4 Practical Ways to Recover from Work (Backed by Science) – Part 2 of 2

This is the second part of a series full of practical tips on how to properly recover from work (you can read part 1 here).

Let’s dive right in shall we.

5. Take frequent breaks rather than save them up

If you need a break – take a break.

If you want to maintain high levels of productivity at work then you have to take regular breaks.

If you need a holiday – go on a holiday.

When you work for long stretches of time without taking a holiday, it can be exhausting and such an approach will only hurt you in the long-run.

You risk over-depletion.

Through over-depletion, you end up digging into your compensatory resources.

So when you take your holidays too late, it is likely you will face a more prolonged and difficult recovery process.

In fact, a lot of your holiday will probably be centred around bringing yourself (and your personal resources) back to baseline rather than expending energy to do new things or travel.

After all, if you’re in an over-depleted state – you don’t have much energy at your disposal.

Take regular holidays because if you deplete yourself, it will be difficult to recover from that and bring yourself back to baseline.

6. Don’t check work email during off-job time

If you get work email over the weekend and decide to check it, you are activating work-related systems during your leisure time.

Not only are you robbing yourself of 100% unadulterated leisure time, you’re actually doing yourself a tremendous disservice to your overall well-being in the long run.

What this means is that you are not recovering from work properly and that you are risking burnout in the long term.

Studies have shown that better psychological detachment in employee leisure time predicts better performance in the long-term.

In fact, employees who don’t respond to emails on weekend tend to perform better at work in the long run.

Easiest way to help your cause?

Don’t have email on your phone.

7. If you’re a workaholic, focus on exercising into your recovery time

You can read more about that here.

8. Get rid of hassles – Cut toxic people out of your life

Fritz et al. 2010 paper prerequisite

But you know how stress hormones are summoned by your body to tackle job-related assignments in the workplace?

Well, emotionally taxing people will draw on the same stress-related functional systems in your leisure time and will burn you out.

In his book Gorilla Mindset, Mike Cernovich emphasises that you cut out the negative people and spiritual vampires from your life because, otherwise, “you are fighting off stress, anxiety, and worry rather than pushing forward toward what you want to achieve.”

Toxic and emotionally draining people also affect your overall productivity, as filmmaker, artist, and found of the Webby awards, Tiffany Shlain posits in Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind:

“You’re letting those people into your brain and they’re going to influence your thoughts. I find that I even dream about some of the people I follow [on social media]. We need to be really mindful of who we let into our stream of consciousness.”

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

4 Practical Ways to Recover from Work (Backed by Science) – Part 1 of 2

You have to be able to reset properly on a daily basis.

Otherwise you’ll turn up to work the next time running on fumes.

Works takes away a lot from you; it drains your resources (e.g. energy, mood etc.)

You need to replenish and be able to build up those resources through the right types of activities so that you’ve properly recovered during your free time.

It’s important, not just because recovering from work properly translates into better productivity (at work and at home), but also translates into better psychological health and overall well-being

As recovery becomes increasingly elusive, some become so depleted that they suffer from burnout.

This is the first of a two part series full of practical tips on how to properly recover from work during your free time.

1. Identify activities that replenish your resources

According to Sonnentag (2001), general resource-replenishing activities include:

– Social activities (e.g. meeting up with friends),
– Low-effort activities (e.g. watching TV),
– Physical exercise.

Resource-replenishing activities are called recovery experiences.

Physical exercise is great because it has huge stress-management potential and changes the chemistry of your body, not to mention other help benefits that are worth bearing in mind.

Social activities are great too, although there are notable exceptions when socialising fails.

Resource-replenishing activities can include those that require different sensory activation.

So if you’ve been reading all day at work, try cooking as part of your recovery from the workplace.

If you’ve been staring at a monitor all day, smelling and tasting some good food will surely restore you.

2. Remember what makes a great recovery experience

The best resource-replenishing recovery experiences are those that incorporate the following:

  • Psychological detachment from work 

This means “switching off” and completely forgetting about work during leisure time.

It’s not enough to physically distance yourself from work.

You need to mentally distance yourself in equal measure and think about something else entirely – other than work. 

You can read all about psychological detachment here.

