Protecting your real downtime creates more of it

I'm taking five flights to and from conferences in the next few days.  It will probably be close to 10 hours of time just sitting on the plane.  So I'm going to try to do as much work as I can during that time.  It's not because I want to be productive all the time.  I actually want more time to be unproductive.

It's important to have downtime to do what you want to do, time that's protected from work and other obligations.  But there are two kinds of downtime–1) Time when you could work, but could choose not to.  2) Time when you absolutely do not want to work, when you choose to do whatever other things you want to do, without guilt or apology.  That's real downtime.  If you want more of the second, shift more work to the first.

I don't have to work on the plane.  But while there's nothing particularly fun or rewarding I want to be doing during that time, there are a lot of things I want to do on Tuesday when I get home.  So I'll protect that real downtime on Tuesday by filling the time on the plane.  Using more of the first kind of downtime will create a lot more of the second kind for me when I get home.

The idea isn't to fill every waking second with work.  It's to acknowledge that real downtime is sacred.  You need it to function well.  So protect it from work.  When that time is off limits to obligations, you'll feel a greater sense of urgency to focus and get things done when you get down to work.  And you'll end up with more downtime because of it.

How successful people handle rejection

Steve Jobs is Apple's visionary CEO.  Without him, there'd be no iPhone.  No iPad.  Nothing on which to use all those apps.  Jobs also knows a little something about rejection.  Back when he was 30, Apple's board of directors fired him.  And Jobs admits that he was devastated.  But here's his take on it:

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I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me… During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the world's first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.  I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith."

It's disappointing when a college you wanted to attend doesn't accept you.  But if you let yourself be devastated by the decision, angry at the college, and resentful of those who were admitted, you're not doing anything to better your situation.  In fact, you're guaranteed to feel worse. 

Take a page out of Steve's book.  Life may have hit you in the head with a brick, but don't dwell too long on the bad news.  Remind yourself that things could have been worse.  Start imagining yourself at one of the colleges that had the foresight to say, "Yes!"  Plan a visit.  Meet some fellow future classmates.  Take control of your college future.  You've only got until May 1 to pick your college.  It's important to use that time to create the future you want rather than lament the one you thought you might have. 

Steve Jobs got rejected and went on to change the world.  Whatever happens, don't lose faith.   

For parents: Five things to consider before you hire a tutor

When a student is struggling in a class, a lot of well-meaning parents throw a tutor at the problem.  A good tutor can be wonderful for a student who's struggling.  But if you want the investment of your money and your student's time to pay off, here are five questions to consider before you enlist tutorial help.

1.  Is your student getting at least a "B" in the course?

No student excels equally in every subject.  A kid who's trying his best in chemistry and getting a "B" should be proud of the effort he's making.  Hiring a tutor can send a message to your kid that his best isn't good enough and that only "A's" are acceptable.  Some over-achieving kids put that pressure on themselves and they're prepared to handle it.  Many others are not.

2.  Is the problem something that a tutor can fix?

Before you hire a tutor, try to diagnose the problem first to see if it's something a tutor can address.  If your student isn't paying attention in class, or just isn't studying for exams, those aren't problems that a tutor can fix. 

3.  Is it a comprehension problem, or a study skills problem?

A tutor can help a student who just can't seem to wrap her brain around trig.  But if the student's study skills are lacking, it's a problem that a math tutor might improve, but probably won't solve.  That would be like hiring a hitting coach for a player who's got a pulled muscle in her back–you're addressing the wrong issue.  I've written a couple posts about study skills here, here and here, and they recommend some resources that might help.

4. Has your student talked to his or her teacher?

The first step with any academic struggle (assuming you've considered #2), is for the student, not the parent, to approach the teacher and ask for advice.  Any teacher will appreciate a kid who comes to her and says,

"I studied like crazy for that last test and you saw how badly I did.  I really want to get better at this.  Can you give me some advice where I should focus?"

Most teachers will be willing to help a student who takes ownership of the problem like this and genuinely wants to improve. 

5. Does your student seem relieved by the idea of a tutor?

If your student seems relieved by the idea of a tutor, you know you're doing the right thing.  A tutor should be like an academic lifeline that a student is grateful to receive.  It should be a positive thing where your student feels, "I'm struggling, I can't seem to fix it myself, and my parents are getting someone to help me."

If you wouldn’t put your name to it, don’t do it

Mark Memmott of NPR reminds blog readers in this story:

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Finally, here's a suggestion based on my more than 30 years of reporting and editing experience. Before you submit a comment, ask yourself this question: If I had to put my real name with this, would I hit 'publish?'  If the answer is no, the better move might be to hit 'delete.'

This is actually good advice even when you're not trying to be annonymous.  While the internet makes it easy to share anything, it also means that you're on stage all the time.  Every email, status update, tweet, photo, and video goes out with your name or image on it.  And anybody who receives it can spread it to a much wider audience you might never have intended to see it. 

Before you hit "Send," "Submit," "Upload," or "Post," ask yourself this question: Would I feel OK if this were shared with (a lot of) other people without my consent?  If this answer is no, don't share it.

Would you want yourself there?

If you were your English teacher, would you want you in class?  

I don't mean that as some weird philosophical question.  I mean, try to put yourself in your teacher's place and imagine what it would be like to teach the current, high school version of you.  Would you want yourself in the class? 

