Tag Archives: lifehacks

Daily routines

John Cook shared this interesting article on Twitter the other day. It lists 25 great thinkers and their daily rituals. This got me thinking about my daily routine, the little rituals that I observe, and how the rhythms of a routine help me find balance, stability, and productivity in my life and work. I’ve seen the value of a routine through my kids (ages 6, 4, and 1), who early on needed routines to help them learn day from night and know when to eat and nap, and who still need to stick to a routine or else become incorrigible.

While having three kids this young makes routines and rituals more a matter of probability than anything and routines hard to follow, there are a few rituals I like to keep around no matter what happens:

  • I get up at 5:00, and from 5:30-6:15 I do Matins from the Treasury of Daily Prayer, eat breakfast, and get all the stuff the kids need for school that day assembled and ready to go. Then I get the kids up (if they aren’t awake early, as is all too often the case) and we’re out the door for school by 7:15.
  • I try to get to the office by 8:00 or a little after and reply to messages for no more than a half hour. Anything messages I don’t get to wait till the afternoon or later. I don’t even use Entourage or a “push” email client; I use the web access to our email server so that I’m only alerted to new messages when I ask it to alert me.
  • On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I try to take 8:30-9:30 and do something scholarly and/or creative. This might be working on a computer program, watching part of a video from MIT OpenCourseware or iTunesU, reading a journal article, working on a blog post, or the like. When I first became a professor I was instructed that I needed to find large chunks of time in which to do research, but this approach simply hasn’t worked for me. Instead, I try to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook,  shoehorning intellectual work into my busy schedule one 30- or 60-minute segment at a time.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually don’t teach at all (it’s a feature of my college’s scheduling). So I give myself until 10:00 to do my GTD Weekly Review. Then I take the entire remainder of the day and try to get every single course I teach fully prepped through the following Tuesday. That way there is no preparation work to be done through the week, and all I have to do is pull out my materials and walk to class when it’s time. This doesn’t always work, but no ritual works all the time, so I don’t let it bother me as long as I am prepared for at least tomorrow’s classes.
  • I almost always make dinner for the family, and I eat with them and then play games or horse around or what-have-you until it’s bedtime for the kids, which is 7:30-8:00 at our place.
  • From 8:30-9:30, I like to spend time walking on the treadmill while I am watching a course video from iTunesU on the iPod Touch. (Right now I’m doing Gil Strang’s linear algebra course at MIT; also on my “course schedule” is an intro biology course at UC-Berkeley and a basic statistics course from a community college.) I do that 3-4 nights a week. On the other nights I will try to practice my bass guitar (through headphones, of course), work on blog posts, or something else fun.
  • I always read in bed until I fall asleep, usually by 11:00 PM.

And I try extremely hard never to bring work home — no grading at nights or on the weekends for me unless it’s crunch time. This is a commitment I made to myself and to the family early on. I eventually became a GTD disciple precisely because I’ve found that particular approach to work to be very amenable to a satisfying family life, uninterrupted by work tasks that could (should) have gotten done earlier had I been more focused.

Now it’s your turn. What are your daily routines and rituals? How do they make you happy and productive?

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Filed under Family, GTD, Life in academia, Personal, Profhacks, Vocation

Monday GTD moment: Handling grading in GTD

This is the second installment of Monday GTD Moment, where I take a post to blog about Getting Things Done and how it applies in an academic setting. Here’s the first post. If you’re unfamiliar with GTD, here’s a good overview, and make sure to read David Allen’s book that started it all.

It’s week 5 of the semester for us, which is crunch time for students — and professors. This is the time of the semester when everybody has tests and papers all due, usually on the same day, which means there’s lots of grading. I don’t like grading, but it has to be done. And if I treat grading lightly or let it pile up, I will make mistakes when I grade and students won’t get the feedback they need to improve in a timely way. As an academic type, grading is one of the most important, difficult, and time-consuming features of my job and therefore requires careful management. But it doesn’t fit neatly within the GTD framework which I use semi-religiously to handle all my other productivity issues. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned that have helped me use GTD to be a better grader.