  • Mastery

Mastery can be gained from seeking out and experiencing intellectual or physical challenges; doing something that will broaden your horizons.

This is where low-effort activities fall short. 

There’s no mastery in low-effort activities.

There’s no greater meaning to them, no greater sense of progress or accomplishment.

For me, I gain a sense of mastery from writing this blog, discovering the secrets of human psychology by reading books, or cooking, to name a few examples.

But I also experience mastery in my swimming and cycling, striving to improve every time I hit the pool or hop on the bike.

  • Control

A sense of control (or autonomy) in whatever it is that we do is a fundamental human need. 

We experience a lot of autonomy from deciding our schedule in the sense that we get to choose how we spend our time.

Filling out your taxes after work may theoretically be classified as recovery, but it’s not necessarily something you’d like to be spending your leisure time doing.

In fact, quite often is the case that people procrastinate on filling out their taxes to such an extent that little choice is involved in actually choosing to do this particular activity.

It is a fundamental need to have a choice in what we want to voluntarily spend our leisure time on, a sense of autonomy in choosing what activity we want to participate in.

  • Relaxation

Your activity needs to relax you.

It needs to help you kick back and chill.

Whether this is hitting the pool, reading, or chilling with friends while listening to some tunes, it’s all good if it’s relaxing.

3. Try to avoid low-effort activities if you’re stressed

Low-effort activities aren’t always great for recovery.

If physical activity is the healthy, nutritious meal of all recovery experiences, then you could say that low-effort activities can sometimes be thought of as the junk food of them all.

You might feel you’re recovering while chilling on the sofa, but if you’re still thinking about work or are worrying about a job-related task while doing so – you’re not recovering from the workplace properly.

In such a scenario, you’re still activating the same job-related functional systems and you’re still experiencing prolonged activation – it’s as if you’ve never left the office.

Low-effort activities can backfire on your recovery this way.

Be done with work the moment you are done with it.

Be done when you’re done.

4. Learn to disentangle from worry

Worry is a future-focused emotion.

You think of an uncertain event in the future and imagine the anxiety stemming from an outcome that hasn’t materialised and doesn’t simply exist.

By worrying about a future event, you are not living in the present moment.

Don’t let worry poison your leisure time.

Instead, learn to relate to it differently.

One effective way to do that would be to practice mindfulness so that the worry has less of an impact on you, both emotionally and behaviourally).

“It [mindfulness] is awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of the experience moment-by-moment”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn (2003)

The mindfulness approach encourages people to accept their difficult thoughts and feelings rather than working against them.

“Anxiety is an emotion. It is an emotion that disempowers you and accomplishes nothing. So when you learn how to get into the moment and how to engage in active meditation, you no longer feel anxiety and you get into a state of flow.”

-Mike Cernovich, author of Gorilla Mindset and the popular blog Danger and Play

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, be sure to check out part 2 of this series. Feel free to sign up to the whatmybrosaid email list for more posts like this.

Review: Manage Your Day-to-Day.

Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Focus, Find Your Routine, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind Review

What Manage Your Day-to-Day did for me 

Upon starting whatmybrosaid, I became really interested with the idea of habits, structure, routine, and deep focus. 

I was on the look out for valuable advice and any practical tricks about juggling the various projects and undertakings I had going on.  

I wanted to be the type of person who was able to have multiple projects going on.

I wanted to be the type of person who was getting stuff done and being insanely productive all the while not compromising on time for play.

This book doesn’t offer a productivity system, but it offers valuable insights into the human condition from which these tips and tricks stem from.

And these tips and tricks are pretty universal as they help you tend to various areas of your life without neglecting any. 

It’s the little things.

Like:

Make use of the entire day.

Wake up in the morning.

If you want to improve your creativity, start writing at the beginning of the day.

That context and habits matter – creativity doesn’t just come but it can be elicited (this one was a major thing for me…I even wrote a super popular post about this subject)

Or that energy and willpower are vital things to take into account when planning your workload.

And lots of valuable advice on unplugging and taking the time to recharge so as to restore balance to your life, and why it’s important to find moments of pure solace in the age of hyper connectivity.

The devil really is in the details.

And this book is all about details.

Details that add up to broader picture of overarching success and productivity.

For me it was also a nice bonus that all the book was a joint effort.

