What you say vs. what you do

One of the best ways to keep yourself honest about whether or not you’re actually prioritizing what’s important to you is to regularly take stock of two things.

1. What are your goals, aspirations, passions, interests, etc.? These are your words, the things you say are important to you.

2. How are you actually spending your most valuable asset—time? These are your actions, the things that you’re actually making important to you.

Now see how often you can legitimately connect items in #1 with those in #2.

The more connections you have, the better your words are aligned with your actions.

Not many connections? Change what you’re doing to support what you’re saying. Or maybe even more effectively, change what you’re saying to reflect what you’re already doing.

Productive laziness?

Here’s yet another piece, this one from BBC, with some compelling arguments and evidence that taking regular breaks (in between short bursts of focused work) is actually the key to productivity. “Why You Should Manage your Energy, Not your Time” also includes this snippet from study skills and productivity author Cal Newport:

“In order to make the most of our focus and energy, we also need to embrace downtime, or as Newport suggests, ‘be lazy.’ ‘Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body… [idleness] is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done,’ he argues.”

The story is directed towards working professionals, but the argument sticks for students, too. Workaholics actually get less done. Put another way, laziness done right is actually the key to productivity.

Mental list vs. physical list

Crossing an item off a to-do list feels great. You get to physically delete it and enjoy the mental freedom of knowing it’s done. But in today’s world of incoming media, distractions, and constant multi-tasking, adding an item to your to-do list—and getting it out of your head—can bring almost as much relief as crossing it off will.

Adding something to a physical to-do list frees up the energy of maintaining a mental one. You can exert more effort actually doing those things when you’re not exerting effort to remember them.

For more on this, here’s a past post with some advice from Ari Weinzweig, co-owner and founding partner of the Zingerman’s deli empire.

Manage your time like the great athletes

“Interval training” is a model where instead of one long but moderate effort, an athlete will exert many brief, high-intensity efforts during a training session, each followed by a short rest. Pioneered in the 1930s by German running coach Woldemar Gerschler, who led multiple runners to Olympic medals, interval training has since been the dominant training system for elite athletes in all sports. But it turns out this doesn’t just work for athletes. Author Brad Stulberg’s recent article, “To Get Better at Managing Your Time, Borrow a Training Strategy From Elite Athletes,” shares the work of behavioral scientist K. Anders Ericsson, who studied what separates the great performers—artists, musicians, chess players, doctors, athletes, etc.—from everyone else. His most important finding:

“It’s not that the best performers put in more practice time than their peers (often, they don’t). Rather, it’s how they practice: with full attention, focused on high-quality work, and in chunks of 60 to 90 minutes separated by short breaks. In other words, interval training.”

Here’s the best article I’ve found on how to apply this model to studying. And remember, those elite athletes aren’t checking their text messages while interval training. A high-intensity, focused effort for anything also requires that you eliminate distractions.

Better grades in just 15 minutes?

It’s not surprising that when an important task needs to get done, your chances of getting it right the first time improve if you take a few minutes to think through what you’re about to do. It turns out studying for an exam is no different.

A Stanford researcher divided a class of students facing an exam into two groups. One group began their preparation by taking just 15 minutes to consider:

  • What material might appear on the test
  • Which resources (lecture notes, past exams, readings, etc.) the student would use
  • How each resource would be useful, and how exactly the student would use them

The result? These students reported feeling less stressed and more prepared. And they outperformed the other group by almost a third of a letter grade—the difference between a B+ and an A-.

Here’s a snippet from the article about the research:

“All too often, students just jump mindlessly into studying before they have even strategized what to use, without understanding why they are using each resource, and without planning out how they would use the resource to learn effectively,’ says Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford with a PhD. ‘I find this very unfortunate because it undermines their own potential to learn well and perform well.’”

The article also includes some good advice for parents on how to help kids learn this strategy for themselves.

If your grades could use a boost (or your stress level could use some relief), take 15 minutes before your next study session. The technique is free, and it’s available to you no matter what your GPA is.

Try generosity

Generosity is a great way to make an impact and stand out. And while sharing money or material things is one way, you can also be generous with your time, effort, energy, patience, focus, etc.

What would it take to lead your teacher to conclude that the class is better with you in it?

What if you wrote down everything you learned as the club treasurer, lighting tech, or basketball team manager and shared it with the student who will take your place next year?

How could you make the next meeting you attend a better use of time for everyone else in the room?

What gesture might show your friends that they mean as much to you as you do to them?

How could you show your boss that every shift at your part-time job is better for the customers, the employees, and the business when you’re there?

How could you show your parents and siblings just how much they mean to you?

You don’t need perfect grades or high test scores to be generous. You don’t need a leadership position or another platform. You don’t need to be invited, appointed, or selected. You don’t need a unique opportunity or scenario. You just have to decide that it’s worth it, not because it will help you gain a competitive advantage, but because it makes you an even better human being.

Look at where you are and what you’re doing today. Then offer a little generosity to the people who might benefit. You’ll probably get back more than you give, especially if you do it expecting nothing in return.

Put the truth on the table

When I was a senior in college completing my year-long stint with four colleagues as a summer orientation coordinator, we were tasked with interviewing and hiring the next crew of five students who would replace us. We’d spent the last year putting our time and hearts into a program that was very special to us, and we wanted to leave it in the right hands.

