How to Become a Straight A-Student
by Cal Newport
The book presents an approach to studying that is basically an entire productivity system, containing
- a time management approach,
- anti-procrastination advice steps,
- environment design,
- study approach for reading, both technical and nontechnical classes,
- a step-by-step guide to taking tests,
- and a step-by-step guide to writing papers.
Many of the principles are similar to those of Deep Work. We fail to get enough done because we don't focus when we sit down to work: we let in distractions, thereby only getting a fraction of work done in the time we spent. All of these methods aim to save time yet increase efficiency.
Many of the techniques are not new, at least, not to me.
I've used the techniques in this book to help me create my own study routine. It enhanced what I already did.
Recipe for success
This attempts to summarize some of the main points. I choose to focus only on the first part of the book, as the rest is already in the appropriate algorithmic format.
Working harder is not the solution. Work smarter.
Do this: Do small rounds of deep work in isolation every day, working on a clear goal with great focus. Ideally in the morning. Take regular breaks.
Avoid this: Working in distracting environments. Working for long, tedious stretches.
This requires you to get better at prioritizing tasks and managing your time.
Do this: When a new task or deadline is given, capture it to a list. Every morning, put these on your calendar. Then plan your day by giving the tasks realistic timeframes. Whatever is leftover is pushed to the next day.
But some days, you might not want to do the work. Overcoming procrastination is key.
Do this: Write down your plan, and then whether your succeeded or not. Eat healthy as much as possible, especially during work sessions to sustain energy. Break down tasks into smaller, manageable tasks. Build work routines for consistent progress.
Realize: There will be hard days. But you can choose them, as well as your perspective of them. It's only as hard as you make it.
Summary of Key Points
The most important ability is for you to be able to get work done quickly with a minimum of wasted effort.
If you are studying hard, you are doing something wrong. Preparing for tests should not be painful. It shouldn't require a lot of time. But remember, there is no magic pill. Deep and durable learning takes effort.
How to do more in less time
You gain efficiency by compressing work into focused bursts. Work accomplished is a function of time spent and intensity of focus.
Intensely focused work for short periods is better than scattered, diluted focus for even very long sessions. This is Deep Work. Then you’re just sitting there and wasting time.
This is all very obvious. The trick is to create focus in the first place.
And further, focus doesn’t matter if you’re working on the wrong thing. Or doing inessential work. Like organizing for the 7th time.
Don't work like this
Most students are actually pseudo-working. It looks and feels like work, but isn’t. It’s just mentally draining.
If you can relate to bringing a bunch of meals and energy drinks to a study hall for an all-day writing marathon, you're doing it wrong.
- That is a distracting environment.
- Working in long, tedious stretches prevent you from thinking clearly, which makes you less efficient at accomplishing the task.
All you get is fatigue headaches and poor results.
It isn't just students that do this.
Instead, work in smaller sprints (e.g. 1hr and then break) towards a clear target with great focus. It's better to study in smaller batches consistently than everything all at once.
How to become a productive student
Performance requires both time management skills as well as anti-procrastination skills. You have to make a plan and actually follow it.
And your plan is what gears you for performance, given that it is a good plan. Obviously, you schedule work sessions. But importantly, also plan breaks to recharge between them.
The time management strategy here is just time boxing and general calendar-keeping.
Also, the time management system utilizes a sort of capture system as called for in GTD.
How to manage your time in 5 minutes a day
- Capture tasks, deadlines, or things you need to remember on a list (your task inbox).
- Transfer these to your calendar every morning.
- Plan your day each morning by labeling todos with realistic time frames and moving what you don't have time for to different dates. This is essentially timeboxing.
- I suggest estimating timeframes with pomodoros (25 min on, 5 min off). This builds in breaks to your system.
So in essence: externalize. Don't try to keep it all in your head.
- Keep a journal where you, every day, write what you wanted to accomplish and whether you succeeded or not.
- Eat healthy snacks during work sessions to maximize your energy.
- Tackling big tasks
- Dread some big task? Try to make it a fun event instead. Make some big event out of it. This can give you the energy to get started.
- Break down large tasks into smaller, manageable ones. You should immediately know which step to take (the task should be the step!).
- Build work routines to make progress consistently. Make progress a default.
- There will be hard days. However, you can choose their impact. Pick the hard day and go to work. Then it’s all manageable.
When and where to study
Work as much as possible in the morning and afternoon, between classes and other obligations.
Aim to study in isolated environments.
Make sure you take a break at least every hour.
- How long should you study for? No more than an hour at a time without a break.