1. Grading is its own separate context. This is not canonical GTD doctrine. In David Allen’s book, contexts refer to physical locations or tools that you have on hand, such as @home, @phone, and @errand. Contexts are about where you are or what you have available to work with. But I’ve found that, unlike in the business world, in the academic world there are not only contexts for locations and tools but also activities where I have to be in a certain “place” in a mental sense to get them done. Grading is one of those contexts. I can grade basically anywhere and I don’t always need particular tools to do it, but I do need to be in a particular state of mind to grade. And while I am grading (and even for a few minutes after I am done grading) I can’t easily switch gears — much the same as if I were running an errand or talking on the phone. Also, and importantly, I’ve found that if I try to shoehorn my grading into a typical place/tool context like @macbook or @office, grading tasks get put into the same place as non-grading tasks, and guess what kind of task would usually win my attention? Having an @grading context helps me to maintain my focus regardless of location or tool needed. When I have some time and space to grade, I focus in only on the tasks under @grading without interference from stuff that is not grading (unless I choose to look at multiple contexts at once).

2. Most grading “tasks” are really projects.
One of the main problems I had early in my career with grading was that when confronted with a grading task, like “Grade Calculus test 1”, it took so long to get it done that it became demoralizing even to think about it, and so I’d shelve it and procrastinate. What I learned through GTD is the crucial definition of the project: A project is a thing that needs to get done but which requires more than one physical action to complete it. That’s all. Nothing more. Projects are not always highly complex long-term constructions — making a peanut butter sandwich is technically a project. Upon adopting this wide-open criterion for projects, I realized that the reason it’s easy to get demoralized by the sheer quantity of grading is that we think of grading a test as a task, when in fact it’s a whole lot of tasks all related to the same thing that needs to get done. As David Allen says, you cannot “do” a project. You can only “do” a physical action. So where a prof can get discouraged by looking at the one “task” of grading a calculus test because it takes hours and hours of work, by seeing one’s progress through the various tasks of the project (Grade problem 1, grade problem 2, etc.) you can feel, rightly, like there’s stuff getting done and you can see your progress. This is just an extension of what we math profs always tell students: When you have a difficult problem in front of you, break it down into manageable parts that you can do, and then do the first one.

3. Grading tasks have to be broken down into granular tasks — but not too granular. There’s a question related to what I just wrote in (2): What exactly is a single, physical action when it comes to grading? It’s possible to be too granular in breaking a project down into tasks. For example, if I took my calculus test and broke it way down into tasks — Grade Alice’s problem 1(a), Grade Bob’s problem 1(a), and so on throughout all my students’ work on problem 1(a) in all my sections of calculus and then throughout the entire test — then the list of tasks is so detailed that it takes longer to enter it than it does to actually do the tasks. But we do need to break projects down into their constituent tasks, so some happy medium needs to be found. For me, the middle ground is to consider the grading of one section’s worth of papers on one problem — or perhaps one page of an exam — as a “task”. So “Grade Calculus Test 1” would go in as a project, and the tasks in this project might be “Grade Section A page 1”, “Grade Section B page 1”, “Grade Section A page 2”, and so on. And of course these are all filed under the @grading context (unless there is a good reason not to, for instance if grading requires the use of a computer).

Here’s what it looks like right now in my system for one particular item, the Quarter-Term Exam for my calculus classes:

The A and B refer to the sections I teach. As you can see, I still have a way to go. But because I am conceiving of grading this exam as a project rather than as a single monolithic task, I can at least feel good about the fact that I got page 1 graded for both sections, and I have a reasonable quantified sense of how much longer I have to go. So I don’t get discouraged. (Or if I do, it’s because of what I see when I grade, not because of the grading itself!)

Have a productive week, and don’t let the stacks of papers get you down!

[Photo by wudzy]

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Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Profhacks, Weekly features

Beating bad study habits in 2008

Happy New Year to all of you out there. For those of you about to start back to school (I don’t until February thanks to our January Term), Study Hacks has five bad study habits to swear off in 2008. Here’s a clip from the first one, which is “Studying Without a Plan”:

Do you still use “study” as a specific verb? For example, as in: “I’m going to go study, see you in 12 hours.” If so, you’re in trouble. “Study” is ambiguous. No one can “study.” What they can do is specific review activities, such as “convert first month of lecture notes into question/evidence/conclusion format,” or “quiz and recall study guides 1 to 3.”

