Book Challenge: How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

Procrastination is the bane of most people’s existence.  It steals our time, our sanity, and our peace.  There are times it is the proverbial monkey on my back; those days when the lab notebooks get a bit of fresh air by taking a ride in the back of the car.  This is probably why I can both relate to and remonstrate about it with my students.


It is not surprising, then, this is a major theme of How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport.  Yet, it is so much more than ‘don’t procrastinate.’  It embodies the Russian proverb, “If you don’t have time to do it right, you must have time to do it over.”  All the advice in this sort-of-how-to guide is about efficacy of work habits, providing the

“key to improving your grades without becoming a grind.”

This is really the point of the book: study smarter, not harder.  Mr. Newport provides his and numerous straight-A students’ empirically based advice geared towards providing balance to the college life (work hard, play hard, sleep hard.)

While I no longer need to make A’s, the questions arises about my interest in this particular tomb (all 170+ pages).  The books I’ve listed and sort of reviewed are squarely in the science-y camp (technical term I’m sure).  Frankly, my curiosity was piqued because

  • I have been reading Study Hacks;
  • and my students suffer from the study hard philosophy.

For my students:  Obviously, the freedom of the schedule discussed in the book, looks nothing like a typical high school student’s, but there is plenty they can do.  First, the to-do/reminders list.  The whole idea of writing stuff down so you don’t have to remember…it’s so true that it frees your brain.  Plus, having a list of items that have to be done today, assigned to a time, is also helpful.  This is especially so for long term assignments/projects.  Planning a month of work by breaking it into smaller, do-able chunks is a basis of goal attainment.  The thing I have to say I love the most, though, is the procrastination documentation journal (not exactly his phrase, but the reason it exists).  Forcing students to really ‘justify’ exactly why they did not finish something on the to-do list is huge.  There are two advantages.  First, as Newport and the other students state (emphatically), there is something about having to write down weak excuses as the reason for not doing what you should do.  Second, I think it will force a reality check on time by eliminating the stress of an overblown to do list.  The to do list becomes what must be and can be done.  Nothing more.  It’s not supposed to contain everything.  It is about being realistic, focused and eliminating pseudowork as Newport writes often.  Lastly, I’ll be able to offer all the graduating seniors I see, with a straight face, a bit of hope.

What surprised me the most though is how much of his advice for college students I needed to take.  I know my life is out of balance.  I had become myopic about the necessity of my daily grind.  I blamed the new schedule; I blamed the loss of planning/preparation time; I blamed the wrong ‘people.’  It’s ultimately my choices and my falling into Newport’s pseudowork that is really to blame.  Planning is not optional.  Well, duh?  I intend to now follow some of the same advice I’ll be giving my students.

One thing’s for sure, I’ll continue my foray into young Cal Newport’s ideas via his blog and other books (How to Be a High School Superstar will be next) and recommend this one to any one interested in working hard, playing hard, and sleeping, too.


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