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Thank you, Rosie, for the suggestion (and for reading this blog every single day).

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. 

What behavior does your college admissions approach inspire?

John Katzman, the former CEO of The Princeton Review, has always said that he judges tests by the behavior they inspire.  The SAT is a bad test because it inspires kids to study test preparation–knowledge that is only useful on the SAT.  AP US History is a better test because it inspires kids to study US History, which is arguably more important than SAT questions like "What is the greatest number of regions into which the shaded region can be divided with exactly two straight lines?" 

The behavior that a goal inspires tells you a lot about the goal.  If you're so obsessed with cooking that you take three cooking classes over the summer, your goal is inspiring good behavior.  If you're so obsessed with hanging out with the popular kids that you try to become something you're not, well, that's not so good.

College admissions works the same way.  A lot of kids make their educational goal to get into a "good college."  So they obsess about their GPAs and forget to find the joy in learning.  They spend way too much time and money on test prep instead of reading or playing the tuba or spending time with family and friends.  They grade grub, count their community service hours, and pick their activities based on what they think colleges will like.  They're stressed, sleepy, and maybe even a little scared by the whole process.

That goal isn't inspiring good behavior.

Some kids make their goal to find the right college where they can learn, have fun and make discoveries about themselves.  They work hard in high school but are also quick to tell you what their favorite class or teacher is.  They commit themselves to activities they care about and love what they're doing.  They want to learn as much as they can about different colleges because they know there are far too many choices to believe that only the famous ones could be right for them.  And most importantly, they're happy, optimistic, well-rested and eager to see what waits for them on the other side of high school. 

So, what kind of behavior is your college admissions goal inspiring?  And if you're a parent, what behavior is your goal inspiring in your student?  If you don't like the behavior, it might be time to choose a different goal.  

Ask Collegewise

We get a lot of emails from people with questions about our take on admissions issues, how we run our business, or why we approach parts of admissions process the way we do.  We thought that instead of trying to answer those on a one-on-one basis, we'd answer some right here in case any of our readers might benefit, too.

So, we're looking for some interesting questions to answer here on our blog.  If you've got one, email it to us at blog@collegewise.com.  And make sure the subject line reads "Ask Collegewise."  We'll pick some of the most interesting ones and answer them here.  Send 'em on!

How pizza at Harvard led to a billion dollar company

We're always reminding families that many benefits of a college
experience can't be predicted.  You can't read about them in a college
guidebook or measure them with college rankings.  But you can find them
at any college.  Here's a good example.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is a Harvard grad.  He's interviewed in
the "Alumni Q & A" section of Harvard's website, and I thought this
was interesting.

What did Harvard bring out in you that you
might not have had when you arrived on day one?

"For me, most of
what I got out of Harvard was outside the classroom, including people
that I met and running the pizza business."

But that's only part
of the story.

During his junior year, Tony started that pizza
business on the ground floor of his dorm.  Here's the story, as Tony
described it in his new book

Quotation

It was through the pizza business that I met Alfred.  Alfred was our
number one customer, and he stopped by every night to order a large
pepperoni pizza from me.

We had two nicknames for
Alfred while in college: "Human Trash Compactor" and "Monster." He
earned these nicknames because every time a group of us would go out to a
restaurant (usually it was a group of ten of us at a late-night greasy
Chinese place called The Kong), he would literally finish everyone's
leftovers from their plates.  I was just thankful that I wasn't one of
the roommates he shared his bathroom with.

So
to me, it really wasn't that weird that Alfred would stop by every
night to order an entire pepperoni pizza from me.  But sometimes, he
would stop by a few hours later and order another large pepperoni
pizza.  At the time, I remember thinking to myself, Wow, this boy can
eat
.

I found out several years later that Alfred was taking
the pizza upstairs to his roommates, and then selling them off by the
slice…We ended up doing the math a few years ago and figured out that,
while I made more money from the pizza business than Alfred, he made
about ten times more money per hour than me by arbitraging pizza.

I
didn't know it at the time, but our pizza relationship was the seed
that would lead to many million-dollar business opportunities together
down the road.

And here's what Alfred ended up doing after college.

Coming soon for counselors–notes from our conference

We spent last week at a conference and I missed a few of my regular blogging days.  I'm making up for them with some extra posts to fill in the gaps, but I also wanted high school counselors who read our blog to know that we'll by typing up the notes from the sessions we attended and bundling them together in a PDF file so you can share them with any members of your counseling staff who weren't able to attend.  Many of the sessions were specific to California (like UC and Cal State updates), but there were lots that could apply to any counselor, like changes to the Common App and guidance to share with students about standardized tests. We did this last year and had great feedback from counselors. 

It will probably take us a week to put the packet together, but if you're interested, just keep checking our blog–this is the first place we'll share it.   

Look for fun, not facts, on your campus visits

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post (and the author of Harvard Schmarvard, one of our favorites) has a great take on visiting college campuses.  I've shared it before, but since he's bringing the topic back up, I'll go ahead and share it again.  Here's his latest post

His idea that you can just see what you want to see on college campuses, that you can have a little fun without toting a clipboard and taking notes, also works for counselors

“Will my admissions chances improve if I pick an odd major?”

Occasionally, a family will ask us if a student's chances of admission will improve if she selects an odd major.  The thinking here is that there are so many "business" and "psychology" and "engineering" majors applying to college, you might have a better chance in a lot less popular major, like "forestry" or "food science" or "viticulture" (it's wine making, and don't laugh–it's a real major).

And yes, this can improve your chances…if you've walked your talk. 

A student who's shown a real interest in forestry, who's taken AP Bio and AP chemistry, who's volunteered for the parks service over the summer, who gives tours of the local wilderness park on the weekend, and who has a great answer to the "Why are you applying to this college?" question that includes a good knowledge of the forestry program, that student has an advantage.  She's a good fit for a program that's not a popular one, and the standards of admission for her might be less rigorous then they would for someone applying as a more popular major.

I'm sure there are cases where a less qualified student applied under an odd major with no intention of ever actually studying "soil science" and managed to slip in.  But is it worth the risk to do that?  Do you want to go to any school badly enough to fake your way in?  That's like pretending to love The Beatles just because a girl you desperately want to date is a huge fan of them.  Sure, it might work, but it's also kind of pathetic.  And just like she might expect you to listen to A Hard Days Night non stop once you're together, what if you have to spend a year or two as a "soil science" major before the college will let you switch.  Is it worth it?  I don't think it is. 

Think a lot about what you want to study in college.  Be a mature college shopper who understands that what you learn in college is important.  Pick colleges that match your interests. And don't try to fake your way in by pretending to be something you're not.