That is, different types of writers, from various fields, whether it be from the world of film-making, business, or behavioural economics all used their unique voices and styles to add value to this great book.

By reading so many different, versatile styles, you learn what type of writing you like to read and notice how totally sometimes drastically different styles can still speak to you.

I find this quite cool because you’d have to read a few books in a row to reach a similar conclusion.

What Manage Your Day-to-Day can do for you

This is a playbook of ideas that will help you:

~ Improve your productivity,

~ Tweak your schedule to achieve a better structure in your life,

~ Optimise your work and gain control of your workflow,

~ Create an environment for yourself that would foster creativity,

~ Carve out time and energy for everything you want to do in a day.

On the whole, this little powerful book will give you a huge productivity boost.

It will open your eyes as to just how much you can accomplish in a single day. 

Why Manage Your Day-to-Day works

An impressive list of contributors shared their hard-earned nuggets of wisdom in this little book.

People like Dan Ariely or Scott Belsky who have enjoyed huge successes in their careers offer tips on how to perfect your routine, implement more structure into your life, or improve your creativity.

It’s all trial tested advice.

They are normal people who share many commonalities with you and me but for some reason excel at what they do.

And these reasons are in here.

If you want to be successful, just model success. 

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to the whatmybrosaid email list for more posts like this.

Can a Deadline Be a Lifeline?

Let’s not fool ourselves.

Deadlines help us get work done.

They add pressure, a sense of urgency, and fuel us with stress hormones so that we can rise up to the challenge.

Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen says that constraints such as deadlines, “help us manage our energy and execute ideas.”

“While our creative side intuitively seeks freedom and openness, our productivity desperately requires restrictions (…) Constraints serve as kindling for execution. When you’re not given constraints, you must seek them.”

It’s hard to disagree – you and I both know it’s when we have our backs against the wall that we produce our best work.

The electric guitar, of all things, helps us realise this.

What an electric guitar can teach us about productivity

In Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, designer and typographer Stefan Sagmeister talks about creative constraints and how they can be helpful in getting stuff done.

Here’s Stefan:

“I think that any kind of limitation is useful. Any kind of limitation that is clear, and that’s there from the beginning.

Brian Eno has this wonderful little quote about the electric guitar. He says the electric guitar became the dominant instrument of the twentieth century simply because it’s such a stupid instrument.

It can do so very little.

But it can do a few things very, very well, and therefore it allows human nature to go to the edge of what’s possible.”

Stefan is known for his unorthodox approach to creativity but I think the guitar analogy is pretty poignant, don’t you?

Limitations help us tap into what we’re really good at.

And sometimes, you find yourself in situations where you have no choice but to tapped into that – or else it’s game over.

Death ground

Sun Tzu, the author of “The Art of War” spoke of a death-ground.

He would position armies in situations where they had no choice but to fight for their lives.

They were often placed in trapped areas where they had to muster every ounce of will and courage to fend for themselves and ultimately survive.

They would have to beat the opposing armies or they would be slaughtered.

They had to kill or be killed.

Sun Tzu calls this strategy “death ground”.

Robert Greene, author of Mastery, defines death ground as “any set of circumstances in which you feel enclosed and without options.”

In situations in which you have no options, you summon the very best of your abilities to ensure you get yourself out of the situation.

The intensity of such an experience makes you dig into the deepest corridors of your mind, looking for the best solutions.

Ultimately, when you have no choice but to act – you act.

It’s when we have our back against the wall, when we’re on death-ground that we produce our best work.

What happened in the aftermath of the 2012 earthquake that hit the city of Modena, Italy is a testament to that.

Parmesan Cheese

Factories collapsed.

House were flattened.

Historic structures crashed down.

But the earthquake threatened the entire local economy.

Following the aftermath of the earthquake, a distraught Parmesan producer approached Massimo Bottura, the three-Michelin-star chef of the world renowned restaurant Osteria Francescana, to inform him that the earthquake damaged 360,000 wheels of Parmesan.

The producer stressed that if they didn’t come up with a solution quickly, the damaged wheels of Parmesan would spoil.

Parmesan producers would become bankrupt and many people would lose their jobs.

Livelihoods were at stake.

