep every two minutes with an alert of some kind.   What would happen if you closed your email, turned off your phone, and logged out of Facebook whenever you sat down to do your homework, to study, or to do anything productive?  How much more focused would you be?  How much more would you get done?  You've got to be focused to do good work, and it's impossible to be focused when you're constantly interrupted.  So turn them all off until you're done.  The emails, texts, and posts will be there when you're done–I promise.  

4.  Do fewer activities.

A lot of the students we see at Collegewise are completely over-scheduled.  They're doing so many activities that, rather than enjoying and excelling at them, they're just trying to keep up.  That's no way to live your life.  So do less.  If you're doing an activity that isn't making you happy, stop.  If you're up until 2 a.m. every night because your activities are draining all your time, cut out everything except the things that you'd be sad to lose.  Then focus your time and energy into really excelling at what you're doing.  Focus on how you can improve, make an impact, and learn from what you're doing.  And while you're at it, leave some time for yourself.  Having free time shouldn't be a luxury; even the world's most successful people still need time to think, reflect and enjoy themselves.  

5.  Worry less about college.

When I see a student who's taking challenging courses, studying hard, participating in activities and generally having a successful high school career, it's hard to wonder how they could possibly worry about college.  There are over 2,000 colleges out there and you're going to go to one of them.  Worrying constantly about whether your SAT scores are good enough for Yale, or how many APs it takes to get into Duke, or what Stanford wants you to say in your essays–those worries just make you focus on the wrong things.  Have enough confidence in yourself to know that you're going to work hard and be successful wherever you go.  Be yourself in your application and your essays.  Don't require an admission from any particular college to validate your work or your worth.  Work hard, but worry less.  You'll enjoy high school a lot more, and you'll be more successful getting into college.   


How to get into Stanford with Bs on your transcript

I can't believe I'd never found Cal Newport's blog until yesterday. 

He's a Phi Beta Kappa grad from Dartmouth who also got a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT in 2009.  And he's the author of a new book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out

But the real reason I was so happy to find his work is that he's all about showing students:

  • How to live a low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. 
  • How you can get into great colleges and have a successful life by simply doing fewer things, doing them better, and knowing why you're doing them
  • Why it's more important in college admissions that you be interesting than it is for you to be impressive.

And even if you're one of those students who has your heart set on a
highly selective college, Cal's techniques can work for you, too. For starters, check out his post, How to Get Into Stanford with Bs on your transcript.

“Be yourself” is the only marketing advice that can work

I've written often on this blog that you have to be careful who you listen to when taking college admissions advice.  Steve Singer, Director of College Counseling at Horace Mann School in The Bronx, is one of the people kids, parents and other counselors should listen to.  I've heard him speak on panels at conferences, and every time I do, I learn something.

Singer is retiring this year, and recently shared some great advice in this piece from The New York Times.   Here's a snippet from the part about college essays (but the whole thing is well worth the read).


Everyone is trying to come across as Edmund Wilson, Erwin Schrödinger or
Edna St. Vincent Millay. What do they want? Actually, essays that make
them feel like they’re in their room with a 17-year-old kid, albeit
thoughtful and accomplished. Feel free. Be yourself. It’s the only
marketing device that can work.