Four productivity tips

Author Dan Pink just sent out his email newsletter in which he recommended the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Brain.  I can’t link to the newsletter here, but Pink recommends the book largely because of these four insights.  I can’t imagine any student or counselor who would not benefit from trying them.

*The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and e-mail off.

*Book time on your calendar for uninterrupted, focused work—and respect those blocks of time as you would any client meeting.

*It’s better to disappoint a few people over small things than to surrender your dreams for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing your potential for the illusion of professionalism.

*What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.

What to do when you panic during a test

Cal Newport’s blog is full of great tips to help you be a more successful student.  Here’s a good entry on fighting test anxiety.  Whether or not you decide to use the specific techniques he describes, the general method is one that all good test-takers use—they go in with a plan, focus their time on what they know, and grab points wherever they can get them. 

How to learn anything faster

Richard-feynmanJust in time for final exams, here’s a good explanation of the “Feynman technique,” named after Richard Feynman, a former professor of physics at Caltech who won the Nobel Prize. 

It’s an incredibly simple way to learn anything faster, and you don’t have to be a straight-A student to use it.   

Give your teachers your “learning” all

Your teachers are evaluating a lot more than just your performance on homework and tests.  

You can submit error-free, "A" work, but if you look bored in class, if you never ask a question or contribute to the discussion, or if you seem intent on investing as little energy as necessary to get the grade you want, you're not sending a very good message to your teacher. 

I've had students ask, If I'm getting an 'A,' why does it matter how interested I look?  Won't the teacher just be impressed that I can do the work so well?

It matters because the attitude you give out influences the attitude you get back.  It matters because your teachers deserve some respect for standing up in front of a room full of teenagers for six hours a day.  It matters because if you struggle and need help, if you need advice in the future, or if you want a letter of recommendation some day, your teacher will be more likely to extend an effort on your behalf if you've given one out.  This is why some "B" students earn more glowing letters of rec than some of their "A" counterparts do. 

Just doing the work isn't really giving it your all.  Be interested and engaged, too.  Add some value to the class for your teacher and for the other students.  That's giving it your learning all.  

How to instantly gain more free time

Students, if you want to instantly gain more free time, try an experiment this week. While doing homework and studying, shut off your internet and phone.  If the internet is absolutely essential for a particular project (like doing research for a paper), keep your email and Facebook accounts closed.  Otherwise, shut off all possible interruptions.  No email.  No calls.  No texts.  Just do focused work until you’re finished.  Wait to check the voicemails, texts, likes, etc. until you’re done.   

High school students (and a lot of adults) resist this advice.  It’s uncomfortable at first to be cut off from electronic communication.  But how much benefit would you need to gain for it to be worth it? 

If you got your work done even just 30 minutes earlier each day, that’s 2 ½ – 3 ½ hours a week you could spend doing something else.  The extra focus will also help you produce higher quality work.  You get better results in less time.  And all you have to do is turn off your phone and computer until your work is done.

Don’t believe it works?  Try it for a week and see.  If you won’t try it, you don’t get to complain about how busy you are.

If you’re tired of stress…

If you can’t seem to stop stressing about the work you have to do, try this technique courtesy of study skills author Cal Newport: change the due dates of all your papers, projects and even exams to at least one day earlier.  Then treat your new deadline as if it were the real deadline.

The obvious benefit here is that you’ll finish earlier.  The deeper benefits, as Newport points out, are:

1. You’ll avoid ever feeling time pressure.
2. When you see your friends scrambling at the last minute to meet the deadlines for tasks you’ve already finished, you’ll feel like the master of your own academic universe. 

This is exactly what we do with our seniors’ college application deadlines at Collegewise.  We ignore the real deadlines and set our own.  Our students finish months before all of their friends.  And that’s what our Collegewise kids—and their parents—seem to be most thankful for.  Finishing early eliminates stress. 

It takes discipline to do it.  But the results are well worth it. 

You can read Cal’s full post on the “retreating deadline method” here.

How to take better notes

According to study skills author Cal Newport, average students take notes “to capture the information,” but straight-A students take notes “to reduce study time."  Newport estimates that for every hour you spend in class, you can shave 20-30 minutes off the study time required to get an “A” on the test if you take notes using his techniques.  If you want to get better grades and study less, spend some time this weekend reading Cal’s collection of note-taking posts here.  Don’t be thrown off by the references to college students—these tips work just as well in high school.

Avoiding a final exam nightmare

I had the same recurring dream last night that I’ve been having for 20 years.  I arrive to take a final exam—sometimes it’s college, other times, high school—and I know absolutely nothing about the content.  I’m going to tank the exam, and I have to start rehearsing how to tell my parents that I’m not going to graduate.  All I keep thinking is, “Why didn’t I do something about this before?”  It’s always a great feeling to wake up and realize nobody has taken any diplomas away from me.

Most students will be taking final exams in January.  But if you’re having trouble in a course, don’t wait until then to address it.  This is the time to talk to your teacher and figure out how to avoid a nightmare scenario on test day.  Asking for help now sends a good message to your teacher—that you’re making an effort and willing to do your part to improve.  Waiting until the last minute just looks like a desperate attempt to save your grade.

You’ve got 8-10 weeks until you take final exams.  Whether your goal is to get the “A” you’ve been working towards or just to survive a course where you feel a little over your head, that’s plenty of time to influence the outcome.

Early vs. last minute

Some students claim they leave their work until the last minute because that’s when they work best.  I think what they actually mean is, “I use deadlines to get me to do my work.”

When you do your work at the last minute, you give up the one thing over which you have complete control—time.  The last minute doesn’t care if you’ve got other homework to do or if your friends are inviting you to do something fun.  It doesn’t care if you’re tired or stressed.  It’s not going to budge.

Starting—and finishing—your work early gives you control.  You can choose when you want to work and how much time to spend.  Instead of focusing on the clock, you can focus on the work.  When you focus on the work, it takes you less time to finish.

Better work, in less time, with less stress.  Early beats the last minute.

When you’re academically confused

A few resources are worth mentioning annually here to introduce
them to new readers.  Khan Academy
is one of those resources.  Over 3,400 free
tutorial videos are there where you can learn a variety of subjects, from algebra to chemistry to American
history.  At the first sign of academic
confusion, don’t have your parents hire a tutor.  First, spend 20-30 minutes on the Khan Academy
and see if Sal’s explanation clears it up. 
If that doesn’t work, then visit your teacher.  Live help might be the best kind.  But your teacher can’t help you with trig at
10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday like Sal’s videos can.