Working out a System


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When I first came into MIT, I did very poorly. I wrote about this in Learning to Learn at MIT.

However, since then I’ve figured out how to lean and study efficiently. This semester (junior fall) I am registered for 7 classes (81 units) and doing ok. In fact, my GPA has been climbing as I’ve been taking more classes. How do I do it? I’ve worked out a way to schedule my work and focus on learning. I’ve done it by setting up policies and procedures for handling work. More than a routine – I’ve worked out what works best more me. This lets me get things done the most efficiently and I don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time.


Broad Skills

I am always thinking about where my time is going. I notice how long how I work on something. Then I think how I could do the things more effectively or more efficiently. You should notice what you are doing and think about what works best. It’s hard to improve something you don’t measure. For example, for my time management system, I glance at the clock to look how long something took me. As I work I keep a OneNote sheet open where I make notes about what I am working on. I can then go back and see how long each thing took me. The tracking is not as important as is being aware of what you are doing.

Time Management

A Typical Week

This system came from thinking about my every minute (actually 5 minute blocks) and thinking about how to spend my time. I look at how long each action takes. For example, printing something at an Athena printer at MIT takes 15 minutes minimum. Meanwhile, printing something out on the Baker printer takes 5 minutes. Having a printer in your room takes 1 minute.

Going somewhere takes a very long time. By the time you are out of a building and across campus it can take 10-15 minutes. Add in the time to walk back, this can really eat into your time. I try to reduce travel time as much as possible.

Some things are best done in some times slots and other things are best done in other time slots. For example, the best times to study or concentrate for long periods of time are on weekends, when I am more relaxed and have more time to work on stuff. Thus, I like to do studying or big projects on a weekend. Meanwhile, when I am worn out I can only do things I don’t have to think too much about – like some essays or coding P-Sets.

Blocks of time really limits your flexibility. Because I don't like starting something I can not finish, I might not start something in the 30 minutes before a block. The block forces me to schedule around it - it's annoying. I don't like large blocks of free time punctuated by an appointment.

I only want to start something when i know I can finish it. I really dislike free hour blocks between classes. I've never managed to get much work done in those blocks. I don't want to get started because it feels like I will just have to stop again soon. This is something I can work on more.

Getting started on a project takes a lot of overhead. It takes you 5 minutes to refocus on something you were deeply concentrating on when you get distracted. I try never to check my phone during class. I have found that you often miss so much that it is not worth it. Your emails will be waiting for you afterwards. I need to get better at this, however. On my computer, I have email alerts turned off. I don't want to be interrupted by the constant stream of incoming emails. Most of those emails can be answered later.

In addition, getting started is often the hardest part. Once you get started doing something, you start concentrating on it and losing track of time. This is a good thing. You are getting things done and not watching the clock every minute.

Getting started when you are really tired is often hard to do. But you need to just start. MIT is like bootcamp for your brain. Some days you are at your limits, but you need to push yourself to do a bit more. In most cases you can do it, unless it is something that requires a lot of concentration.

I’ve found its best to learn as you go. Studying before the test is a recipe for disaster. You often don’t have any resources you can turn to, to answer your questions. In addition, it’s way too much to learn. You need to be doing the reading, thinking about the material during lecture, asking questions in recitation. If you get into the habit of doing that, you won’t have much trouble studying for an exam.

I go to every lecture and recitation. Period. I do this for several reasons. First, I think I am a visual learner, so seeing the work done live is much better than reading a book. Second, most MIT lectures are well put together; they are a jam-packed never-stop-writing fire hose of information. There is no more efficient way to get that information. Third, the lectures force me to keep up to date. What I found the second half of freshmen year is that you need to be prepared for every class. Every time. Every day before I go to bed I go over my schedule for the next day. I make sure that I did the reading, the homework, and packed the right resources for the next day. Sometimes you can go into a lecture without any background knowledge if the professor starts from scratch.

I don’t usually read – unless I am confused in a class. Often the books don’t relate to what you need to know for a class. It’s so easy for a professor to post a suggested reading that many post a lot of resources they never refer to in class and never test you on. If I am really interested on a topic, I’ll do the extra reading, but otherwise I won’t.

I schedule incessantly. I use Exchange to maintain a constant calendar between my desktop, my laptop, my phone, and the cloud. If I have to be somewhere or call someone, it's on my schedule. I sometimes indicate when I should be working on something - if there is a chance I will forget. I love Outlook 2010's "Add to Calendar" quick step. It opens a new calendar invite with the original email in the details of the message. (It does not automatically parse the email, unfortunately). I use Doodle's MeetMe to allow people to view my free/busy information and propose times to meet.

