The magic ingredient to a 4.0 GPA: The 50/10 Rule

20 June 2011 § Leave a comment

iPhone timer

There is one rule that I absolutely must follow in order to be productive on pretty much anything: work for fifty minutes; rest for ten minutes. I consider it the single most important tool for my academic success so far.

Never just work until you feel like taking a break.

No matter how enthusiastic you are about your organic chemistry textbook, working until you feel burnt out is like sprinting for the first five miles of a marathon: you won’t feel like doing the next 21.2 miles.

The harder you work (read: the more frantically you highlight your textbook), the more you’ll think you deserve a really big break once you get tired. Before you know it, it’s 2 AM and you’ve conked out on the futon, with the first thirty pages of your textbook painted bright yellow and the rest undisturbed.

The 50/10 Rule is the most effective way of combating this problem.

When you work according to The 50/10 Rule, there’s no grey area for getting your work done. Fifty minutes is a manageable amount of time for uninterrupted work, and a ten-minute break is enough to recharge your productivity muscle.

I have found five enormous benefits of using The 50/10 Rule.

1. Stamina/Naturalization: The thought of six straight hours of homework makes me want to vomit. Fifty minutes of work, on the other hand, is less than an episode of Top Gear (or Lost, or whatever hour-long television show you like). Similarly, I could devour six episodes of Top Gear, but what kind of psycho would sit through a single six-hour episode? Your anxiety about large tasks will subside. Plus, after you’ve used The 50/10 Rule for a few weeks, you’ll notice that you become really good at focussing for fifty minutes. You will also notice that many tasks, magically, start to take you exactly fifty minutes to complete.

2. Focus: If the clock is ticking during a fifty-minute work cycle, you can’t do anything else. Don’t text—in fact, make it so you can’t see or hear your cell phone. Don’t let anyone or anything disturb you. If you’re in a fifty-minute cycle, you are either working, making a note of something you’ll do or think about after you’re done, or using the restroom. Nothing else. This may sound constricting, but by taking The 50/10 Rule seriously, the benefits will amaze you.

3. Side-productivity: You’re welcome to do anything you want on your 10-minute break. Eat a block of cheese. Watch cute cat videos. Or you turn that time into an opportunity to do things you’ve always wanted to do but can never seem to get around to doing. Isn’t it impressive when someone is both a Professor of Law at Yale and a best-selling novelist? 10-minute breaks are the hidden time in your day to finally read War and Peace, work your way up to 100 push-ups, or practice your favorite musical instrument. If you do six 50/10 cycles, that’s an hour of side-productivity, with zero cost to the primary work you’re accomplishing.

4. Progress-tracking: When you follow The 50/10 Rule, you know exactly how many hours you spent on a given task. You don’t have to fool yourself by exaggerating to friends. I recommend that you keep a log of this in a dedicated notebook on your desk.

5. Mastery: I want to become masterful at philosophy. I want to be really, really good at it and know as much as I can about it. This should take me about 10,000 hours. Using The 50/10 Rule, I can look back on a given school semester and find out exactly how many hours I spent 100% focussed on philosophy. I’ve got a while to go.

My use and application of this rule is inspired by Cal Newport’s book as well as the idea behind the Pomodoro Technique.


Couch-Leisure and Fulfillment-Leisure

18 June 2011 § 1 Comment

The word ‘leisure’ should not make you think of a sedentary mush wasting her time. It should make you think of a happy and wise person using her time for something intrinsically worthwhile. The lazy person on a couch wasting time online or idly eating potato chips is not really at leisure.

Why does it matter what I do in my free time?

Take an example from the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. Phil, the main character played by Murray, wakes up every day to find that it’s the same day—Groundhog Day. He is “trapped” in Groundhog Day, experiencing the exact same thing every single day, until Rita (Andie MacDowell) convinces him to use the time to his advantage.

Phil is miserable before he starts using his time wisely. He tries to kill himself multiple times, he eats entire tables full of junk food, and he is tortured by his job. But when he begins learning Italian, playing the piano, and ice sculpting, he breaks free of the trap.

Phil starts doing real leisure activities. These activities are fulfilling, enjoyable, and intrinsically worthwhile, and they positively affect his character.

Time-wasting is an instrument

You will not be alive for very much longer. And while the next five years may seem like they’ll pass slowly, at the end of that five years, I am confident that they will seem to have passed in an instant.

So when they have passed, what do I want to have accomplished? Well, a bunch of leisure activities: writing, bicycling, playing the drums, and reading.

I’d be lying if I said I won’t waste time in the next five years. I’ll waste lots of time, because that’s human nature: we need distractions, breaks, and rest (read: we need to sit on the couch once in a while). But my goal is to treat couch-leisure as an instrument. I will use it so that I can do fulfilling leisure activities without burning out.

Identify what’s intrinsically worthwhile in your life

Fulfillment-leisure, on the other hand, is not a way of accomplishing anything else. It’s the stuff in life that makes you feel alive, connected with the world, with your own mind, and with other people. It is good all by itself. For that reason, to the greatest extent possible, identify the leisure activities you find fulfilling and start doing them.

Leisure is a time for life, not laziness.

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