Another Quick, Honest Product Plug

I’m getting one of these:

Habit-changing is _hard_, and following through on the 80/20 kinds of changes you want to make to go crush college (like goofing around less on the internet, studying well, sleeping, eating right, etc) is the critical step where people fail most.

Neuroscience is teaching us a ton about neuroplasticity changing habits (I recommend “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal if you want to learn more about this). Until recently, we haven’t had great ways of having automated negative incentives that don’t come along with the ever-deadly force of shame (which is actually counter-productive).

Pavlok might change that. When I get mine next year, I’ll let you know how it goes. If you want to join me in the experiment, go get one–and leave a comment. We’ll be in touch.

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Keystone Habits, and More on Goals (Including Weight Loss)

So it’s been quite a while since I’ve published here and I apologize: work has been madness. But the good news is that learning hasn’t stopped and I’ve still been able to make progress on some of my key goals, including:

  • Writing in my next book (not telling anything yet)
  • Getting through one new book from a philosophy heavy-hitter per month
  • Getting back into shape!

I’ll confess: even I slip betimes. My previous best of 208 lbs got into trouble when the “rush” hit at the new job, and suddenly I found myself at 223 lbs. 

The good news is it’s all turned around, and in the past 2.5 months I have rushed down to 195 lbs, shaving 28 lbs off the total. 

Not bad. But here’s the trick: diet didn’t change. At least not formally. I’m still doing Slow-Carb and my only exercise is my commute to work. 

So what changed? 

Keystone Habits:

There’s a great book I listened to (audiobooks are still king) called “The Power of Habit,” and the biggest key that I took away from it is that there exist concepts called “keystone habits.” I used one of these to help me get back on track with weight loss.

First, let’s discuss how they help in general (this does the book no justice and I recommend getting the book if you’re really interested):

Habits are great because they take the active thought out of doing something, and you don’t forget or give yourself excuses not to do it. When you develop habit of brushing your teeth in the morning (those with youngsters know this development isn’t easy!), you don’t have to force yourself to do it, you just do it. Compare this, for example, to deciding you’re going to start running every day–it is mentally exhausting to work up the gumption to do it.

The most effective habit “loops” come from having queues to do them. With tooth-brushing, it’s sometimes your teeth feeling icky in the morning, or simply seeing your tooth brush as you drag your tired self into the bathroom. When one sees that queue (after the habit is developed), it primes the brain into automatically executing the habit.

Keystone habits, specifically, cause us to develop other habits much more easily. Building habits is hard (the building of habits is an exercise I’ll leave to the fairly brilliant aforementioned book), but if we pick the right keystone habit to start with, the others start to flow in automatically. Finding a great keystone habit can change your life.

So let’s talk about mine.

The Keystone Habit of Losing Weight

Most of us uncomfortable with our weight really don’t like to weigh ourselves. This is natural–nobody really likes hearing bad news. 

But bad news is motivating. And, of course, good news can be motivating, too. 

I’d realized after much thought that my vigilance was much weakened when I didn’t have data. If my weight was this amorphous, ill-defined thing, I was much less prone to do anything about it day to day.

So I decided to start weighing in. I figured that my keystone habit might just be jumping on the scale every morning. Terrifying at first, but a much easier habit to start with than running 3 miles a day or something else equally terrifying.

And lo, I could feel the effects immediately. After first stepping on the scale at 223, my heart sank, but ho boy, did I decide it was time to do something about it. I’d lost so much progress (my previous record was 207) and wanted to reclaim it.

Now note that I hadn’t committed myself to picking up any more habits for a whole month. I told myself that if I just weighed in every day, I’d be happy, and we’d see what happened.

Cometh the Magic

Vigilance came on its own. Again, without committing to it, I started to do a whole lot:

  • Control my portions and remind myself to stop eating even when I was a bit hungry (as one feels “full” generally about 10 minutes after eating enough)
  • Turning down wine (a weak spot of mine) when dining with friends
  • Biking to work–6 miles each way, instead of hopping on the subway
  • Checking the nutritional facts on the food I was shopping for (hidden sugar is everywhere!)

