James Maa’s Productivity Hacking Guide
So finals week is coming up, and everyone is looking for ways to be more productive. So I thought I could help people figure out how to make their lives more efficient and productive. People have seen my productivity hacks and they have told me I’m crazy, OCD, a workaholic, super asian, etc. I just take them as a compliment and I become flattered because I never thought myself as quite that.
You see, I used to be a aimless and lazy chump. I got by day-by-day using my high school planner, writing due dates and just doing things the night before. I’m not quite sure how I spent my time or where it had gone, but it’s gone. I got by the bare-minimums. “Just do enough” was probably my life model.
I’m not quite sure what prompted me to change but I can tell you, it didn’t happen all at in an instance. No family death or inspirational mentor or life event that was the chasm to my transformation. It started out with small things. I started out with using post it notes to write to-do lists every day. Then I thought it was pretty cool. So then I added a calendar for appointments and weird events. Then more and more did I adopt the productive hacking way and now I’ve built up a whole repertoire of tools and skills to help me stay motivated, productive, and sane.
My friends want to know how I do what I do. they ask me how much time I spend doing these productive things (around 5 hours a week with higher return). They want to know what keeps me motivated, what keeps me sane. They want to see how I tick, and I’d be happy to share.
The Productivity Hacking Guide is broken down into three major components or objectives: staying motivated, being efficient, and staying sane, all of which are equally important to the end goals of being productive. This guide isn’t meant for just dead week and finals week, this guide is meant for life. Keep up these good habits, and you’ll be off to your own great things as well. You don’t have to follow this guide all the way through. Take it step by step if you find it too much. Feel free to ignore some portions if you believe you have those under control (although there’s always room for improvements). Feedback is also greatly appreciate so send me a line or drop a tip! :)
Motivation: Goals will help keep you motivated. Study after study shows that people who regularly set goals do significantly better than people who don’t. And other studies show that the biggest factor in determining a person’s success is by their determination.
Efficiency: You only 168 hours a week, and you’re life’s already a quarter way over. How are you going to spend that time? How can you maximize your time and leverage these 168 hours so that you live the best life you possibly can? Planning out your time and recording what you have done will help you structure your time and help you identify areas where you can improve on.
Sanity: You don’t want to burn out, that’s the last thing you want to do before finals week. But if you’re spending your waking hours studying your Chem1A book or doing Math 54 problem sets, then you might be burning out your sanity candle way earlier than you intended. How do you stay sane after being so god damn efficient? I’ll show you some way, or maybe you already know.
Great! Let’s start!
Always have big goals. Take a piece of paper out, write down anywhere from 5-10 overreaching goals in your life. If you need inspiration, you can check out mine. Goals are important because they are the lifeline of your motivation. If you want to keep your sanity by the end of the week, you have these goals and write them down. They will motivate you. It could be anything, but it has to be genuine and part of you. It could be “Open up a Strip Club” or “Cure AIDS.” Point is that is they have to be your goals, not your parents’ or your friends’ or your girlfriend’s (although making them happy could be a goal of yours).
Now that you have a bunch of goals written down, open up an excel document and write down all your goals in the columns of the spreadsheet. Oh by the way make sure to save it as “Powerful Moments.xls” because that’s what you’re going to write down in the following columns. You’re going to further explore your goals deeper down. This part is inspired by a blog entry by MIT admissions officer Ben Jones entitled “50 Things.” The whole article’s a good read if you ever have time (it’s just a list of 50 things). The point of the document is to substantiate your goals with real experiences, kind of like having quoting evidence when you write an essay. That way, every day when you write your goals, you’ll have something empowering to think about. For instance, maybe if one of your goals was “get good grades,” you can write down “06/09/12- I got an F on my math final and I realized that if I had worked harder, I would’ve easily gotten an A.” It could be emotions of any form, positive, negative, sad, it just has to drive you in some shape or form.
Start seeding those experiences. If you find a hard time listing moments for some of these goals, you could just list why you want this as a goal. If that’s troubling you, maybe it’s time to pick a new one. Maybe getting good grades isn’t your top priority, but becoming a doctor is, and getting good grades will help get you there. As you start digging up your chestboxes of memories, feel free to add, delete, or edit any of these goals. The point is to be reflective of who you truly are anyways.
If you ever encounter a powerful moment, whether when you fail a test or when someone breaks up with you, write the moment down in this excel sheet. You see, people are emotionally powered machines, and you need keep moments like these that fundamentally change who you are for the better. You’re always learning a lesson from your failures. Don’t let those failure slip your foresight, or you’re bound to repeat them again.
Once you have this down, you’re all set up! Top goals are done, but those seem so far away! Isn’t it a bit saddening knowing the long journey you have to travel to get to where you want to be? Well that’s why we won’t write just 1 Post-It note a day, we’ll write 2! So it’s a new morning day and you just woken up, wtf do you do with your day? Well, that’s just what your second Post-It note is for. Looking at your top goals post-it, write down things you have to do for the day. It’s your very own to-do list. You have to write one every day to stay focused.