I can’t recall the number of times a student has come to the office, having done poorly on a test or other assessment, and plaintively says “…but I STUDIED!” To which I reply, “OK, so tell me what you did.” And there’s often a stunned silence — because to those students, “studying” means something very passive and unintentional. Students — and teachers, who should be helping students learn the right ways to “study” — would do much better to provide concrete overall goals for learning, broken down into doable, concrete tasks.The other four are Skipping Class, Using Rote Review, Studying After Midnight, and Not Taking Notes on Your Reading. Go read it all.

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Filed under Education, Student culture, Study hacks, Teaching

How to take a final exam (part 2)

74907741_c2d59deb64_m.jpgThis is the second and final (pardon the pun) article in a brief series about how to prepare for and take final exams. Here, I presented some strategies for getting ready for the final exam. And here, we saw some strategies for the time leading up to the final exam and into the first five minutes of the exam.

The first moments of a final exam are like the Big Bang — there’s lots that happens in those first few moments, and then for the remainder of the time things proceed at what we hope to be an orderly, even pace. Let’s talk now about those 115-or-so minutes that remain in the exam after the “big bang” of the first few minutes.

First: Watch the clock and stick to your time budget. I’ve mentioned how important it is to set up a quick time budget at the beginning of the exam, for example by dividing the number of minutes you have in the exam period by the point value of the exam and using that ratio to determine how much time to spend on each problem. Having done this, it’s very important to manage your time and not deviate too much from the budget. Ideally you will want to come in under the allotted time values for several of the problems so you can build up a “credit” in your time “account” as you work, which you can then “spend” on problems that turn out to be tougher than they looked. Time is a resource that is scarce, and like any scarce resource you have to budget it and manage it within the constraints of your situation, or else you’ll find it’s all gone precisely when you need it the most.

The biggest mistake I see students make apart from not budgeting their time at the beginning of the exam is simply not taking care to watch their time at all, or even to bring a watch or clock to the exam in the first place. How can you manage your time if you don’t even have a way to measure it? And don’t depend on the clock in the classroom; those somehow seem to stop working or run fast or slow just as finals week starts.

Second: Don’t waste time. As a corollary to the point above, you have to act within the exam period in an efficient way. For example, recently when giving an exam I started the exam period out by giving out some precise instructions about a particular problem on the exam, just before starting the clock. Then, about 20 minutes into the exam, a student walked all the way from the back of the room to where I was sitting and asked me, “You said ___ about this problem, right?”, wanting me to repeat my instructions. That’s 90 seconds of the exam period he will not be getting back. Maybe he’ll finish 10 minutes early and it won’t matter. But I’ve seen a of students who desperately need 2 more minutes at the end of the exam period.

And when you approach a problem, your preparation for the exam needs to be such that most of the basic mechanics of each problem are second nature to you and require little to no thinking. Calculus exams are full of these kinds of problems — there are some concepts that students must think through to set the problem up correctly and then a whole lot of derivative-taking and algebra. The latter — the mechanical stuff — needs to be so finely honed through repeated practice that these take no more time than it takes to write. The real time to be spent is in thinking through the concepts. Sadly, though, many students don’t prepare this way and end up wasting time on simple mechanics that should have become almost habitual by now.

Third: Don’t necessarily stick to working in a linear fashion. Just because the problems are numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. on an exam doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work each one in order. If you’ve done a decent job in your fly-through stage, you will know the locations of each kind of problem on the exam and can go right to the ones with the biggest point values and therefore the biggest impact on your time budget if needed. I’ve seen students get hung up on a tough problem that is numbered, say, #5 out of 10 exam problems; numbers 7 and 10 are a lot easier and well within the student’s grasp; but because the student got hung up, didn’t watch his/her time, and didn’t think to skip a problem and move on to the easier ones, s/he lost a lot more points on the exam than they needed to. Speaking of skipping problems…