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 01.02.23.png
Enter a caption

Massimo was determined to find a solution to help the producers sell everything they’d produced.

There was little time and even less room for error.

Massimo had to come up with an idea.

This is how a recipe called Risotto Cacio e Pepe was created – a recipe combining the damaged Parmigiano Reggiano, rice, and the flavours of a classic Roman pasta dish.

People all over the world enjoyed this unconventional meal.

Importantly, Massimo managed to sell all 360,000 wheels while simultaneously raising awareness about the consequences of the earthquake.

Not one person had lost their job and not a single cheese maker had to declare bankruptcy.

Massimo called this a recipe of “social justice.”

When a deadline can be a lifeline

You can do more than you think you can.

You can do more than you think you’re capable of.

But you have to be put under pressure to just funnel all your efforts and channel it into laser focus.

Whether we like it or not, we humans operate best under tight deadlines.

This is what Scott McDowell who runs the consulting and executive search firm CHM Partners writes in Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind:

“Many creative directors, designers, and architects often say their best work stems directly from specific client restrictions. Having a set of parameters puts the brain in problem-solving mode; there’s something to grip.

It may seem counterintuitive, but too big a playing field can muddle the results. Frank Lloyd Wright insisted that constraints historically have resulted in a flowering of the imagination:

‘The human race built most nobly when limitations were greatest and, therefore, when most was required of imagination in order to build at all.’

Whether or not they’re created by an outside client or you yourself, a set of limitations is often the catalyst that sets creativity free.”

What you can do

Throw your dwindling productivity, your fleeting creativity a lifeline.

By using deadlines to your advantage.

Put yourself on death-ground

You act when you have no choice.

Make yourself have no choice.

Schedule immediate deadlines for sooner rather than later

Work towards the immediate checkpoints.

Break the big deadline up into little deadlines.

Break goals into little sub-goals.

By doing this, you are putting yourself into problem solving mode.

Here’s Dr. Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation:

“To get motivated, they [procrastinators] need a clear and close finish line (…); as delay shrinks, motivation peaks. To apply this principles to your life, you need a concrete and exact notion of what needs to be done because vague and abstract goals (such as ‘Do your best!’) rarely lead to anything excellent. The level of detail required differs from person to person but you should be able to sense when you’ve go enough. Goals should have a corporeal rather than an ethereal feel – you should be able to sink your teeth into them. ‘Complete my last will and testament before flying on the 15th’ is an achievable goal. ‘Get my finances together’, not so much. After creating a specific finish line, schedule it soon. You may need to break up a long-term project into a series of smaller steps.

Use focus blocks

If you have large uninterrupted free block of time, you will typically procrastinate until you start feeling guilty or start feeling the pressure – only then you have no choice but to finally begin.

Why not rethink free blocks of time altogether.

The answer: focus blocks.

Can deadlines be a lifeline?

It’s up to you.

 

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

 

7 Quick Tips on How to Improve Your Productivity

Students are beginning their academic years and fresh graduates are starting their new jobs and career paths.

Personality is seasonal and with Autumn fast approaching, you’ll be able to tune into your inner hermit and really maximise the quality of your work, in whatever you do.

To make sure you can tap into your full potential, here are some quick tips on how to increase your productivity – using scientific evidence or otherwise.

Let’s get right down to it.

Change your location often

Changing location of your work or study every now and then not only keeps the mind stimulated, but it keeps things fresh and prevents burnout effects.

As Cal Newport says:

“Disengagement helps refresh your mind & facilitates the process of finding new angles & insights when you begin your work again.” 

Anchor mental and mood states to places

Also, you anchor mental and emotional states to the environments you work in.

Use this to your advantage.

For example, if you go a specific café, set your mind to maximum productivity.

So whenever you go to that café, the place itself will arouse feelings of productivity and the mental and emotional states associated with productivity.

You just have to make that initial link and over time, the association will form.

Your brain is at its most productive between waking and dinner

Upon waking up, your mind is the freshest it can be – technically.

And before eating.

If you eat a big meal, you might get sluggish, you might get sleepy, your motivation may wane etc.

For instance, popular blogger James Clear wakes up, has a big glass of water and works until he gets hungry, usually many hours later. He claims this is when he is at his most productive.