All these things came as little decisions in the moment, rather than a heavy decision to make an epic push for each of these things–committing to all of them is terrifying and can be psychologically prohibitive to we mere mortals (especially those of us who love food much more than exercise).

And then I started to lose weight at a pace of 2.5 lbs/month, where before I had stagnated (even when dieting) or gained weight (when I had been a bit lazier). Holy smokes.

“Congrats, Erik, but How Does This Help Me in College?”

Besides dealing with your freshman 15, keystone habits have applications everywhere. Remember that weight loss is simply an illustrative example. 

Lots of folks have trouble mustering up the state of mind to do homework, or to study (Facebook is such a great distraction as soon as we crack open our laptops). Others hit the snooze too many times, or skip morning classes. 

So think about the area where you want to start developing really good habits. Is it, “study more and goof around less?” Is it, “work on problem sets and papers bit by bit rather than push them off to later?” Is it, “sleep and work out more?” Doesn’t matter what it is. Think of an easy keystone habit that will get you going.

Here are a few potential examples to start the juice flowing in your brain:

  • Cut your wifi or unplug your ethernet cable during your study block
  • Put on a tie when you’re writing (this “dress for success” habit has really helped some friends, as crazy as it sounds)
  • Record your daily page count on a paper
  • Promise yourself you’ll do one problem on problem sets every day
  • Put your gym shoes by your bed and wear your gym shorts to sleep

Think about how all of these affect your brain and your level of situational awareness. Find a habit that’s going to put you in a state of mind to easily and automatically build little new habits that get you where you want to go.

Before you close this tab: decide which easy keystone habit you’re going to start today.

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Pro-Ductive-Crastination

A short one for once, promise:

A dear friend writing her final paper was somewhat stuck on said paper, and it had her down. Her strategy at the time was what we often do (myself included, usually related to weight loss): try again, be better next time.

She was discouraged and it was probably a bit of a negative spiral. She was making no progress.

My advice to her was to procrastinate. I know, you thought you’d never hear it from me. 

But this wasn’t just any procrastination. I jokingly called it “Pro-ductive-crastination” and it fit.

My suggestion to her was to let it go for now: she was frustrated and demoralized, and in that state of mind, rarely do any of us do our best work. I certainly don’t.

I had her bring up all the other things she had to do. The list was piling up as she devoted all her time to this paper. Like you might expect, I suggested she force-rank them, pretend the paper wasn’t on it, and start burning through the list. Some of it was stuff that absolutely had to get done: her laundry was piling up and her fridge was emptying. 

She could keep doing the paper into the next week, so she took my advice, did laundry, bought some food, cooked a big ol’ batch of food she liked, caught up on sleep, and got back to it.

When she was back to her paper, she was much happier: the thought of the laundry/food no longer haunted her mind, and she was able to take a much-needed break from staring at the paper with no guilt at all. 

Awesome.

The risk of Pro-ductive-crastination is one can always find more stuff to do, if one looks hard enough. The trick to win here, is to put a limit on the action items one’s going to knock off from her list before getting back to work. Be disciplined with oneself, but use pro-ductive-crastination as a helpful backup to get oneself back on track if one needs an extended break from work.

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My Breadth-Not-Depth Mantra in Exam Prep

I was waiting to publish this until I tested it out with a few friends, but opening signs are looking very good as finals season starts to wrap up. I’ve been mentoring folks in undergrad and grad school at varying degrees of formality since I was an undergrad myself. These days I keep it pretty informal, and I tend only to focus on helping the highly motivated, mostly because they’re the type that seek help. Some of these guys are taking on way more than I did, some are just trying to learn topics that for whatever reason particularly vex them. I say all this because I want to emphasize that what I’m about to discuss is a mantra to help those that really love to learn, rather than those that love to slack–I fear the latter group will take all the wrong lessons away here, but having realized that this warning applies to everything I discuss, I’ll leave it for another blog post. Now where were we?