Fourth: Don’t be afraid to cut your losses. Sometimes no amount of preparation will prevent an inexplicable brain fart in the middle of an exam. Every student has had this experience. You get to that problem and just can get no traction on it, no matter what. The thing to do here is know how many minutes you have in the time budget for that problem and how much time is remaining; and if you find yourself running out of time budgeted for that problem, you have to be ready to ditch it and move on, possibly never to return to it.

peyton-manning.jpgIt’s roughly analogous to when a quarterback is in a third-and-long situation and has dropped back in the pocket to throw, and none of the receivers is open and the defensive linemen are bearing down on him. There are two options: get rid of the ball and punt on fourth down, or take the sack and punt on fourth down. Either way it’s fourth down. The rational thing to do is not give up any field position than is necessary. Likewise, the rational thing to do is save your budgeted time for problems appearing elsewhere in the exam that are more doable (and you know where those are because you’ve done a fly-through!). And who knows, perhaps in taking your mind off the troublesome problem, the solution will come to you.

Fifth: Leave nothing blank. But if you have to cut your losses on a problem, don’t just abandon it. Professors are not grading for answers but for sound thought processes. Therefore, the very least you should do on any problem is address the following: What is given? What’s the unknown? What data am I given? What ideas or concepts have I learned that could possibly connect the data and the given with the unknown? Where have I seen a problem like this before and what happened then? What would I do if I could just get unstuck? This way, you are demonstrating that, for example, even though you have blanked out on the Chain Rule, you at least understand that you are supposed to take the derivative, set it equal to zero, solve the equation, and test the results for relative extrema. Personally, I’d give a whole lot of partial credit to a student who gets turned around on the mechanics but has a very solid grasp of the idea and process.

Sixth: Budget 10 minutes for wrapping up. Endgame strategy is very important. You want to take some time, if possible, to spend at the end of the exam going through your work and making sure you have gotten the right idea on everything, and especially that you haven’t made a technical mistake such as leaving out a part of a problem or forgetting to circle your answer or the like. I would advise against making changes to your actual work unless you have verified that you made a mistake on something. It’s too easy, in the mental haze that follows a final exam, to second-guess a correct solution and start twiddling with work that is perfectly fine. Your wrap-up ought to have the same flavor as your fly-through — it’s to be done on the “macro” and not the “micro” level.

Then, before you know it, you’re done! Go out and celebrate your accomplishment and relax. That is, until your next final, which is at 2:00 the same day….

[Topmost photo by dcJohn.]


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How to take a final exam (part 1)

scream.jpgOn Wednesday I posted about how to prepare for final exams. It seems only fitting that I should talk about what happens after the preparation is over. So visualize yourself as having done all that preparation, gotten a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast (and had some chocolate, as some of the commenters suggested). Now it’s time to go get it done.

I’ve been teaching professionally for ten years and spent four years in college and five years in graduate school prior to that, and I like to think that I’ve basically seen it all when it comes to exams. Here’s some advice I’ve gleaned from my experiences on how to actually take exams effectively. I’m gearing my remarks primarily towards finals in mathematics, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. But I think these also transfer reasonably well to other disciplines.

And in this article, I’ll focus on the final exam up through the first five minutes of the exam period. There’s almost as much going on from a strategic standpoint in the first five minutes of an exam as there is for the remaining 115 minutes.

First of all, you need to have all the proper gear for the final. Here is what I suggest:

  • Writing implement of choice + backups. Experiment with a pen or pencil until you find one you’re really comfortable with. I remember once in college, taking an all-essay English final with a Bic ballpoint I found on the floor, because I’d left my pens back in the dorm. My carpals still ache.
  • Calculator + backup batteries. A solar calculator is even better.
  • 8.5 x 11 paper for scratch work. A cost-effective approach to obtaining large amounts of scratch paper is to buy a single ream of plain, store-brand copy paper at a big-box office supply store or at Wal-Mart. A ream of 500 sheets of this kind of paper at Office Depot will cost you $4.49, which is chump change. A carton of 10 reams is just $32.99, so consider going in on one with nine classmates.
  • 3 x 5 notecards. You should have notecards everywhere just on general principle, but they come in especially handy when preparing for exams and taking them (see below). They’re cheap, even cheaper when you buy in bulk.
  • Some kind of accurate timekeeping device, like a watch or a cell phone. Do not ever take a timed test or exam without one! Keeping track of time is essential in any timed assessment. Be aware that more and more colleges are banning cell phones from tests and exams because of the potential for cheating, so make sure you know the rules about these. It wouldn’t be good to show up intending to use your cell phone to watch the time, only to find out it’s illegal.
  • Anything else permitted by your instructor.