Now here’s where I can give you some freedom (so you don’t end up exactly like me), I’m going to list out 2 ways you can write these daily to-do lists. Pick and choose your weapon to see whichever suits you.
1. This is way I do it. Write down all the things you have to do for the day followed by an estimation of how much time it takes. For instance “Study Math 1A — 1Hr” or “Plan Telebears Phase – 2hr.” After you listed out all the tasks you have to do, calculate the total commitment of work you have for the day. Stick this Post-it (and your top goals Post it) somewhere visible like your laptop or planner.
2. This one is taken from career coach Brian Tracy. Instead of numbering your tasks for the day, you have a level of hierarchy for your tasks. You go with the ABCDE model.
You start out with your A’s. A-level tasks are must-do’s. They are the top priority and they have to be done before any other tasks. Things that would go in here would be tasks like “Homework due at 4pm” or “Feed the baby.”
Then you have B-level tasks, which are auxiliary tasks that are to be completed as well, but after A-level tasks. It as if A level tasks are importance and urgent, whereas B-level tasks are important but not as urgent.
C-Level tasks are the lowest form of the tasks. They aren’t as urgent and take up little to no time commitment. Anything less than 15 mins would be a C-Level tasks. I usually write pushups or situps as C-level tasks because they take only 10 minutes to complete and I tend to do them at the end of the day anyways.
D-Level tasks stands for delegation tasks. These are tasks you have to delegate to another person. Maybe it’s a group project and you need a paper done by sometime. It’s your duty to delegate that task to someone else either because it’s not a good use of your time or someone else is better at doing it than you. Point is, it saves you opportunity costs of doing everything yourself.
E-Level Tasks are the nice-to-haves. Maybe you finished your other tasks early and want to get started on the next section of the homework. Things like that.
The best part about having physical Post-It notes is that it’s always in front of you and crossing things off the list is SSOOOOOOO SATISFYING. And the space of the Post-It is so limited that you can’t write every task you have from now til Timbuktu, you have to priortize and take things step-by-step. And those are you goals.
If you would like more structure, then you are welcomed to write weekly or monthly goals. Sometimes they help you structure your life road map better. I used to do it for fun. I would have “themed weeks” where I spent around 10-15 hours a week focusing on a different theme like “Cooking” or “Breakdancing.” Sometimes it helps to do them because habits can form during those times and in all honesty it really makes life a lot more interesting when you plan variety into it. But they work professionally as well.
When you write weekly or monthly goals, you should write SMART goals. SMART goals stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely, goals. Follow these guidelines to staying on track when you write daily, weekly, and monthly goals.
I would like to spend a paragraph addressing goals and the motivation behind it. Did you know the biggest factor in determining whether a person will be successful is by how determined or hardworking they are? It’s true. Yet, most people wait for determination to come to them. As if waiting for some motivational to shoot an arrow that sparks a passion so burning that for the rest of their lives that they work as hard as they can . It’s not coming, you have to initiate it. Determination, motivation, and inevitably self control are muscles in your body. You have to work on it, and the more you work on it, the stronger it gets. You break it down so it builds back up. It’s certainly been true for me. I always thought myself as lazy, but when I decided to start creating habits of motivation, things began to change for me. I stuck through the demotivational parts where I tried my best to exercise self control and passion, and I think I can begin seeing its effects on me. Trust me, the more you do this motivational stuff, the more motivated you will be, don’t give up! That’s what the top goals and powerful moments are for, it’s a quick pick-me-up if you’re ever feeling down.
Yay! Now we’re done with goals!
Planning Your Day (And Life!)
If you don’t use a Google Calendar, start using it now! If you don’t know how you spend your time, then you won’t know where you’re wasting time and where you can gain a couple of extra hours. So here’s what you’re going to do: make a schedule! Since it’s already finals week and we’re beginning a new semester soon, I’ll just let you guys plan your schedules week by week, but usually for normal weeks I have a recurring event that is basically the skeleton to my week. Here’s basically what mine looks like (but with gaps where classes were supposed to be): I shall preemptively guess your thoughts:
- Wow! It’s so filled up! (It’s actually usually worse)
- Wow! It’s so colorful!
- James! You’re crazy!
Yes. Let’s talk a little more about this. You’re going to make several calendars. I personally have 11 calendars, but you should at the very least have:
- Normal One (Usually your name): You keep your productive miscellaneous tasks here. Calendar time is here
- Food, Shower, and Transportation (Bare necessities): Hygiene, walking (not a legal form of exercise), getting ready in the morning
- Break or Screw Around — Minimize these or keep them to around 5-10 hours a week.
- School — Anything school related, including homework and studying (or you could make separate calendars)
- Social–Anything involving going outside of your comfort zone to interact with people. Screwing around with your existing friends don’t count because there’s usually not much to talk about.
I would have more calendars to keep track of how much time I’m spending on each particular goal. First things first when it comes to planning your week is NOT to fill it up with all your school work and things to do. You HAVE TO start with sleep, basic necessities, and break (yes, break). Why? If you have read The Now Habit(which I believe everyone should read), then you know that in order to be human, you should plan around your sleep schedule and playtime, because you need to have those or you’ll lose steam really quickly. Work hard, play hard. Get an ideal but doable weekly schedule going, with spaces in between to stay flexible.