Final Exams are Painful Final exams get overwhelming; My experience was no exception at all. Do they have to be? Maybe… but I think we can make life a little bit easier, a lot more successful, or at least less stressful. I believe that, given my experience and that of some of the folks I help, it’s of course the sheer magnitude of content we have to deal with that makes the whole experience so challenging (and horrible). This is apparently particularly true of comprehensive exams (comps) in grad school, where one has to demonstrate basic expertise across one’s entire field, full-stop.

The Problems of Content Magnitude: The more fundamental problem here (beyond the obvious, “it sucks”) is that many of us (again, myself included) simply lack the brain capacity to be able to get everything perfect, or remember everything in detail, with that much content–especially if we’re taking 5 or 6 classes.

The very thought of trying to memorize and recall an entire semester’s worth of learning, of data, of arguments, equations, etc. is so daunting that it drives incredible procrastination in most students. Again, myself included. It’s emotionally difficult to charge forward in the way that we need to. Beyond that, practically speaking, there’s little chance for most of us mere mortals of retaining 100% of the information we absorbed during the semester.

So what’s to be done?

We Gotta Find a Way to Limit Our Scope: This will seem obvious to some and ridiculous to others, but the winning move is very much not to “just be better.” Those who simply try to will themselves to be better fail—there’s good science here and it’s just how the brain works.

Working within reality, we’ll need to limit our scope to win. This means we can’t read every page of all our textbooks in the week before finals, or re-solve every math problem.

The trick, of course, is taking advantage of the 80/20, or Pareto, concept.

 

Getting the Breadth to Win:

We of course don’t want to limit our scope by ignoring concepts altogether. We want to limit our scope by covering all the key concepts, and not getting into too much detail. Sounds a little scary, but I’ll explain why.

Professors are usually trying to test competency in the subject matter, rather than memorization of the mass of the subject matter (medical students are cringing at me as I write this). What this means for you is that you want to focus on understanding the concepts and how to apply them. For those of you that weren’t goofing off all semester, this can actually be fairly easy. (For those of you who were, I cannot magically solve your woes here.)

So let’s invest some smart time up front to have a great plan for each final to study for breadth and enable us to work competently with whatever the professors throw at us:

1)      Identify the key topics from your semester (the syllabus will likely help you structure this pretty well) – stick ‘em on a list.

2)     Prioritize fiercely which concepts to focus on. The metrics for this prioritization should be a combination of how comfortable you feel with them, and how much emphasis is likely to be put on them in the exam. For the latter metric, there are usually pretty powerful hints here from the professors, including any notes or past exams they’re giving you to prep for your final.

3)     Define the key understanding/concept necessary for each topic. This is of course the tricky part, but your experience from the semester will help you here. Make sure you boil down the topic into a really root, abstract concept that you’ll want to make sure you understand. Having a deep understanding of the key concept will allow you to take on any version, form, or iteration of that concept that gets thrown at you. This is the way by which you achieve mastery over your finals—better results and less time than cramming.

4)     Plan time for each topic… in priority order. Having this time set aside means you’ll be able to give at least some time to each of those really important topics. If it’s unrealistic at this point to do them all, then let the lowest-priority stuff go, or simply give it way less time (spent a day on topic #1, and cram the last 5 into a day—something like that).

Then the work actually begins. I recommend my webinar from last semester, “How to Ace Finals Without Breaking a Sweat,” (http://howtocrushcollege.com/2013/12/01/ace-finals-without-breaking-a-sweat-a-how-to-crush-college-webinar/) for a more thorough approach to the whole finals process.

When you’re studying… make sure you know where to draw the line for each concept and say “enough.” There will be tons more pages to read, more problems to practice. But be results-focused, not activity-focused. Put the book away when the time is right.

Respect your plan and be ready to triage. The toughest advice for my friends/mentees to follow was letting something go and moving on before they were comfortable. But the results were great. Everything that came at them looked familiar, and they were able to re-derive the details where they needed to. Final exams got A’s, comps were passed with distinction, and everyone even got to have some social time in the week leading up to the mayhem.

It was a good thing.