What’s also important to know is that you can only sustain maximum productivity during a 4-hour period, according to author of the Procrastination Equation, Dr. Piers Steel.

Here’s Piers quoted at length to fully illustrate the point:

“You want to tackle it when you have the most zip, and when that is depends upon your circadian rhythm. Some of us are morning larks, relentlessly chipper and active early in the morning, filling gyms in the pre-dawn hours.

Others are night owls, slow starters whose energy levels peak later in the day (…). Whatever your rhythm, schedule that report writing to start a few hours after you wake up; it’s when your mind operates at maximum efficiency, a periods that last about four hours.

If you woke at seven in the morning, for instance, your peak performance likely occurs between ten and two, not really that wide a window. But if you clear your desk, turn off your e-mail and shut your door for those hours, you can get an amazing amount of work done.

You can extend this efficiency phase with a brief nap, twenty minutes or so, but if you’re in an office environment, that’s usually not possible. Still, a quick walk around the block can also refresh you around lunchtime.”

Willpower and creativity

But it’s not just about your mind being fresh in the morning upon waking up, but that’s when your motivational resources are highest as well.

Your willpower is replenished (it is like a muscle, after all).

According to world-famous cartoonist and creator of the comic “Dilbert”, Scott Adams also believes that upon waking up – creativity is at its peak, too.

Fill small patches of free time with productive work if you have a fractured schedule 

A fractured schedule can seem like your productivity’s worst enemy, but it doesn’t have to be.

If you find yourself with a 2-hour window in between commitments or meeting, for example, just schedule a “meeting with yourself” where you can enjoy complete and uniterrupted focus (i.e. a focus block).

Take regular breaks

Regular breaks help maximise your energy and, if you’re a student, helps with retention of material.

Regular breaks are crucial to your productivity.

Mike Cernovich, for example, works in 45-minute bursts sandwiched with regular 10-15 minute breaks.

In his book How to Win at College (which I highly recommend in my review of the book), Cal Newport compiles advice of straight-A students and finds that the most successful students worked for 50 minutes at a time and took 10-15 minute regular breaks.

However, you have to find out what works for you through trial and error. How long can you work at maximum capacity? How long do you need your breaks to be?

It all depends on how you feel. There’s is no magic formula.

For instance, world-renowned copywriter Eugene Schwarz had a regime where he worked for 33 minutes and 33 seconds and would take short breaks.

However long you can work, the common pattern here is that regular breaks are vital.

Do work in isolation

Remember what I said earlier about anchoring mood and mental states to environments?

Well, if you do that with a particular place, whether it be your favourite café or a particular place in the library, working in isolation is the best thing you could do for your productivity.

InHow to Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, Leo Babauta calls these solitude blocks:

“For many people, the best time for solitude is early in the morning. The kids are still sleeping and everything is quiet. I get my best work done then, and the great thing it that nothing comes up that early to disrupt your schedule.”

But there is also a lot of psychology involved in how you actually approach a solitude block. You gear yourself up mentally, motivate yourself, and make an event out of your productivity.

Here’s Cal:

Do no underestimate psychology in becoming an effective student. Every one follows some variant of this isolation strategy. It also increases the importance of the work you are about to tackle.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

How to Schedule Time For Uninterrupted Focus

In an era of constant distraction, it can be difficult to prioritise our responsibilities over short-term, immediate pleasures.

It can be a challenge to deal with important things that are vying for our attention if our focus is always wandering.

But it’s not just focus that we often seem to lack in getting work done.

Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen stresses that “organisation is just as important as ideas when it comes to making an impact.”

In his book, Scott uses a very simple equation to illustrate how crucial organisation is to making an impact through your efforts. The equation is:

Creativity x Organisation = Impact

So let’s imagine a super creative person (creativity  = 100) who struggles to organise himself (organisation = 0) and structure his time to funnel his creativity into something substantial:

100 x 0 = 0

Scott calls this person “someone who has loads of ideas but is so disorganised that no one particular ideas is fully realised.”

Well, let’s consider another person who might not be as creative as the creative genius, but is slightly more organised and can get more things done as a result. The equation looks like so:

50 x 2 = 100

Although this person isn’t as creative, he manages to get some work done and has more of an impact because he is just a little bit more organised than the creative genius mentioned earlier.