Remember the previous exercise we did on writing daily goals and tasks? It’s time to plan those into your calendar. The rule of thumb is that if your task is longer than 30 minutes, you plan it on your schedule, if your task is longer than 15 minutes, you group them together and set a time for the day to do all your 15-min tasks. If it’s a 5 minute task or less, you do it on the spot. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better. You plan your day everyday, the skeleton is just to help structure your day, give it a template.
You can have your calendar send you reminders as well. Whether it’s iPhone reminders, email reminders, or text reminders, you can give get it. You don’t have to keep track of everything in your head anymore. That just wastes your brain bandwidth that you could be using for other things.
Keeping Track of Your Time
Do you ever wonder where your time went? In a blink of an eye you’re already 18, 19, or 20. What exactly have you done with (about) a quarter of your life? Well, as Monte Cristo once said, “You can kill me, but at least let me keep my memories.” (or something like that, that was the essence). Point is that without consciously living out our lives on a daily basis, doing meaningful things, life can seem to flash by. Whether it’s because you’re playing or working too hard, time seems to slip, so you want to know where it has gone.
There are various ways to log your time, and I usually stick to 2 or 3 ways that is pretty effective to keep track of what you do. The first is using Google Calendar. Usually throughout the day, when you have a couple of minutes or so throughout the day, spent a couple of seconds to recall what you have done during the day. I usually keep things in 30 minute intervals, because that’s the lowest denominator of time spent on Google Calendar. So in the previous photo of the calendar, I could write down things like “homework” or “sleep” or “hang out with friends.”
Naturally, you will probably run into the problem of forgetting what you did or losing track of time. That is not good. You will have to recover it and try to remember. Usually not remembering what you were doing is a bad sign, because you weren’t living consciously or were aware of what you were doing. BAAAAAAD, don’t let it happen. But we can usually recover or jog your memory as to what happened.
One of the easiest way to find out what you were doing is probably your browser history. That’s usually where people end up slipping. Maybe they caught a photo of a burning building on their newsfeed, which led them to reddit, and they all of a sudden spent 2 hrs browsing through internet sites. Yeah, checking your browser history will give you a definitive log of what you did. Another source of clues is your text messages. Maybe you actually spent the last 30 minutes texting your girl friend (who has subsequently friend-zoned you).
Other times you can jog some memories as to the context of the situation. Those are usually the two ways I tend to remember what has happened if I forget. But if these sources fail, fear not! Just leave it blank. Most people aren’t as OCD as I am when it comes to these things. Another way to keep track of time is do download RescueTime (ref link). Yes, get it. What RescueTime does is keep track of your computer time and logs your hours. It could be very enlightening as to how you spend your time on the computer, and there are so many features on RescueTime that make life so much more productive. It’s completely customizable and it’ll help you realize the depressing amount of time you spend on Facebook.
Logging Your Time
Start a new excel sheet (I usually like to keep separate excel sheets for each term like 1st semester freshman year, summer, etc), and in the rows start listing out the times you want to track. Usually it entails goals and all your calendar activities. Here’s what mine looks like. It could act like a template for you: At the beginning of every week, you go back to your last week’s calendar and count up how much time you spent for each of these rows. There are certain rules I follow to ensure that I keep an accurate recount of everything. You can choose to follow these rules or not, or make up your own.
- Food, Shower, or Transportation plus anything else that’s productive would eliminate the FoShoTrans time slot. For instance, if I spent my 30 mins in the shower singing, then I won’t count the shower time, but will count the singing time instead. This helps alleviate the amount of time one spends eating, showering, and commuting. Sleeping on the bus would eliminate the transportation time.
- Productive tasks are rounded down and unproductive tasks are rounded up. 15mins spent on productive tasks means 0 hrs on your calendar, whereas in an unproductive calendar it entails 30 mins.
- Social calendar is very ambiguous, if you eat with the same people during lunch over and over again, that is not considered a social activity, you’re too comfortable around those people. Eating lunch with new people, going out of your comfort zone to talk to strangers, or hitting on girls count as social. The reasoning is behind my goals #4, #5 (Be social and meet girls). It doesn’t count if you’re just sitting with the same people, it’s quite unproductive actually unless you’re talking about deeper things.
- Anything productive that doesn’t fall into any of the categories is your name calendar (i.e. default calendar). This could mean emails, calendar analysis, Extra Curricular meetings, and preparing for your day.
- Prep and Prep day are separate. Prep is dressing up, brushing your teeth, washing your face, and getting ready for school. Prep day entails goal writing, day planning, blogging, and post-it writing.
- Unaccounted is any blank spaces you leave on your calendar. Time left is total time in the week subtracted by the total amount of time you log. It could be negative if you multitask or count things twice.
Read/OLearn is reading and outside learning RT-Prod is RescueTime Productive time (you can find this number in your RescueTime account) RT-Dis is RescueTime Distracting. It’s the unproductive time of RescueTime. The Top 3 Dis. is the top 3 distractions, just so I can identify the most distracting things I’m doing.
