College is a time for self-improvement. You’ll be taking classes to build your knowledge, working with professors to develop your skills, and joining clubs to get better at your favorite sports, games, and hobbies. But you know, intrinsically, that some people are going to improve faster and more steadily than others—so what steps can you take to make sure you’re advancing as quickly as possible in your chosen disciplines?
You might be tempted to focus on putting in more effort—instead of studying 5 hours a week, you might study 10, or instead of practicing a sport twice a week, you might practice every day. After all, Malcolm Gladwell’s famous assertion that you can become world-class in any field with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice demands that you spend more time (even though new information casts doubt on this informal “rule”).
However, if you want a faster path to improvement, it’s better to focus on quality, rather than quantity.
To illustrate this principle, let’s start by considering the importance of effective hours versus ineffective hours. Many students want to fill their schedules with things that could help them achieve their goals; inherently, there’s nothing wrong with this, but since you have a limited schedule, and you can’t do everything, it leads to a serious problem. When your schedule is overloaded with habits and sessions that only marginally improve your abilities, you’ll have less time for the habits and sessions that provide you with the best results.
Consider this anecdote from hockey trainer Dan Garner: a hockey player wanted to get into the NHL so bad, he loaded his morning routine with meditation, journaling, exercising, doing yoga, watching motivational videos, and other items. But by 10:30, he’d spent a ton of energy on tasks that barely had any impact on his actual athletic performance. The solution was to cut out the unnecessary work and focus more intently on practice and training, which took less time and had a more dramatic effect on his performance.
The Importance of Rest
You also need to consider the importance of rest, in anything you’re trying to improve. For example, sleep is an imperative part of the learning process; it’s the time our mind gets to consolidate our memories, and move short-term storage into long-term storage. If you stay up all night cramming for an exam, you might spend 12 hours reading information, but your chances of retaining that information are slim. But if you spend 2 hours each night in the 3 nights leading up to the exam studying, you’ll only spend 6 hours total—but because you had a round of sleep between those sessions, you’ll have a much higher chance of retaining the information.
Rest is also important in physical activities. Inactivity and sleep are both important for your muscles to have a chance to recoverproperly; if you keep hitting the same muscle groups hard, day after day, you’ll stop improving.
Training Over Practice
Next, you need to consider the importance of training, rather than just practicing. Practicing typically involves repeating an activity over and over, hoping you get better overall. Training, on the other hand, focuses on one specific area of an activity to improve. For example, if you’re in the chess club, practice would mean playing games with people, over and over, until you started getting better. Training would mean studying specific puzzles and tactics, or reviewing professional games.
Training is important because it allows you to compensate for your weaknesses, and it gives you a measurable way to improve specific elements of your performance. It also prevents you from getting into a rut, and lowers your risk of practicing the wrong approach so often it becomes ingrained.
The Risk of Burnout
Focusing too much on the quantity of your studying, practice, or work can also lead you to burnout, a common affliction for new college students who may have tried a little too hard. If you put too much of a burden on yourself to study hard and improve within your clubs, hobbies, and other groups, you could neglect your own health. For example, you might study instead of hanging out with friends, or stay up late to squeeze in more practice, missing out on sleep. Once or twice won’t hurt you much—but if you engage in this quantity-over-quality behavior too long, you’ll become exhausted, and fed up with the activity altogether.
Balancing Quantity and Quality
None of this is to suggest that you need to spend fewer hours studying or that you should scale back your training and expect to keep improving; instead, it’s only meant to illustrate that putting in more hours may not be the best way to improve long-term. Think carefully about the habits you’re engaging in, and how those habits are shaping your skills, and aim to “work smarter, not harder.” If you can, you’ll get a leg up on your peers, and you’ll have more free time on top of that.