7200754980_7e0ecc7d4d_b.jpg
Happiness is…photography via Flickr

Here’s Scott on this:

“a shocking and perhaps unfortunate realisation emerges: someone with average creativity but stellar organisational skills will make a greater impact than the disorganised creative geniuses among us.”

I don’t know about you, but when I first read this I was absolutely blown away as to how crucial a productivity system can be in making your ideas happen.

It’s incredibly sad to think that some creative geniuses out there might not have a process or productivity system that would help them funnel their bursts of creativity and because of this lack of structure, they rarely get their ideas out there.

It’s also quite interesting to begin to think that a lot of the world’s most creative people might not actually be all that creative after all. They might not even be the best the world has to offer.

But they are more organised than the geniuses and that’s why their ideas are out there.

So how can we make sure that we become both a) focused so that we are most efficient in our work, and b) organised enough to make our ideas happen?

The answer is focus blocks.

Schedule blocks of time for uninterrupted focus

Cal Newport describes focus blocks as follows:

“It has you block off a substantial chunk of time, most days of the week, for applying sustained focus to your most important creative tasks.

This scheduling usually happens at the beginning of a new week or at the end of the previous week. The key twists is that you mark this time on your calendar like any other meeting.”

-Cal Newport, in Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind.

Just by actively committing to blocking off an hour or two for uninterrupted focus ahead of time will help you build some structure and focus into your work ethic.

This technique initially requires a little bit of discipline. Anything worthwhile doing in life does. When in these focus blocks, dedicate your undivided attention to the work at hand.

If you get distracted, it’s game over. Cal suggests to cancel your focus block and try again next time.

It’s easy to fall prey to distractions in the moment and to belittle these focus block. But don’t fall into the ‘mindset of the now. You scheduled this focus block with good reason, with a reason to get some quality work done.

What I like about focus blocks is that they are a ‘meeting with myself’ in some sense. This way, whenever I meet someone later who tried to get a hold of me during my focus block, I tell them that I already had a scheduled appointment. More on that here by Cal:

“People are used to the idea that they cannot demand your attention during times when you already have a scheduled appointment.

The focus block technique takes advantage of this understanding to buy you some time for undistracted focus without the need for excessive apology or explanation.”

A focus block doesn’t have to relate only to finishing quality work, though.

For instance, I choose to frame my morning and evening commute to university as a focus block for reading. This why I don’t mind travelling that much.

I get to read a book. It’s a focus block I have dedicated to reading.

Sure, sometimes I can’t focus. Especially on the morning train ride. But I always take a book out and try to read it.

Sometimes I manage to get out of my funk, sometimes I don’t and read only a couple of pages.

Most times though, I get a decent amount of reading done. Thanks to this habit, I manage to finish books that would’ve been otherwise half-read and lying around somewhere in my room for a tiny eternity.

Closing Thoughts

Blocking off time for the specific purpose of dedicating it to uninterrupted focus is an important first step to organising your time for consistent maximum productivity.

But how do you make sure you make the most of your scheduled focus block?

If you want to learn some handy psychological tricks that will help you make the most of your focus blocks you should read this.

But you can’t be productive indefinitely so be mindful of how long you schedule your focus blocks for.

How long should these focus blocks be so that you maximise your productivity? You can read about that here.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more life-optimising stuff.

Review: How To Win At College By Cal Newport

In his incredibly useful book ‘How to win at college‘, Cal Newport gives the aspiring university standout valuable nuggets of advice on how to maximise your potential as a student and make the most of your university experience.

In making this collection of advice, he interviewed top students from various universities across the U.S who were not only academically successful, but also “embodied a unique brand of multi-faceted success.”

That is, students who also took part in exciting projects, built strong friendships, were incredibly active in student societies, and in general achieved in all aspects of the university experience.

win-at-college
via calnewport.com

Going in to my third year it dawned on me that I don’t have much time left. My university experience was coming to a close and so far it had been full of ups and downs, peaks and troughs.

With only one year left, how do I make the most of it?

My sister had read Cal’s other book How to Become a Straight-A Student and says that the strategies in that book defined her last year in high school.