I usually write a quick summary as well. At the end of the spreadsheet I like to add a couple of more columns like Total, Average, and Standard Deviation . If you know some basic excel skills, this should be no problem. The standard deviation is actually an important indicator because it tells you how consistent you are at staying on target with your goals.
I have a comment section to note things that occur. Usually it’s commenting about how I spend my time and how I feel about the future. Definitely look over the statistics to identify places where you can save time. Maybe you spend too much time preparing for your day (I average around 10% of my time on FoShoTrans), or maybe you sleep too much, or hang out with your friends too often. Whatever it is, you have to consider whether it is contributing to your goals or whether it is necessary for your survival. If it’s neither of these, it’s time to cut them down. Now you have mastered your time. Moving on to how to save time.
Time Saving Tricks
You should start checking out your RescueTime stats after a week now. It probably has some demoralizing statistics for you (or optimistic, who knows). Point is, you know you can do better. How? StayFocusd (Chrome Extension) and Self Control(Mac Apps).
StayFocusd gives you a set amount of time for distracting internet time every day. You list all the common distracting websites you browse, and give yourself a limit to how much time you want to spend on the website everyday. Then have it run in the browser. Afterwards, everytime you surf a “blocked website,” the countdown clock will slowly wind down. Once you reached 0:00, you are done with distracting sites for the day, and StayFocusd blocks those sites. It’ll seriously make you so much more efficient with your Facebook time, you’ll be blazing through your notifications like no other. We too often live vicariously through other people’s vacation photos that we fail to appreciate our own lives. Having limited time forces you to prioritize your notifications over your news feed, blocking the epicureanism that is browsing other people’s lives.
Another setting you should add is the nuclear option. Set your nuclear option to automatically block all your distracting sites from 2AM-8AM (or earlier or later if you prefer). Because nothing happens on Facebook at 2AM, so constantly refreshing and checking your notifications isn’t going to do squat for your enjoyment nor your productivity. Also, it’s a strong correlation that the sleepier we get, the more easily distracted we get. So if you don’t have your work finished, you shouldn’t be browsing, and if you do, you should be sleeping.
And you should just block certain sites and applications. That’s right, tetrisfriends.com Tomo Ueda (and other building 8 people). Give up video games and television. Do they really benefit your life? I found it depressing when I couldn’t recite all 150 original pokemons today when I used to live and breathe that television show when I was a kid, spending hours upon hours wasting my childhood engaging in that show. The same goes with video games like Runescape, Neopets, Maple Story, and Ragnorak. Sure it relieves stress, but there are so many other ways that could release stress more AND make you a better person AND use less time. Check out the “How to Keep Your Sanity” section.
Self Control is a similar app that blocks distracting sites, but it acts more like a timer. When you decide to turn on Self Control for a certain amount of time, you physically shut off the distracting sites from the internet for a certain amount of time. You just can’t go on them, Self Control just blocked the IP addresses from your computer for a certain amount of time. Now you know there is no stopping it, and you could go back to doing your work. I find this helpful if I can’t help but browse Facebook and I’m just wasting my time. Just turn this on and get back to work.
Sleep is my biggest weakness. Getting out of bed is the hardest thing to do and being sleepy is one of the most demotivating things you can experience. Because what is better than glorious, glorious sleep? I sleep around 7 hours a day, but I tend to vary a lot in my sleep time. Maybe you can do better with 6 or 5 hours of sleep. I’ll tell you what I know and hopefully you can get by with less sleep. This section tends to be very opinionated and on a personal basis. I could work for you, but if it doesn’t, forget it.
The key to sleeping? Naps. Naps are scientifically proven to leverage more sleep than chunks of sleep. I think it’s true as well. I always take a nap in the afternoon dip in the engineering library. It does wonders for your focus. You’re going to want to do homework or study right before you take those naps (then you become really sleepy) and right after, when you become much more focused. Taking more than one nap is encouraged as well. In fact, you should check out this sleep hacking chart. I’ve never fully transitioned to these schedules, but I know the key is to stay consistent . If you have the self-control (or are coincidentally busy enough), then it will probably work out for you.
If I’m on a time crunch, I try not to sleep on my bed. Beds are too comfortable, and you might sleep more than you have to. Couches and desks, on the other hand, are only comfortable enough to sleep until you can survive. I have leveraged much more time and focus from sleeping on couches and desks that it helps me stay awake for longer times in the night. If you plan on sleeping until the morning, but you’re only getting like 3-4 hours of sleep, consider sleeping with the lights on. Something about it makes my rest more restful.