I am always trying to schedule a time to meet. If you want some of my time, I'd be glad to put you on my schedule. I want to plan a time slot to meet with people in advanced. Perhaps I go to far, and try to schedule weekends to hang out with my friends 3 months in advanced... But I feel like I would forget and it would never happen if we did not schedule a time.

Alertness is not just determined by tiredness. If you are moderately tired, you can make yourself alert by refocusing and clearing your head. When walking into a lecture hall you need to feel ready to go. I’ve found that if the lecture is well put together, I tend to continue to stay alert. If the lecture is bad, I tend to fall off. This usually happens in recitations when the TA is trying to figure out some point that they don’t really know or didn’t remember. (I can tell just from the answer I receive if someone is an undergrad, grad student, or professor - they are that different in quality)


During the day I am always checking my email on my phone. I try not to do it during class because that breaks my concentration. If I can reply to something fast I try to do it then. If not, I flag/star the message. I then catch up in the first ~30 minutes after coming back from class. I try not to get too far behind.

Paper Procedures

I wrote earlier about tablet PCs and then how I moved away from them. I think moving from taking notes electronically on a tablet PC has made me twice as productive. I am starting to see more and more people taking notes on iPads, but I don’t like it. Paper does not crash or run out of battery. Writing on paper feels natural – it does not appear slightly off from the bottom of the stylus. Using paper, I can just focus on writing.

Fall 2012 Paper. 22.5 in. 12.5 reams.

This semester I went through 22.5 inches of paper. I went through 10 reams in my room (for my printer and writing) and another 2.5 reams on the Athena printers.

I write on plain unlined paper. I pull a stack of it each morning and put it on a clipboard. As I go through the day, I write on the paper and then move it to the back of the clipboard. The next day, I put the stack aside in my backpack and take a new stack of paper. I go through about a pack of paper a week and a pen a week.

I print everything out. I have found that I concentrate best when I am reading off paper instead of a screen. I usually print everything out once a week. I go down the list of classes and visit each classes’ website. I then print everything that is new, including readings, homework assignments, lecture notes, and solutions. Even if I am not going to look at the solutions yet, I print them out anyway. Usually I have 10-15 different jobs to print. I go upstairs to the printer and release all of the jobs.

I then take my printed pages and my notes from the past week and sort them. I put all of the readings into a “reading” pile and the assignments into an “assignment” pile. I then take the old notes and printouts and sort them into folders. I then arrange each pile roughly chronologically and put it at the back of that subject’s folder. I happen to prefer chronologically, but I never explored if anything better exists. Usually I have 5 or 6 “groups” of paper for each class. Usually 3-4 sets of lecture/recitation notes plus an old assignment or reading. I then put the pages into the end of the folder – or in the case of a graded assignment – after the assignment sheet I inserted the day the assignment was due.

Never print at Athena during the day. Even with the new Pharos system, it still takes minimum 10 minutes.

I carry around the folders in my backpack. Sometimes if a folder gets too big, I won’t carry it around unless I have that class that day. Often I don’t look at the folders during class, but I want to have it at hand in case I need to refer to it.

After the exam, I take the content that was tested out of the folder and set it aside in a pile. (Usually all the material was just on the exam, but professors sometimes have a lecture before an exam that won’t be covered until the next exam.) About once a month when I have some downtime, I scan the piles using my ScanSnap S1500. I do this in order to archive the papers so that I would be able to refer to them later. The ScanSnap S1500 is $400, but worth every penny. It can scan 20 pages a minute, front and back at the same time – so 40 images/minute. In addition, the software is awesome. It detects any overlapped pages and lets me choose how to precede. Usually a stack takes me 15 minutes to scan; longer if I need to remove staples. I usually scan a bunch of stacks while watching TV. I then set aside the stack in my room. When the final comes, I pull all of the pages out for that class. I do this because I like studying papers too. In addition, it has become a tradition for me to measure how high the paper pile is. After the final, I recycle the paper.

I only write using G2 pens. This is probably a silly obsession, but I like to keep things standardized. I go through a pen a week; considering a box of 12 is $20, I spend about $30 in pens a semester. I have a specific color scheme I’ve used for a semester or two now. I write material given from an authoritative source, such as a professor or textbook in blue, and I write my work in black. Usually I just use blue during the day. I then use black when working on a p-set or practice problems. This lets me identify which material is good to study.


I divide studying into two parts: a lecture review and practicing. The first step is a lecture review. I go through my folder of papers and rewrite key material from each lecture. If needed I also look at recitations, reading, and other material. I rewrite about 20% of the material - for an average exam that covers 10 lectures (1/3 of the class), I have about 20 pages of notes. (One lecture is about 10 pages of notes). If I see some examples I don’t really understand I try them out (using black pen). I then compare step by step with the example from lecture or the textbook. I do practice problems that are explained in the book.