Show up to the exam room 10-15 minutes before the exam begins. Find a comfortable seat — your usual seat from the class meetings, if possible — and arrange your stuff so that it is all easily accessible.

At some point, the professor or proctor will begin the exam period, usually with some remarks. LISTEN to these remarks. Often these are just boilerplate announcements about how long the exam period is and so on, but sometimes there is crucial information about typographical errors and other things which require your attention. I’ve seen students fail exams because they didn’t correct a typo that I took great pains to announce clearly at the beginning of an exam.

Then the exam will be handed out. Put your name on it and date it. And especially check to see if there is any auxiliary materials for the exam being passed out — handouts with formulas or statistical tables or what have you. Arrange these materials front-and-center on your desk.

Then, at last, the exam is handed out and the clock is started. Let’s do this thing!

Step 1: Brain dump. In the first 90 seconds of the exam period, do a complete brain dump of any important information that you will need for the exam which is not printed on the exam itself and which is not firmly in your memory. Do not even so much as peek at the contents of the exam until you’ve dumped all your info into a designated place. You want to do this first thing, because very simply, you can’t trust your memory to work at 100% efficiency when the huge cognitive demands of an exam are being placed on it as well. Once the information is out of your head, you don’t have to worry about remembering it. Spend the cognitive energy on the exam problems instead. (GTD‘ers know what I’m saying here.)

An ideal place to do your info dump is on one of your 3×5 notecards. You can dump all those formulas and whatnot onto a card and then move it with you as you work through the exam. (I’ve seen a lot of students do their brain dumps on the first page of the exam, but then you have to keep flipping to that page. The time spent doing so really adds up.) Inform your professor or whomever is proctoring the exam that you are going to do this, prior to the exam. Otherwise it looks very much like you brought in cheat notes.

Step 2: Fly-through. Having done your brain dump, now spend at most three minutes doing a front-to-back fly-through of the entire exam. You want to accomplish two things here. First, you want to map out the overall content and organization of the exam. Second, while mapping the exam out, you want to gain a sense of where you are likely going to need the most time or energy. You only have a finite amount of time, usually two hours, to complete an exam, and it’s crucial to have a sense of what is located where. You don’t want to sink a ton of time into a subjective short-essay question on page 2 when you know there is a difficult calculation problem coming up on page 3 that will be much more demanding.

Step 3: Time budget. Now that you’ve cleared your RAM by dumping your brain onto a 3×5 card and you have a sense of the content and layout of the exam, do a quick calculation of the average amount of time you should spend on each thing. For example, if you are working an exam with 10 problems and you have two hours in which to do it then you should plan on spending about 12 minutes per problem. You can round that down to 10 minutes per problem if you want to be conservative about it. Some problems will take less time. But problems should not — cannot — take more time than this on a consistent basis. Every time you go over that average time value on a problem, that time has to come out of some other problem. So this average is a critical number to know — it will tell you at what point you need to put a problem down and either come back to it later or else cut your losses on it and move on.

This simple averaging is a little harder to do if there are different kinds of questions on the exam — for example, multiple choice as well as problems as well as essays. So an alternate approach would be to take the amount of time you have to work with and divide by the total number of points on the exam, which will give you a conversion factor for converting point values into time values. For example, if the exam is worth 150 points and you have two hours = 120 minutes, that comes out to 120/150 = 0.8 minutes per point. Then just multiply the point value of a item by this number to see how much time you should budget for it. You should budget 8 minutes for a 10-point problem on that exam, for instance, and 1.6 minutes — about a minute and a half — for a simple 2-point item like a multiple choice question.

Steps 1-3 should take no more than five minutes. In some cases, the professor/proctor might even let you do these stages before the official exam period starts, as long as s/he knows you are not actually working on the exam. You could always ask the prof to see if you could do these Steps early; the worst they could say is “no”.