I’m going to spend a paragraph talking about one of my worst nightmares–food comas. Food comas for me tend to not contribute very well to your sleep time while making you very, very tired. You wake up miserable or well rested, but it doesn’t last. I always end up getting a food coma from eating food from the dining halls and feel pretty bad afterwards. I think there are some ways to prevent food comas. First off, limit the carbs you eat, especially simple carbs from the dining hall. Carbs make you sleepy, it just does. Avoid it by eating more proteins or a salad. You could also not eat as much (you know you don’t need another plate of curly fries). Another thing you have to do is to stay hydrated. Always drink water. It’s actually a good ideas for any situation to help you stay awake. Your brain needs water to function and sometimes you need water to stay awake. Do you ever get the feeling when you sleep for a long time and you wake up with a headache or feel lightheaded? That’s because you’re dehydrated, either because you didn’t drink enough water or you sleep so long that by now most of your water has left your body. A similar concept goes into eating food. If you don’t drink water, the food’s going to suck up all the water and you’re going to be dehydrated, and therefore sleepy. If you do plan on napping, try to drink as much water as you can before your nap, and the first sign of consciousness you have, even if you’re super sleepy, get a sip of water. That’s actually how I get out of bed every day. First thing I do when I reach consciousness is drink water, because our body needs it most when we’re awake.
If you have trouble waking up, it’s probably a problem with your self-control. Set up an alarm, and make sure you don’t compromise with yourself and sleep another 10 mins. It will only make you feel more tired when you wake up and scientifically it doesn’t help you feel more well rested. Just do it. Perhaps plan something you can look forward to. If alarms sound too intrusive, consider getting a vibrating alarm. These alarms not only have the option to blast off your ears, they also have an option to have a vibrating unit placed under your unit to buzz you awake. It’s actually pretty relaxing way to wake up, it’s calming and gets my blood flowing. It doesn’t even wake my roommates up because it’s so quiet and only I could feel it. In fact, my roommates have gotten so envious of my alarm system that both of them bought the EXACT same alarm clock model as me. Now we have 3 of the exact same alarm clock in my room =.=
Sleep in chunks of 90 minutes. That’s usually how long a complete sleep cycle lasts. Of course this varies from person to person, so adjust according. If you want to have a “gentle” way of waking up, you should try the Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock for iPhone (Sleep as Android for Android users). It has great reviews and it has worked pretty well for me. It uses your phone’s accelerometer to determine how much you move during your sleep and uses that metric to determine what stage you are in your sleep schedule and wakes you up accordingly based on your sleep stage. The only problem with it was that since it requires that you put your phone next to your pillow (i.e. very close to you), I have a tendency to turn it off quickly. But overall, it does pretty good wonders.
Other methods of waking up that I’ve tried that have worked in the past are moaning and/or groaning as loudly as you can, doing the Bruce Almighty wake up routine, shifting to a doggy style position, leaning my head over the bed (so blood flows to my brain), or getting someone to wake you up (Hi Mom!). Good luck with your sleep. Sleep is necessary! Don’t pull all nighters. Stay consistent (even on weekends), and follow these tips.
Food, Shower, Transportation
If you have started logging your hours right now, you will realize that you spend an absurd amount of time just eating, preparing for your day, showering, hygiene, and transportation. I spend around 11% of my total time doing this stuff, totaling 264.5 hours in my 14 weeks here at Berkeley. There has got to be a better use of these times.
So I’ve broken it down to things you can do WHILE you do these. It’ll help you cut down time as I don’t count FoShoTrans when I multitask.
- Study homework or class material. Rarely do you have both hands free to do homework while you eat and I strongly discourage doing so. Doing homework while eating will only extend the amount of time it takes for you to eat. Studying counts as school work.
- Meet new people. Sit with someone new and talk to them. Count that in the social calendar
- Sit with someone you know but haven’t sit in a while. That’s Social.
- Listen to Audiobooks. That’s Outside Education.
- Singing. It’s good practice and makes your voice sound amazing no matter how shitty it usually sounds. Outside Learning
- Minor dancing or bouncing. Nothing involving footwork. Outside learning.
- Audiobooks. That’s all you really could do. Don’t try anything else. There are too many tasks in hygiene that introducing another activity would only hinder your progress
- Dancing, only upperbody work like dimestops.
- Talk to people (if you can)
- Sleeping (if on a bus)
- Read a book (if you’re on a bus or can see where you’re going)
Develop Good Work Ethics
Everyone has a different style of studying. Some people like to study in their rooms, others like to study in a noisy coffee shop. Some like to get a study group together, others like to study alone. Whatever your preferences are, there are still some core fundamentals to studying productively. I’ll try to elucidate some tips to helping you become the most productive student in Berkeley.
The most important thing to remember is that in general if you aren’t inspired to do homework, the best thing is just start working anyways. Seriously, this has helped me so tremendously. Never think about an assignment as a task of completion, but rather a task of initiation. This is again re-emphasized in The Now Habit . You should never ask yourself, “when should I finish this assignment?” But rather you should always ask yourself “when can I begin?” Notice the use of “can.” It uses a sense of optimism and sense of commitment. If you don’t want to start an assignment, commit yourself to doing it for only 15 minutes. 15 minutes (usually less) is the amount of time is takes to get your brain in the mood of studying or doing homework. Treat every task as a start of a journey, even if you’re finishing up a project. The starting mentality gets better with practice, but the concept holds.