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How we Pay for College May be Changing–But Don’t Hold your Breath

I just happened across two pretty interesting articles that I wanted to share with my own thoughts. They’re both related to experiments in changing how we pay for college. I’m a bit skeptical of both but wanted to share further thoughts here. 

The first is an on-time graduation incentive. As I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts, 4- and 6-year graduation rates are slumping and keep going down. I’ve also mentioned the power of very clear, immediate incentives (particularly financial ones) in driving our behavior, and how embracing them will help us habitualize the behaviors we want. To whit, I’ve caught wind that the University of Baltimore is offering the incentive of a free semester of tuition for students that graduate on time. Possibly a very good incentive structure, though it’s obviously going to lead to a dent in tuition dollars (8% or more) that would have to be made up somewhere else. It  could possibly be made up by increasing tuition rates for those that don’t graduate on time, though this might just increase the drop-out rate even as it lowers the late graduation rate. 

The second is a “pay-it-forward” system being proposed in Michigan, in which university attendees could opt to pay 4% of their income for the next 20 years instead of paying tuition up front or taking on student loans. Sounds pretty great, though I think it actually pretty severely fails the incentive test that the Baltimore plan seems to embrace. The biggest risk is that those who opt-in will have low-income degrees (like art) and the high-income degrees (like engineering, business) will opt out, lest they pay significantly more than their fair share–this could quickly make the plan insolvent.

The general upshot of this is that state universities are trying to get a bit more creative about how to pay for college and how to boost graduation. For anyone reading with with young kids (or if you are a young kid reading this… at which point: bravo!), this means there may be better payment structures that are going to exist 10 years down the line, which is great.

For those of you in college or about to be, don’t depend on any magic bullet to make life financially easier. Our generation here is probably at a local nadir of financial fortune in college, and we have to play the game smarter than anyone before (and, hopefully, anyone after). 

My general advice for those of us in the game right now: 

1) See college as a real investment, and do the math. How much more are you likely to make with your degree (pick your most likely major and career choice) than without it? What will your yearly student loan contributions look like? Where does the payoff happen? What happens when you subtract four years’ lost income due to your being in college? (Remember that we’re assuming that you’ll graduate on time–which, of course you will, because you’re the kind of guy that’s reading a blog like this and is ready to make it happen.)

2) If it’s going to be a financially disastrous decision, then you might need to reconsider. You don’t need to be in college to learn a lot that you might be really passionate about. I’ve learned much more language (German, Hungarian, Czech), philosophy, and economics outside of college than in it (in fact, I didn’t study them at all in college) and these are what really get me excited. Worried about not having great groups to discuss your passions with, learn from, etc? I present to you: Meetup

3) Don’t see late graduation as an option. You’ve got to graduate on time if you’re going to make college financially viable. The odds aren’t with you… unless you stack the deck. Obviously I’m passionate about the idea that everyone that goes to college can and should graduate on time–we’re just not taught the key skills we need to do so. It’s why I proudly wrote How to Crush College, and why I really believe it’s going to be one of the most valuable investments you could make

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Want a Great Job? Build a Great Portfolio!

In my fourth semester at MIT I took the first applied mechanical engineering course of my career, after more theoretical classes on mechanics, electricity, statics, dynamics, and programming. I had done well enough in these theory classes, but now it was time to get my hands dirty.

I remember very distinctly the first few minutes of the first lecture, in which our professor sought to motivate us more than teach us. He said something akin to the following:

“In China and India are legions of engineers who are just as smart as you are, will work much harder than you’ll work, and will accept much, much lower pay. Do not think that you are going to be able to walk out of here and waltz into an engineering job. If you want to get hired—or at least hired for a salary you’ll be happy with—you’re going to need to prove that you can add value beyond technical rigor. You must be an innovator—engineering must be your toolkit, rather than everything you offer.

“This class is the first opportunity you have to cultivate, practice, and demonstrate this ability to innovate.”

He went on to say some other brilliant stuff, but this part stuck with me most: to enter the job market and win, one has to be able to demonstrate that they can add value to the organization they’re joining. In technical fields (primarily science and engineering), to stand out from the crowd of very smart and rigorous competitors, one must show skills beyond technical rigor.  