- Break should be 5-10 minutes. Take an intellectual breather. Find something to concentrate on that has nothing to do with what you did before. E.g. read an article, send e-mails.
- When is the best time to study? Early.
- Where should you study? In isolation.
How to Study
How to read technical assignments
For technical study, do not read the textbook reading assignments. It’s not efficient. It’s faster to follow the lecture and take notes on it. If you still don’t understand after the lecture, you can read to fill gaps.
And also: in technical classes, you want to get down as many sample problems as possible. So write down the example problems and their solutions, at the very least.
This is similar to what I do, although I prefer reading slides instead of attending the lecture. More on that below.
Always go to class
Author believes you should always go to class. A student says it'll take 2x the time studying to make up for missing it.
This hasn’t been true for me—studying software engineering at University level.
The thing is, you can never control which lecturer you get. You can't control their skill level—but you can control your own. You can get better at learning. You can get better at reading.
I like to be in control of my own outcomes. That's why I often opt to read on my own, rather than have the material presented.
Don't read everything
Don’t read everything.
The trick is to know what to read, what to skim, and what to skip.
Obviously, it’s best if you can read everything - for learning - but most often it’s not realistic.
Readings that contain arguments are more important than those describing people or events, which are more important than those providing context. This depends on what you are studying, though.
Always read from primary material.
How to write notes
Your notes should be concise. About 1 page of single-spaced lines per article or chapter.
For nontechnical & technical courses, follow the QEC method when reading:
You want to find evidence for questions that justify the conclusions. This is what you’re reading for. To make this easier, read for arguments, not facts. Arguments follow the QEC method. Any problem the argument solves can be posed as a question, and the argument itself (if it's any good) should present evidence, from which the conclusion follows.
For technical courses, prepare for the exam by making a mega problem set. This is just a collection of problem sets. Gather the assigned problems as well as those given during class. Likewise for practice exams.
And also, add technical explainer questions to this set. Basically questions that ask you to explain technical concepts to show you’ve understood them. Seems similar to the Feynman Technique.
For nontechnical courses, build a study guide. This is essentially a collection of notes on lectures and reading assignments you can use for your exam.
How to handle problem sets
When working on tough problem sets, it might help to use diffuse mode (not mentioned in the book, but is the right term) to help solve it.
- First, familiarize yourself with the problems. Try to understand them
- Then, try to solve them in the most obvious way. This probably won’t work, but now you know what makes the problems hard.
- Then, do something else. Take advantage of your subconscious mind.
Do something every day
Try to work on something every day. Treat it like a marathon, not a bunch of sprints grouped together.
Constant work is better than the unbalanced HUGE-or-almost-no-workload approach.
Start early and do something daily.
And even if you’re caught up, keep doing this. Just work ahead.
This is a much better approach anyway—it doesn’t just make things more manageable, you learn more. It’s spaced practice.
How to take tests
- Look over the whole test
- Figure out how much time you can spend on each question, leaving a 10 minute buffer at the end
- Answer questions in order of increasing difficulty
- Write out a mini-outline when tackling essay questions
- Use any and all leftover time to check and recheck your work (but be mindful of the first instinct fallacy!)
Tips to enhance your retention and understanding
- Do flashcards. This is almost non-negotiable simply because of how effective a consistent spaced repetition practice is.
- The most effective way to imprint a concept is to first review it and then try to explain it, unaided, in your own words. This is the Feynman Technique.
- Spread out memorization: spaced repetition & spaced practice. This comes naturally from doing something every day, rather than all at once.
How to write a paper
- Start looking for an interesting topic early
- Do a thesis-hunt: find general sources, then follow references to find the more targeted sources. That's where good thesis ideas often are.
- Seek a second opinion: your thesis isn't a thesis until it's been approved by a professor.
- Research like a machine
- Find sources, make personal copies, annotate the material, decide if you're done.
- Craft a powerful story
- Spend a good deal of time thinking about this.
- Describe your argument in a topic-level outline.
- Write supporting quotes from sources directly into outline.
- Follow the outline. Be clear.
- Don't write more than 3-5 pages per weekday and 5-8 pages per weekend day.
- Fix but don't fixate: you only need 3 passes.
- The Argument Adjustment Pass: read the paper carefully to ensure your arguments are clear, fix obvious errors, and rewrite where flow needs improvement.
- The Out Loud Pass: carefully read out load a printed copy, marking any awkward passages or unclear explanations.
- The Sanity Pass: a final pass over a printed version of the paper to check overall flow and if there remain any errors.