Never play the victim when it comes to difficult tasks, always take the proactive role. You’re only going to make yourself miserable if you go against your free will and saying “I have to do it.” Instead, changing your mentality to “I want to do it” could completely change how you see your assignments and assignments. Why, after all, are you taking a class if it’s not to learn about a particular subject or major? What you’re doing should be directly relevant to you and your goals
This brings me to another point. You have to convince yourself that you are a hard worker. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was a scientific study (back by other institutions) that basically goes like this (further explained by the NYMag Article):
A group of children are divided into two experimental groups. Both groups of students are given a moderately difficult but doable task of completing mental challenges. One group of students were then praised for “being smart” while the other group was praised for “being hardworking.” The researchers then gave the children a choice of another mental task: a task that is the same difficulty as the one they completed or a task that is harder to solve. Researchers found out that the 90% of the children who were praised for their work ethics chose the harder task whereas a majority (probably around 55%) of the children who were praised for their intelligence chose the easier task.
Maybe you’re blaming your parents for fucking you up as a child by praising your intelligence and making you lazy (I had a mixture of praise of both). But for fucks sake you’re in college now. Your position in life right now is your own doing, take some control over your life and your attitude on life.
The problem with modern society is, no one’s going to praise you for your hard work. Everyone’s going to talk about how smart you are, or how you can ace tests without studying, or can do things without trying. Don’t get sucked into this. Sometimes I find praises like these offensive or condescending. I’ve worked hard for my grades and knowledge, I want to be rewarded for what I’ve earned, not ascribed as a trait that is supposedly inherent in me. People have complimented me on these attributes. “James why are you so smart?” “James you’re such a fast learner!” “James you’re just godly with CS.” Yeah, no shit, it’s because I spend more time dedicating myself to these activities that I have reached this level. Sometimes I feel like people do that to mess with me, to put me on a pedestal just so they can watch me stumble and fall. The pressure of holding up an image of being naturally smart is hard and frankly completely stupid. Peers who peer pressure you into this image should not be around you at all. Correct them if they are ignorant, but cut them loose if they want to see you fail.
Point is you have to praise yourself for your hard work whenever you accomplish something. No one else will do it for you. If someone asks you why you are so smart, you reply that it’s because you worked really hard in this class. You want to be perceived as an honest and hard worker. Every time you check a bullet off your to-do list. Congratulate yourself on how hard you’ve worked to get the pleasure of scratching the task off your Post-It note. Even say self-praises out loud if you can. I’ve actually taken a fully Anthony Robbins self improvement course where I had to take walks every day at 8AM for a whole week where the audiotape tells you to chant “Everyday in every way I’m getting better and better” or “I know I can because I can” or turning an “energy dial” at the center of your chest. It’s cheesy but it works in mysterious ways.
Everything you have that is important to you, you have earned it at one point or another. Whether it’s your grades, your girlfriend, your reputation, your body, your friends, it’s all done through hard work. Spend some time to understand and embrace that concept. When people hand you things on a silver platter, it’s no accomplishment of yours. Work hard.
Now that you have a good mentality to start with, here’s how you keep the flame going. Use the pomodoro technique (watch the video!). The idea is that you set aside 25 minutes of uninterrupted work. That means during these 25 mins you don’t take text messages, phone calls. You don’t go on Facebook. Don’t even think about eating or going on other websites. Even if someone comes up to you and talk, spend a quick 10 seconds explaining that you’re busy right now and you’ll talk to them when you’re available. Just focus. The point of this time-boxing technique is that since you are dedicating the time to do something, you might as well be as productive as you can within this time. Have you ever had those classes where teachers give 10 minutes of class time in the end of the class to start on your homework and everyone clamors to get their homework finished by then? The idea’s the same. You’re stuck in class for an hour anyways, with no distractions, you might as well make the best out of it.
Now when your 25 minutes is done, you get a 5 minute break to do whatever you want. Check your texts, calls, FB notifs. Talk to someone. I suggest stretch and minor exercise breaks. After the break is done, you go back to your work and start a new pomodoro.
I personally do pomodoro chunks of 55 mins followed by 5 mins, but 25 min is probably more efficient for beginners. It’s difficult to do at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. I personally use Time Out to track my pomodoro times because it’s automatic (it goes on and off automatically) and it actually blocks your computer screen so it forces you to stand up and stretch, get water, or go to the bathroom while you wait.
Also, to help me focus, I open up two windows. One of them is my personal stuff (I usually open my gmail, calendar, rainymood.com, and 8tracks.com or hypem.com), and one of the other one is purely academics. So if I’m working on my computer science homework, I would keep all relevant CS pages open on my second window and hide my first one. The idea behind this is that you keep your personal and academic tabs separate so you don’t see flashing tabs at you or tempting you like a button waiting to be pushed.
Also a key point is to never check your email or facebook the first thing you do. It’s going to set a bad first step forward to your study session and you’ll mostly likely get hooked or distracted by one thing or another.