One of the most promising applicants, Neil, also had some spotty portions of his college history. He’d accomplished a lot in his three years on campus, leading important organizations, initiating necessary change on campus, and doing the kind of difficult work that gets you noticed. But he’d also had some very public fallouts with fellow leaders and even a few campus officials. The program needed his talents, but it didn’t need the baggage and chaos we were concerned might come with him.

There was no way around it—we had to express our concern and ask him to tell us more about those events.

He could have gotten defensive. He could have made excuses, tried to spin it, or blamed someone else. But instead, Neil just sighed, looked right at us and said,

“I’ve done a lot wrong while I’ve been here. I’ve made a lot of mistakes…”

I don’t even recall the rest of his answer. I know it involved what he’d learned and what he would do differently in the future. But honestly, those lessons weren’t as important to us as was the assurance that he didn’t blame anybody else, took ownership of his fault in some (though likely not all) of the experiences, and expressed regret that led to learning.

So we hired him. And he did a fantastic job.

“Everyone makes mistakes” is one of those clichés that’s true. Billionaire investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, was asked in this interview:

“You’ve gotten fired from or quit multiple jobs. When people go through that and then have to explain it in their next job interviews, what should they say?”

Cuban’s answer? “The truth.”

Nobody, from high schools, to colleges, to employers, expects you to be perfect. But they do expect that you’ll accept and acknowledge your mistakes. If you’re asked about them, own up to your role. Prove that you recognize what you did or did not do that caused things to go badly.

The far more positive discussion about what you learned and what you would do differently next time will almost certainly ensue. But your audience will be a lot more open to hearing and believing it once you’ve put the truth on the table.

Five ways to annoy your teacher when asking for help

Engaged students aren’t afraid to ask for help from teachers when they need it. And most teachers are happy to help a nice, earnest kid who’s struggling. But there are right ways and wrong ways to ask for that kind of help. Here are five wrong ways.

1. Forget that you’re asking for a favor.
A teacher who spends time to help you outside of class hours is doing you a favor. Instead of preparing before school for their first class, they’re meeting with you. Instead of eating their own lunch at lunchtime, they’re meeting with you. Instead of going home after school when the day is done, they’re meeting with you. That’s their time, not yours. And if you don’t ask them nicely to allocate some of that time to you, if you’re unwilling to meet on days and times that work best for them, and worst of all, if you don’t express your appreciation for their help, it’s hard for any reasonable person to feel good about extending themselves on your behalf.

2. Send your parents to do your talking for you.
Sending your parents on your behalf to ask a teacher for help sends the wrong message. It tells the teacher that your parents care more about this than you do. It tells the teacher that you aren’t taking responsibility for any of your own struggles. And it doesn’t allow your teacher the opportunity to diagnose the root of your struggles or give any preliminary feedback directly to you. When you’re sick, you don’t send your parents to the doctor on your behalf to diagnose what’s ailing you. Like the responsibility for your own health, the responsibility for your education is not something that you should outsource to someone else.

3. Take no responsibility.
How would you feel if you’d worked hard in class all semester and a friend who hadn’t tried at all came to you before the final and said, “This class is so hard! I really need your help to get my grade up. Can you tutor me?” Wouldn’t you feel a little taken advantage of? Wouldn’t you want that friend to at least acknowledge their role in the jam they’d gotten themselves into? That’s roughly how your teacher feels if you ask for help without recognizing what, if any, responsibility you have for your current academic state. If you haven’t paid attention, if you haven’t completed your assignments, or if you just haven’t tried as hard as you should have, and you combine those mistakes with a refusal to take any ownership of them, don’t be surprised if your teacher points out those facts when you ask for help.

4. Blame the subject or the course.

I just don’t get any of this.

This stuff makes no sense!

This class is really confusing.

Statements like those subtly make the case that the teacher, the material, or both are somehow failing you. But there are almost certainly students in your class who are not having the same struggles, so you can’t completely assign blame somewhere else. It’s entirely reasonable to struggle with particular subjects—nobody is great at everything. And like all professions, some teachers are better than others. But directing criticism at chemistry or trig or French is not the best way to elicit help from someone who’s dedicated their professional life to teaching that subject.

5. Ask what to do to improve your grade.
Of course, you want to raise your grade. There’s no shame in that. But there’s a difference between asking, “What can I do to improve my grade?” and, “What can I do to better understand biology?” I understand that many students may not see a difference, but trust me on this one. Asking how to improve your grade smacks of grade grubbing—not a likeable trait in a student. It’s like a struggling restaurant owner contacting Yelp and asking how to improve their low reviews. The low reviews themselves are not the problem. What the restaurant is doing (or not doing) to earn such low marks is the problem. A grade is the measurement of your performance. Asking your teacher to help change the measurement alone just shows that you’re not focusing on the actions (or inactions) that led you to this place.

That’s my summary of what not to do. Here’s a past post focusing on the better ways to ask teachers for help.

Small adds up

I love this message in one of my favorite blogger’s recent post. Doing something small every day adds up to big changes over time. As he puts it, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.” Whether you want to get a job one day as a game designer, make the hockey team, or just get better at the trumpet, a little bit of focused effort every day goes a long way.

Very few big accomplishments happen because of one monumental shift. Whatever you want to achieve—this year, during high school, or in life—you’re not going to get there just by meeting one key person, learning one secret, or getting accepted into one college.

Big accomplishments happen when small habits add up.