So I set out to read How to Win at College to get my third year off to a flying start and read it in the first week of my third year.

What How To Win At College did for me

“You can step forward into growth or step backwards into safety.”

– Abraham Maslow

Reading this book allowed me to step forward into growth, one nugget of advice at a time. Each chapter gave me actionable advice that would streamline and enhance my university experience.

By reading this advice, I tapped into the collective minds of highly ambitious and successful college students that had most (if not all) of the areas of life handled and under control.

They had their grades sorted. They had their structure and routine down pat. They participated in stimulating extracurricular activities.

Just by reading this book, I tapped into that higher-frequency thinking, in a sense brainwashing myself to think and emulate the thought processes and desire to action of a successful student.

As if by osmosis, I felt I was picking up traits and elements of a successful person’s mindset.

In that sense, How To Win At College has similarities with most autobiographies. When you read an autobiography, you read inspiration.

You prime yourself for self-reflection. You examine your attitudes and strategies, and think about your goals. You appropriate the mindset of a successful person and learn of the processes and rituals that define that person’s success.

Because successful people are a set of processes, habits, and rituals. Just by modelling these processes, you can model success.

But it also resembles a ‘how to’ guide, as the title suggests. It offers actionable advice on how to behave and act like a successful college student.

After all, activity follows identity  – to become a successful student, you have to start acting like one.

Just by taking one piece of advice from the book and acting on it, it started a domino effect for me. I started implementing the nuggets of wisdom. It started a momentous chain of little successes that I continue to enjoy and cannot stop.

For instance, I immediately got more involved with my department. I made it a thing to put myself in situations where I could get to know my professors and build strong relationships with them.

I attended guest lectures where I would meet both new and familiar faces. I met often with my personal tutor.

I created a society and became the club president, enjoying all the awesome experiences that followed from assuming such a role.

Why ‘How To Win At College’ works and what it can do for you

 “If you want to be young and wise, you have to learn from the experience of others.”

Cal interviewed dozens and dozens of high achievers on the key to their success.

From all this qualitative data, he condensed it into 75 chapters. Each chapter contains a little nugget of hard-earned wisdom supported by anecdotal evidence and comments from the students.

Each chapter gives you immediate actionable advice so that you can start enhancing your university experience the moment you put the book down.

To know that it was backed up by college students from across all the top universities in the USA was encouraging. They lived it. That’s why they have all the secrets.

Think of it this way. They’ve finished the ‘university/college’ game you are currently playing. They’ve completed 100% of it, whereas you might have just started it, you’re halfway through, or nearly finished.

To get 100% in the game, you need to find out where all the hidden packages are and where to look for the secret side missions that you need to complete.

If only you knew where to look – it would save so much time and effort!

You can talk to a friend that’s also playing, but you might find that he’s struggling and can’t even get through the main storyline missions.

Or you can look elsewhere for the shortcuts.

This is the book that’s full of them.

Treat this as a checklist of things that you need to follow to maximise what your university experience has to offer. Only through doing and acting on advice can you ever start to see results.

How to Win at College will give you the tools to optimise and enhance your university experience.

The advice in this book was followed by straight-A students that lived through university and made the absolute most of it. They gained this hard-earned advice through trial and error.

After all – how else would you get such time-tested advice?

I’d give this book to anyone I cared enough about that I knew was starting or was already at university.

Closing thoughts

I haven’t lived through my entire university experience yet so naturally I don’t have the perspective that people who have gone through their collegiate career have.

But by being cognisant of the fact that they’ve optimised their experience by following the advice in this book, it has compelled me to follow it and ‘write’ my university experience in a way that I will look back fondly on it.

This book has given me tremendous value.

I think you have to be in a unique position to fully appreciate the wisdom in this book.

Maybe you have to be in a position of desperation to reach for it.

Maybe you finally notice that an interesting phase in your life is coming to a close and you just want to make sure you’ve enjoyed it fully. And made the most of it.

How do you make sure you squeeze the most out of your university experience?

This question is especially key since tuition fees are so astronomical.

I wasn’t given an instruction manual on how to be a great student and neither were you. 

But How To Win At College is a testament to the success of all the straight-A students that gave their two-pence’s worth in creating this book.

You can make it a testament to your success as well.