After that I do practice exams. Almost all classes post practice exams. I try to do 2 practice exams. I try to do one question in its entirety and then I look at the solution. I do not try to mimic the test by doing it all in the time limit before looking at the solutions. If I get the problem wrong, I go through and try to understand what I did wrong. (I wish more classes would EXPLAIN the solutions on the practice exams). If I don’t understand something I will try to study it more. I usually spend 60% of time on a lecture review and 40% of my time on practice exams. I'm not sure that balance is quite right - I think I need to do more practice.

I don’t group study. This might be a bad idea, but I’ve never gotten it to work. I am too distracted by a group. I guess the advantage is being able to ask each other questions. On the other hand, you are not assured that those answers will be reliable. I tend to just work with the TAs and professors because I feel reasonable assured that I would get reliable information from them. I suppose that if the information is not reliable, I could claim that I was misled. I guess you would call that a warranty.

I wish that professors would put out a single page sheet for each upcoming assignment and exam that would contain key information about the upcoming assignment/exam. I call this my Kanban Proposal. It is loosely from the Toyota Production System’s “kanban” - a single piece of paper than can be managed and sorted to represent an upcoming assignment/exam.

I leave the entire night before the exam for studying. Studying time is not finite like a p-set. You can’t easily know when you are “done”. I usually spend the entire night before an exam studying. I plan for the exam ahead of time so I know to keep my schedule clear.


I am constantly aware of my energy level. I know I need to get enough sleep to be able to function effectively (though, as I said above, alertness is not directly connected to sleep). As I wrote above, I try to combat this by scheduling things that require less concentration when I am more tired.

I try to follow a regular sleep schedule. I try to go to bed at 2am or earlier every day. If I stay up later, I try to not to say up past 3am. I might make an exception if I don’t have class the next day, but my goal is to plan my work out so that I never have to work past 2am. I get up every morning at 8:15 or 9:15 depending on if my first event is at 9 or 10am.

I’ve found that short (30 min or 1 hour) naps can help fill you with energy for the rest of the day if you are really tired in the morning. I might take a short nap in one of the blocks in between classes during the day if I am really tired. These only happen on some weeks; when I am particularly busy. This is a good use of 1 hr blocks of free time between classes.

We saw in 6.034 that lack of sleep can really impair your concentration and performance. Prof. Winston pointed out a study that equated missing sleep to drinking alcohol.

I catch up on sleep on the weekends. Some weekends I sleep until noon.

I’ve found having an irregular sleep schedule is bad and makes you less efficient.


Eating well is important. I've noticed on weekends my energy levels are not at peak if I don't eat. Eating is an investment that pays off.

As we learned in 6.034 chocolate is a pick-me-up that gives you energy.

I don't drink coffee. I never tried it and I prefer not to use caffeine. I also don't drink soda much - but when I do I drink Sprite (no caffeine).


In general, I will make investments that support my education. I'm paying $50,000+ on my education. I will spend $30/semester on paper and more on pens. It's worth it. Find a way to make money and then use that to support your education. Don't cut corners here. Find a way to make an investment.

To add

  • Optimize order I do stuff in
  • How I schedule classes
  • boring recitations - know when tuning out
  • read/feel comfortable
    • 10-20% of material needs that
  • lecture gives you material faster than reading in most cases
  • write down everything even if on slide
  • jason borne's/jack bauer's energy - you can do it
  • don't org every day - try 2 a week or 1
  • stable platform
  • no extensions/extra time

Changes Spring 2012

I initially wrote this over Thanksgiving 2011. I'm writing this update around Spring Break 2012. I'm keeping the content separately to show how I made modifications to my system. Some of these came from not following my system strictly and discovering a better way to do things. Other things come from thinking of better ways to do things. Every semester is arranged slightly different, so I naturally change my system. I guess the lesson is to be flexible.

  • Org every week on Friday. I used to try to do this every day. I ended up doing it about twice a week, on a night when I had time. This semester doing it every Friday, or at some point over the weekend worked out best. I carry around a green "discard" folder that collects all my papers for the week. It starts empty (or with the assignments I need to turn in) and then grows over the week. A folder keeps the papers in better condition in my backpack.
  • Don't carry class folders. This semester I never carry my class folders. In previous semesters I would carry them until they got too big.
  • I write out my schedule for the week at the start of the week. First I list all of the due dates that week. I go through each calendar and make sure I have everything written down. This is a huge stress reliever for me - since that way I am no longer scared I missed anything. I then think about what day I am going to do what - making sure to leave buffer time to go to office hours or if the p-set is particularly challenging. I write this in my OneNote notebook.
  • Move the to-do-assignments and the to-read bins to folders, so that I would always have the papers on me.
  • Project folders. For long group projects, it we best to keep the material handy instead of putting it into the class folders chronologically.