How To Be A Successful Student: The 80/20 Of Student Productivity

It’s the second week of classes of the Spring term here at Technical University of Munich. The weather’s picking up, materials are slow to emerge and exams are a long way away.

However, judging by the first week alone, I can tell there will be a lot of faces filled with regret at the end of this semester. Exams will be postponed, grades will be worse than expected and credits will be missing.

I realize not everyone wants to make an all-encompassing commitment to work like me. But even if you just want to be a normal, full-time student, get decent grades and secure a solid job, there are certain things you can do. So this week, I decided to go super practical and ask myself:

If I could recommend only three good habits to students, what would they be?

Here are the three rules I’ve come up with.

The 80/20 of Student Productivity

In The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch explains why life isn’t balanced. The reason 1% of the population owns 50% of the money and we use only 700 words for 66% of what we say is that feedback loops accelerate both positive and negative growth. No matter how equal a population of animals starts out, eventually, a few will manage to eat more, grow faster, and thus be able to get even more food.

When it comes to forming habits, the idea of feedback loops applies too. If you’ve ever gotten drunk on a weekday, slept in though you didn’t want to, and then thought: “What the hell, might as well take a day off,” then that was a negative feedback loop.

What we want to do today, of course, is to build a few positive feedback loops. In habit terminology, these are called keystone habits, because they automatically lead to more good habits. By focusing on a small set of just three good habits, you’ll cause a large share of what it takes to be a successful student.

It’s the 80/20 of student productivity.

Habit #1: No TV on Weekdays.

Only 8% of millennials don’t have their own Netflix account or use someone else’s. Granted, not everyone watches multiple episodes a day, but let’s face it, Netflix users aren’t exactly known for their moderate use of the product. If you’ve ever binge watched half a season or more in one sitting (I have), you’ve paid the real price of a Netflix subscription: time. So much time.

On average, Netflix users spent 1 hr and 33 minutes per day watching shows or movies in 2015. That’s a whole lot of Pomodoros. Over the course of a year, that’s 548 hours, or the equivalent of almost 70 entire, 8-hour workdays. If you cut out the 2-3 episodes of TV shows you watch for the five workdays of the week, you can get back 50 of those 70 days. That’s 10 weeks of extra work you can do.

Imagine having 2.5 months more to do your work. Each year. Mind = blown.

How To Be A Successful Student Netflix

Action step: If you have cable or another form of normal television, now would be the time to hide the remote. Better yet, give it to a friend to hold on to from Monday till Friday. If you watch shows through a streaming service, install a software like K9 Web Protection and set it to auto-block all streaming domains Monday through Friday.

Habit #2: No Alcohol on Weekdays.

I’ve been asked to go out for drinks three times during the first week of the semester – not including the weekend. That’s insane. According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA):

1. Roughly 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for AUD (alcohol use disorder).

2. About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall

I’m not surprised. When I hear about traditions like “Thirsty Thursday,” karaoke Wednesdays at the pub or the weekly after-work party, I mostly think about the time, money and energy I’m saving by not attending these things.

No matter how tall you are or what you drank, your body breaks down alcohol at a rate of 0.016% per hour. For any given occasion, you can use a tool like the BAC calculator to figure out how long it takes until you’re back to normal.

How To Be A Successful Student Alcohol Calculator

Without even considering the money and time you lost due to going somewhere and drinking, I think taking off one hour in lost productivity for a post-party-day is a conservative estimate. At two drinking days during the week, that makes for another 104 hours you could potentially save – or 13 extra work days.

How To Be A Successful Student Drinking

Action step: If you go to events with drinks during the week, figure out your best pattern for breaking this habit. Go cold turkey, go to one event per week less, or replace them with other activities, which you plan ahead of time. If you drink alone at home, just toss out all alcohol. Make it a ceremony and have a friend visit you at home each day for the first few days to double check.

Habit #3: 6-to-6 on Weekdays.

Technically, my Master’s degree is a full-time program. In practice, I haven’t even put part-time hours into it. And I still got decent grades. That may change from semester to semester, but the point remains: most students don’t consider their degree a full-time job, because, quite frankly, they don’t have to.

From USA Today:

According to the National Survey of Student Engagement’s findings, the average student spends about 17 hours each week preparing for classes.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics also puts students at 3.5 hours of daily educational activities, on average, for 2011-2015, only considering non-holiday weekdays. If you went from that to a 6-to-6 schedule, where you get up at 6 AM, go about your day as usual, but commit to work until 6 PM, you’d be through your weekly workload in two days, even when factoring in getting dressed, eating, commuting, etc.

But let’s be conservative again and assume you’re already putting in a 9-to-5. Going from that to a 6-to-6, considering it gives you ten hours of work each day still adds two productive hours to each of your weekdays. That’s 520 hours over the course of a year, or another 65 full days of work.

How To Be A Successful Student Work Hours 9 to 5

Action step: If you sleep in during the week, just because you can, set your alarm to 6 AM. Get up slower in the beginning, then faster as the habit solidifies. A morning routine can help make this transition easier. If you’re already up early, but quit early, consider adding a fun afternoon break or an evening ritual, to keep yourself going a little longer (and no, it can’t be Netflix).

What Do You Do With All This Time?

The result of these three changes is time. So much time. Time you can use to figure out how to be a successful student.

I picked these in part because, even when I was a Bachelor’s student, I stuck to just two of them (no alcohol + 6-to-6) and got slightly above average grades.

How To Be A Successful Student Grade Report

If you go from one to two, my guess is your productivity will double. If you go from zero to all three, expect it to at least triple. I mean, 128 extra workdays at 8 hours, come on! And that’s using our conservative estimates.

So what do you do with all that time? I recommend tackling one class at a time and summarizing the entire material. You’ll end up with a few pages of dense information to memorize and can then devote the rest of your time to practicing exam problems.

How To Be A Successful Student Study Hacks

If your semester has just started, get your hands on old material. Every class has happened before, and even if the slides or scripts slightly change, you’ll be more than well-prepared by looking at previous material.

An All-Time Money Back Guarantee

People are always worried about change. “But won’t I lose [insert fake benefit]?” “I really like my [insert not that meaningful activity].” I’m aware of how stupid it is, but I’d like to give you an all-time figurative money back guarantee for this. Ready?

If you haven’t noticed it until now: all three rules apply only on weekdays, leaving your weekend entirely intact.

Make the weekend your oyster. Drink, be merry and binge watch Netflix all day. Sleep from 6-to-6, or 9-to-5 or even 5-to-9. Heck, you could even go out on weekdays occasionally – as long as you don’t drink and work till 6 PM.

But the cherry on top of this I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose-sundae is this: Run these habits as an experiment. Put one in place for a week. Or two, or all three. Or increase as you go.

Whatever you do, don’t wait until it’s too late. There are some things you can’t put a price on. And the feeling of finishing the semester with a sense of pride, because you accomplished everything you set out to do, is certainly one of them.

Niklas Goeke

I am a German student on his way to becoming an entrepreneur!