How to Get Ready for College (and Life)

On a recent afternoon, my son sent me a text message that read simply, “how do I get ready for college”. He’s 18 and starts his first semester in a couple weeks. Like most people, the only thing high school really challenged was his patience. He’s smart and he tends to overthink things. This results in more stress than necessary. He also seems to enjoy asking profound life advice by way of text message.

My less-than-140-character response was, “Read, set up a system for being productive, read some more, avoid distractions.” To which he asked the obvious and harder question (also via text), “how do I avoid distraction.” If I had an easy and bullet-proof solution to that problem, he wouldn’t have to worry about college because I’d make enough money to provide for the next four generations. Unfortunately, the only answer I could give was “systems and practice”. Let’s unpack all this advice. Because it applies to more than just college.

Reading (and Reading Some More)

There are a few common factors I’ve found in interviews of interesting and successful people. One is that they read more than the average person. This is not difficult as the average person reads less than four books a year and about one-quarter of the population reads zero. I admit that I do not understand how this is possible. Make the commitment to read at least 30 minutes every day (more if possible) and do it for a lifetime. Reading gives you the tools and raw materials for thinking. Reading assists in building focus and strengthening your mind. It’s one of the only mechanisms to obtain the knowledge and wisdom of some of the smartest people that came before you. Given that, not all books are created equal. Plato’s Republic might not be as exciting as Fifty Shades of Gray but it’s infinitely more significant and worthwhile.

I should point out that audiobooks might be a suitable alternative to reading. This is not an experiment that I have tried. Most of my listening time is devoted to podcasts. These are audiobook-adjacent and they check some of the same boxes as books so I don’t see any reason why audiobooks wouldn’t be as effective (except that you can’t highlight text or write in the margins).

Writing

I didn’t include this in my original advice, mostly because my son already writes. He does journaling and poetry. But writing is crucial, because writing is thinking. Perhaps not clear thinking, not at first anyway. But the you that writes is much more likely to think clearly than the you that doesn’t. At least about those topics that you write about. In addition to thinking, writing is also about creating and communicating. Part of the reason this site exists is so that I can write. Whether my thinking is any clearer is an open question but I’m improving my ability to convey ideas.

There will be an abundance of writing assignments in college. Take the feedback you get and use it to be a better writer. At the same time, understand that there is a critical component missing in these assignments - iteration. You might write a few drafts of an assignment before you turn it in, but the feedback loop isn’t closed. For most classes, the work is done when you turn it in and get a grade. This is not the case in real-world writing endeavors. You might have to rewrite it multiple times incorporating feedback along the way. It might need to be refined and simplified from five pages to one. Writing is re-writing. As an interesting side note, this applies to computer programming as well.

Productivity Systems

There are a number of books about productivity, all with various systems and tools. I’m not going to advocate for any particular system, just that you should have one and it should work for you. As with most systems, it should be effective and as simple as possible. Effectiveness is easy to measure in this regard - If work is getting missed or going undone then it isn’t working. Your system has to:

  • Span multiple time horizons, from projects that can take months or years down to daily tasks and to-do items.
  • Allow you to capture and prioritize work to be done.
  • Make time for planning and review.
  • Create space for the unexpected, new ideas and recovery.
  • Track progress and identify gaps in your planning or execution.
  • Help you get things done.

My system uses a composition book for outlining projects and work across months and weeks. Every Sunday I use a page to review the previous week and plan out the next week. I also have a page to track my dailies over the month (activities like exercise, mediation, writing, etc). For individual days, I use an index card to identify the 3-5 tasks I need to accomplish. At that point, it’s just a matter of working through the list in priority order. The card can also be used to capture notes and todo items for later. At review time, these get folded back into the main notebook. Is this a perfect system? Probably not, but it works for me and I can refine it as necessary.

Distraction

Most of us exist in a state of continuous partial attention. This is to be expected when we all carry and use some type of smart phone. These devices (and the Internet they connect to) are a miracle of technology and the most powerful distraction engine in human history. It doesn’t help that the apps we use are backed by corporate business models predicated on increasing ‘engagement’. Swap that out for the word ‘addiction’ and you aren’t wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, we need downtime. There’s a place for entertainment and recovery but it needs to be deliberate and time-boxed. Five minutes spent on youtube after a half-hour of intense, uninterrupted studying is fine. Five hours binge-watching something on Netflix when there is work to be done is not.

Let me be as explicit about this as I can. Mindless distraction is opting-in to the diminishment of your own life.

Distraction is a habit. A pattern of behavior established by repeated cycles of trigger, response and reward. To change it, you have to break the cycle. One way to do that is to know your cues and triggers and then actively set up your environment to counter them. If you’re trying to study and your phone is pinging repeatedly, try turning off notifications. If that is insufficient to resist temptation, make it more difficult to reach. Leave it in another room if necessary. Or uninstall the most distracting apps. The point is to make the activation energy for the behavior you want more easily achieved than that of the behavior you are trying to change.

Same goes for being on the computer. If your intention is to get some project work done but you find yourself spending more time on youtube or twitter, then find an app that will block access to distracting sites. I wrote a simple shell script to accomplish this, but there are programs for every OS and extensions for most browsers that accomplish the same function. Be careful that you don’t let other work become the distraction. You will probably have to do item number 27 on your todo list at some point, but don’t let it disrupt the work on item number one. This might be the least problematic sort of procrastination, but it’s still procrastination.

Practice

You have to practice to improve. This is the case for any skill or habit. The first time you try, you probably won’t maintain focus long enough to read 25 pages. Your productivity system won’t work magic the first week. Nor will those distractions effortlessly disappear. It’s going to take weeks and months of mindful, deliberate effort and (if my daily experience is any indication) a lifetime of ongoing work. When you first start and experiment with new systems, you might feel less effective. Give it time to see if things improve. When you first started to walk, it was less effective than crawling. When you first learned to ride a bike, it felt less certain than walking. It does get easier. Some days you will do better than others. On the bad days, just remind yourself to stay with it. These practices are useful in college, a career, a side project, anything requiring thought and effort over a sustained period. Over a lifetime they can be invaluable.

Additional Reading

So Good They Can’t Ignore You
The Productivity Project


Afterthought Advice

Of course there’s more advice because there always is. Here are some additional suggestions. Note, some of these I did not do during college. Which is probably why I’m adding it - some advice is the inverse of our biography.

  • Take notes.
  • Ask questions.
  • Do everything you can to avoid debt (student loan and otherwise).
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise.
  • Avoid unhealthy chemical substances (including the legal ones like nicotine).
  • Make friends with people that provide uplift and make you want to be a better version of yourself. Avoid people that do the opposite.