How to Keep Your Sanity
People burn out, it’s a fact. People crumble under the stress. One-too-many all-nighters pulled could change a goody-two-shoes into a hardcore, biker-shoes heroin-addict. You think this whole sanity thing is like a disease stricken upon unsuspecting over achievers, but in reality it’s completely preventable.
How do you stay focused in all this stress and work? You need to find some ways. I’ll show you some of mine.
Pick a Hobby (or Two or More)
As I iterated before, you HAVE TO plan fun times, break times to help you destress or unwind. This doesn’t have to mean mind-numbing television or drugs and alcohol (I actually highly discourage it). I recommend both a sport and a creative outlet.
Exercise is important to keep everyone happy. Even if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you should still exercise a bit. Exercising produces happy hormones that makes you happy and it’s a great change of pace from your typical school work. You’ll meet a more diverse group of people than your classes. You’ll get the stress out. Sometimes I exercise with all my problems on my mind. I physically exert my frustrations on whatever’s on hand, whether it’s lifting weights or running hard for the frisbee so that by the time I’m dead tired, the problems don’t seem so problemsome anymore, and I achieve a sense of tranquility that helps me tackle my other challenges when I’m done. It’s really rewarding. Go to the gym, join an intramural or club team, or just throw a frisbee with your roommate. It’s going to make a significant difference, and it’ll help you keep off those freshman 15. Spend at least 5 hours a week exercising (Walking around campus doesn’t count).
Pick a creative outlet. Whether it’s guitar, singing, drawing, writing, photoshopping, cooking, corn-maze-designing, find something that is outside your major that you enjoy doing. It doesn’t have to be something you’re good at, but you should enjoy doing it. For example, I love singing, but I’m just so horrendously horrible at it. So what I do is I make sure I stay on campus until late at night until the libraries close (around 1 or 2AM), then when I walk home, there won’t be anybody around me to hear me so I could sing to my heart’s content. It’s so relaxing when you reward yourself with these small things for your hard work. Try picking up an instrument or a hobby. You don’t have to stick with one. Check out this reddit post out for ideas and these online resources for ideas. If you’re like me, you’re going to want to learn everything because everything is so exciting.
Spend Time Alone
You’re going to have to spend some time out of your hectic day to reflect on your life. I tend to do this on my walks home at night. Sometimes all it takes is a deep breath of solace and enjoy the peaceful environment around you as you reflect on where you are in life and the exciting adventures ahead of you. I just smile knowing what I’ve done that day and how satisfying it is to accomplish what I did.
Other times I do it in my room. I find cleaning my room very therapeutic. Singing in the shower also works wonders for your mental health and spirit. Just anything you want to do for fun, just do it. Sometimes I eat out by myself, and not give a crap about what other people think.
Spending time alone doesn’t always mean happy times. There are moments when I’m sad or homesick as well. Sometimes you want to go back home or go back to when things once were. School’s too stressful, your classes are too hard, life’s too unfair. It’s depressing I understand. During these moments, I like to go to someplace isolated and quiet at night(where you have a decent amount of privacy and peace), and just sit down. Just sit, don’t do anything. If you have peaceful, classical or soft indie music, you can play those. I just sit and think about my life. Sometimes I cry a bit (I don’t like to cry in front of others). I just think about my life, or stare into space. Don’t be afraid to cry, you’ve found a private space for a reason. It’s cathartic and really does solve some personal problems for you. Other times I just sigh a lot. Listen to lyrics if you want to, sometimes they are soothing. Sit there for as long as you want to or feel like. Eventually you’ll feel slightly more peaceful even though nothing’s been resolved. Then you’ll look at the night sky and perhaps the stars. Maybe you’ll look at the scenery if there is one, and you begin to appreciate the things you have. Be grateful for those things. It doesn’t have to be something luxurious like an Xbox 720, it could be for health, your family, or the fact that you don’t have that hated class tomorrow.
When you feel like you’re ready, you can head back to your room to get cleaned up or fall asleep (sleep tends to be a major contributing factor to how happy I am).
Keep a Close Friend Around (or Have an Awesome Sister Like Ruby Maa)
I would like to run a social experiment. My sister Ruby Maa is stressed at MIT right now. She has worked so much harder than me studying Chemical Engineering in college. I think she would appreciate it if a bunch of strangers (or even just some) sent her an encouraging facebook message (via link) like “Thanks for being such an awesome sister for James Maa. And good luck on your finals!” would be awesome. It’s just an optional request because I’m so grateful for my sister :’)
But yes, keep a close friend around, someone you can tell all your secrets to and someone who is patient enough to listen to you complain about your daily life. Really take advantage of the network of friends you have, many of them (including myself) do have some form of interest in hearing about your problems. Find someone who’s willing to listen and tell them about some of your concerns you have in life. Don’t burden them with trivial stuff though, like “OMG I hate my professor” or milk them for compliments by saying “OMG I’m so fat” (which is supposed to prompt the response “no you’re not!” followed by some compliment, but I have ceased to indulge anyone who does this to me).
Real life concerns I have discussed with my sister are things like “I’m not sure if I should switch majors” or “Man sometimes I get really homesick” or “Sometimes I feel so dumb” or “I really want to give up and become a vagabond.”