Effectively demonstrating innovative skills (with strong technical rigor) isn’t easy. Typical resume templates and college transcripts do little to demonstrate anything beyond technical competency. Internships help… but so many consist primarily of photocopying that a recruiter cannot trust them as a matter of course.

So what do we do about this? First, let’s figure out what recruiters are looking for.

WHAT YOU NEED TO DEMONSTRATE TO WIN

Beyond technical competency, recruiters are looking for people to stand out in a few key criteria. Particularly in engineering, research, and related fields, they want:

  • Applied Thinking: your theory doesn’t stop at the textbook—you can make something real.
  • Passion: you’re going to show up every day and really put your heart into something.
  • Teamwork: you’ll play well with others rather than go lone wolf.
  • Hands-On Mindset: you’ll get down and dirty.
  • Completionism: I can’t stress this one enough—most great designs that fail do so because they can’t deliver. Being able to finish a product and “ship it” successfully is extremely desirable.

BE REMEMBERED!

As a recruiter myself, I can list off the top of my head some of the best stuff I’ve seen in applications that I remember even years later:

  • A series of devices built for a grandmother with MS to help her through her day (mechanical engineer)
  • A fun 2D web-based platformer game (computer scientist)
  • Layman-friendly abstract with visuals of neutrino research (physicist)
  • A goofy website of a grinning heat-and-beat metallurgist with some metal he wrecked (materials scientist)
  • Video of a clunky but very functional spider robot (electrical engineer)
  • Detailed home-brewing website with lots of technical detail (bio-chemist)
  • EMT blog (pre-med)

You get the idea. These folks get remembered, even if their portfolio doesn’t contain wildly technical stuff. (To be fair, in my own recruiting, we weren’t looking for technical expertise in a specific field, but general technical brilliance.) Use your resume to show that you’re technically sound, and use your portfolio to catch the attention of a recruiter about all the other stuff you need to demonstrate. Your chances of getting the first interview will go up dramatically, and you’ll already have some great stuff to talk about with them.

And I’ll share a secret while I’m here: my application to MIT included doodles. They were very technical design doodles, but they were doodles, nonetheless. They were submitted directly as scans from my notebook, with a bit of commentary added about each one. The application officers loved them.

THE BEST WAY TO BUILD A GREAT PORTFOLIO: DO SOMETHING FUN

“But I don’t have any of these cool projects!” I hear you say. Why the heck aren’t you doing them? I certainly hope that something about your major excites you, and if it does, get to it! Make it exciting! Out of time? Think about what classes (especially electives) in your major allow you to build or research something with a lot of color and a clear end product. Get an internship, or a work-study at a lab in your university. It doesn’t have to be a sacrifice of your precious free time: take advantage of what you’re already doing.

The key point is to go beyond the GPA that pops out at the end. You are doing 4 years of amazing stuff—show your recruiter what that amazing stuff looks like! Show them you’re capable of way more than taking a test! 

THE SAME PRINCIPLES APPLY TO THE REST OF THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE

The principle above is to be extremely results-oriented. The above post isn’t just a friendly tip: it’s something that you really can derive on your own, if you have the right principles at the front of your mind. If, for example, you approach all of your internship and job applications thinking, “what is really going to impress the pants off the recruiter?” then I’m sure you’ll come up with awesome ways to show yourself off that are unique to you and unique to that application. Where else can a maniacal results-focus help you in your college career?

This principle and the ten others that helped me thrive at MIT (and far after) are outlined in my book, How to Crush College, along with a step-by-step guide to applying them in the real world. If you’ve got any questions or comments, leave them below! Good luck, and go Crush College!

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Hey, We’re in College XPress!

Just wanted to share some exciting news: we’re being featured (with increasing regularity) in College XPress, a pretty big-time blog-and-other-stuff site. 

So far they’ve shared My Crazy Plan to Write a Master’s Thesis in 10 Weeks, and a brand new one: “Run Towards Failure to Nail Your Standardized Tests,” one I’m pretty proud of. Definitely go check out the latter. 

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