If you were your baseball coach, would you want yourself on the team?

If you were the editor of the school paper or the drama teacher or the director of the non-profit where you volunteer, would you be happy to have yourself involved? 

If after careful consideration, the answer is, "Yes," why is that?  Whatever the answer is, do more of it.

If you'd want yourself in class because you really love English, you ask great questions, and you're always respectful of other students' opinions, accentuate those strengths as much as you can.

If you really wouldn't want yourself in class because you look bored, you never participate, and you complain about your grades even though you know you could have worked harder, then good for you–you were honest with yourself, which is not an easy thing to do.  Now decide how to minimize those qualities.  

This isn't about changing yourself to be what everybody else wants you to be.  But people who can see themselves through other peoples' eyes are a lot more self-aware.  They're more in touch with their strengths and what they can bring to a class, team or organization.  They understand their weaknesses and how to minimize them. 

And they tend to be people that others want in classes, on teams, in groups, etc. 

Play favorites

Playing favorites isn't always a bad thing.  It's actually one of the best ways to get into college.

Every happy, motivated, successful high school student should have a favorite:

1.  Class, subject and teacher…

2.  Activity…

3.  Thing you do for fun that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college…

4.  Person you admire…

5.  Quality about yourself…

If you don't have favorites in any of those categories, it's time to find them.  Make changes now–to what you're studying, what you're doing, how you're doing it, or with whom.  Take charge of your academic, extracurricular and social life.  You don't have to just accept whatever you have now.

Once you find your favorites, play to them.  Work like crazy in your favorite subject or to impress your favorite teacher.  Throw yourself into your favorite activity and really make an impact.  If you play the guitar just for fun, relish that time you get to spend doing it and make sure you keep it relaxing and rewarding.  Find a way to learn even more from the person you admire, either by working with, spending time with, or reading more about him or her.  And whatever your favorite quality is about yourself, be proud of it and put it to good use.

Nobody likes every class, every activity, every person or every little thing about yourself.  But finding your favorites and then playing to them is one of the best ways to stand out.

On texting while you work

Seth Godin has a great post today about why you shouldn't text while working.  He's directing it at the professional world, but if you're a high school student who wants to go to college, I think it applies to you, too.  


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You're competing against people in a state of flow, people who are truly committed, people who care deeply about the outcome. You can't merely wing it and expect to keep up with them. Setting aside all the safety valves and pleasant distractions is the first way to send yourself the message that you're playing for keeps."

An easy way to get extra emotional credit

Sure, you only get a little credit for ignoring a call or text message when you're in the middle of talking or meeting with someone.  But when you divert your attention to look down to check your cell phone, it's like telling that person, "Wait, this might be more important than you are."  And if you take the call or respond to the message, well, it's clear who won the face off.

If you want to get extra emotional credit, turn the phone off and tell the person that you're doing it.

If a kid sits down with us at Collegewise and says, "Before we get started, I'm going to turn my phone off," he goes up a couple notches in our book.  It's like he's telling us, "This meeting is important to me–everybody else can wait for the next hour."

Please don't tell me that you have to be reachable all the time.  Unless you're on the transplant list, no seventeen year old needs to be reachable all the time.

So the next time you visit a teacher to ask for help, or go see your counselor, or have a conversation with a friend who needs your advice, or meet with your tutor, say, "I'm going to turn off my phone" and then do it.

Not a bad way to start your college interviews either, by the way. 

A new way for teens to stand out

14 year-old Allison Miller sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month (and no, this is not the "new way to stand out" that I'm suggesting).  While she may the exception, the article goes on to describe just how many digital interruptions teenagers face today, and how the constant need to multi-task is affecting their work.

I see a huge opportunity for teens here, one that if you capitalized on could give you a real college admissions advantage.  If you'd be willing to turn off the interruptions regularly, you could become a teen who can get a lot of great work done in a short period of time.  Not many teens can do that today. 

What if you became the only one of your friends who turned off your phone and internet for however long it took for you to get your work done every day?  How much less time would it take to study and do your homework?  How much better would your work be?  How much more time would you have for doing other things while other teens are busy being interrupted?

20 years go, you wouldn't stand out just because you could get a lot of work done in a short period of time.  But that's all changed, and I think the smart teens will take advantage of it.

Don’t abandon your ambition–redefine it.

Does being an ambitious student mean you have to make yourself miserable to achieve your goals?  I don’t think it does, and neither does Cal Newport.

Cal’s latest blog post about college admissions argues that ambition is a good thing; if you work hard and stand out, you’ll have more interesting opportunities (colleges, jobs, promotions, etc.).  But if your workload leaves you stressed, sleep-deprived and miserable, you’re going to miss out on a lot of those great opportunities.  This is the mistake a lot of high school students make.  Their attitude is that if they can just survive their brutal workload and get accepted to their dream school, they'll be set for life.  This survivalist mindset is short-sighted and unsustainable.  The happiest and most successful students are the ones who find a way to pursue their ambitions without sacrificing their happiness. 

There are lots of ways to find and maintain that balance (both my blog and Cal’s give you lots of suggestions for how to do it).  But Cal’s most important assertion here is that high school and the college admissions process are the perfect time for students to learn this valuable skill of finding and achieving balance in their lives. 

He’s not arguing that you abandon your ambitions and neither am I.  He’s just arguing that some students should consider redefining them.