In part 2, I will focus on strategies for the rest of the exam period as well as how to complete the exam.


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How to prepare for final exams


Update 2: There’s a sequel to this article on How to Take a Final Exam.  

Update: Welcome, RateYourStudents readers! If you like this article, be sure to check out my Top 12 Posts list for a further sample.

Posting has been light around here because it’sthe last week of classes, and the run-up to final exams has begun in earnest. This morning I talked with my precalculus class — all freshmen, many of them first-generation college students, about to experience their first real college final exam — about getting ready for our final, which is coming up Monday morning at 8:00 AM. There was the usual discussion of topics, suggestions for review exercises, and so on. But I also included a discussion of the aspects of preparing for a final exam that don’t have to do with the class itself.

I think this aspect of preparing for finals is crucially important and rarely treated with the seriousness it deserves. As I told the students, what good does it do you to study hard and prepare well if you end up oversleeping and missing all or part of the exam, or stay up the whole night before and aren’t at peak condition?

So here are some of the suggestions I gave them:

  • When it comes to studying, start early and start small. Begin reviewing several days out from the final exam and do only short reviews that are meant to refamiliarize you with material you haven’t seen in a while. This is the studying analogue of skimming a book before you read it, or putting primer down on a wall you are going to paint before you paint it. It takes time and a somewhat gentle touch to get your brain ready to assimilate and recall all the stuff it will need to.
  • As you move closer to the final, increase the length and depth of your review. Ramp yourself up into a rigorous review of material gradually but intentionally. By 3-4 days before the final, you ought to be spending significant amounts of time doing significant things each day.
  • The point of reviewing for a final is to see if you understand the key concepts of the course. But how do you know when you understand them? The answer is found out by doing things. If your professor textbook has not already done so for you, phrase each concept that might appear on the final exam in terms of an action verb. For example, it’s not enough in a calculus class to say “Understand the Chain Rule”. Rephrase this as “Calculate derivatives of a function using the Chain Rule”. If you can do that task repeatedly, with confidence and correctness and not a lot of effort, you’re ready.
  • A very important point: The evening before the exam, stop studying. You’re not going to add much to your knowledge that you haven’t done already (assuming you’ve followed my advice above). Also, just like an athlete preparing for a game needs to stop practicing at some point in order to be mentally prepared and relaxed, you need to give your brain a break so that when you hit the exam, you’ll be fresh.
  • The night before the exam, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a good breakfast the morning of the exam. Your brain is part of your body. If your body is strung out from lack of sleep and from having no food (or bad food), then your brain will suffer.
  • Finally, set up multiple redundant alarm systems so that you will be sure to wake up on time for the exam. How many times have I seen students oversleep and miss part or all of an exam? This is totally unnecessary. You probably already have an alarm clock; let that be your primary alarm system. Then, find a secondary alarm that is not part of the same infrastructural system as the primary. For example, if your primary alarm plugs into the wall, get a secondary one that doesn’t. A very good choice for a secondary alarm is your cell phone; figure out how to use the alarm or wakeup call feature of your cell phone and make sure you charge it up the night before the exam. Set the secondary alarm for 5-10 minutes past the primary. Then, set up a tertiary alarm system that is independent of both the primary and secondary. For example, you could ask your mom or dad to give you a call 30 minutes after your primary alarm is set to go off. Or, you could find an alarm clock program for your computer. Or you could even consider wakeup call services such as Telepixie (free) or Snoozester ($3.99/month, and you could cancel after the first month). It’s highly unlikely that a three-level redundant plan for getting a wakeup call at the right time will fail completely to the point that you miss the exam, and it’s easy to make such a thing happen.

I asked my students to visualize themselves coming in to the exam on Monday fully rested, physically and mentally alert, confident that they’d prepared well based on the evidence of correctly-solved problems, and on time and ready to go for the exam. Then I asked them to visualize themselves showing up late, or tired, or hungry, or ill-prepared. Then I asked them which vision they liked better — you know which one they picked — and whether it would be worth the work.

Got any other suggestions? Leave them in the comments.


Filed under Education, Higher ed, Student culture, Teaching