You don’t have to talk to them looking for answers. Just saying out your problems out loud is enough to alleviate the stress you’re experiencing. It also has the magical effect of making you and your friend closer. My sister was super supportive (in her own way) when I said, “Man, sometimes I feel so lonely, I just can’t seem to get close to anyone.” and she just said, “yeah, that’s me for the past 2.5 years.” And that made me feel 10 times better knowing someone’s in my shoes.
Have a Role Model
Find someone who’s someone you want to be. And it’s better if your role model obtained his fame or achievements through hard work and not naturally born talent (think Steve Jobs not Lebron James). I have several role models who I can look up to. Some of them are my friends who I won’t divulge, but sometimes the personal element to it helps you understand your role models as human beings and not demi-gods.
Ruby’s one of my role models because she probably works harder than me, sleeps less than me, and gets better grades than me. She’s awesome at life even though it may seem a bit unbalanced. But knowing her as a sister I can tell that she wasn’t born a MIT student, she earned it through her hard work, and she got into MIT through that despite all the hardships she faced (including being the 2nd generation asian family guinea pig). Most of my problems are trivial compared to the ones she faces everyday, and it just makes my life seem more exciting when I’m playing catch up with my sis (whom I want to beat someday).
Start a Blog
Start a blog. Get one on tumblr or wordpress. Or buy a domain name and get cheap hosting. Ask me if you have any problems with this.
Write two things every days that made you smile or made you grateful. Try to ignore the bad things, they usually don’t deserve a spot there. The purpose isn’t to attract an audience or to cave into consumer demands, it’s to ensure that you are grateful and optimistic with your life every day. Small things, like a cute girl smiling your way, or finding $5 on the sidewalk could change your perspective on how your day was. Focus on the good things, the different things, and your life can seem like a series of adventures, day by day.
If you would like, you should have weekly, monthly, and yearly highlights. That way it forces you to read your blog posts. It’ll really structure your semester and help you answer the question, “What the fuck did I do during this time?”
Go Outside Your Comfort Zone
Relieve your stress by going outside your comfort zone. As they say, “kill the tension before the tension kills you.” Go ask that cute girl on a date, go breakdance in your lounge, show up to class in your stanford pajamas or banana suit. Probably not that crazy, but you get the idea, take risks, it’s the thing that will make you feel alive when you feel dead for most of the day.
Try to do one thing that scares you every day, it’ll make a difference as to how you see how you spent your life everyday. It could be “I studied all day” or “I studied all day AND asked a girl out AND got flat out rejected” (awesome! that’ll be a great story to tell) or “I studied all day AND asked a girl out AND scored a date” FUCKING HI-FIVES! :D If you have trouble, think of this motto: “Always make the decision that makes for a better story to tell.”
Do something different. Flush the toilet with your left hand. Try drawing the lecturer’s face onto a sphinx. Hopscotch your way down the sidewalk. Take a different route, try a different restaurant, study in a new place. Anything to break out your monotone habits (keep the good habits though!). Variety helps keep you sane because you still have traction of your time in memorable ways. Try sneaking into building and exploring what you can find.
Just Take A Break
Sit around, go on reddit, hang out with your friends, watch tv, be unproductive every once in a while. Usually in the moments of the highest stress we realize the things we always wanted to do in our free time, and usually it doesn’t involve video games or tv. Spend some time to do these cool things. Go paintballing, hang out at the beach, or just watch a movie with some friends. You deserved it.
Don’t study the waking hours of your dead week. Spend a bit of time to do other things as well. Just chill for an hour after a long session of work.
You’ll feel so much more refreshed afterwards that you become more willing to tackle on new challenges.
Some Neat Instant Happiness
Compiled from my own life guide, which I will never share with strangers ;):
- Wave at people in cars when I cross a crosswalk. They often smile and wave back
- Listening to music when I eat food, it kind of sets the mood
- When I wake up in the morning I like to roll around, curl up, and stretch like a cat in my bed.
- Take showers in the dark
- Smiling. Just smiling would make you happy.
During my productivity pursuit, I have fallen into the trap of putting a lot of my life on pause. If I imagine going back to high school, there were so many moments when I convinced myself that I couldn’t enjoy my high school life because I was busy preparing for college, doing homework, or studying for tests. All those statements weren’t true by the way. I always ended up not being particularly productive, and always more depressed. But the point is that I managed to miss out on so many fun and amazing opportunities in my life because I thought the only way to be a productive student was to cut out all joy and pleasure from it. It’s what I was raised on anyways. My mom always told me to sacrifice your happiness now for the happiness of your future.
But I think it’s a load of B.S. . You can be productive AND have fun at the same time. Work hard play hard. Because I have established that you must do X, Y, and Z to keep yourself sane, those act as your forms of life. These are the memories you will cherish when you are out of college. You’ll remember your hard work, but the memory of the hard work is cumulative. The moments you remember most are the individual experiences, the one Friday night out, the one football game, the new thing you tried. These are the stories you will be proud to tell your sons and grandsons, so don’t let school get in the way.