Getting the most out of every semester

San Francisco, USA
7 minutes

If you’ve spent any amount of time around “productivity hackers”, you’ve probably heard of the infamous Warren Buffet 2 List Method. The core idea: 1. Write down 25 of your most important career goals. 2. Pick the top 5. 3. Focus on those, and avoid the other 20 at all costs. Eliminate ruthlessly to maintain focus.

Out of all the productivity fads that have come and gone (pomodoro, eisenhower matrices, yet another todo list app…), I’ve never found any I stuck to. But I’ve used this 2-List method every semester of college since sophomore year.

Before the start of every semester, I make a document. It’s no more than 7-8 bullet points — the things I want to ace in a semester. In subsequent sections, I’ll explain how I construct this document, give you an example of mine, and explain why I think you should be making these too.

Designing an Alignment List#

The alignment list is crucial — it sets your expectations and goals, and (quite importantly) concretely defines what it means for a semester to be successful. Here’s how it goes.

Your Big Big Goal#

First, come up with one goal. I know this is hard. Here’s why it’s important: It drives everything else you do this semester. If something doesn’t point to your north star, you must either drop it, or change the way you are tackling that responsibility, or change your north star, or expand your north star to include it.

This is the hardest step. It cuts to the core of who you want to be. Feel free to come back to this after other steps.

It’s the stuff that I struggle at that often goes in as my big big goal. Here’s some of mine from the last few semesters:

1. Stop avoiding failure.
2. Become consistent at the difficult stuff.
3. Chase my curiosity more honestly.

Your Obligations#

So, what are you doing this semester? Classes, clubs, friendships? All of these go here. I typically break each obligation into a few parts: 1. Vision: Your ultimate goal to achieve under the objective. Keep this measurable. Not achieving this vision should terrify you. 2. Methods: Steps you’re going to take to achieve your vision. Use stats and numbers.

Why go through all this trouble? To pull yourself out of going with the flow. This helps me take control of what I’m working on and how.

Here’s an example of one of my obligations:

- Obligation: Reading books, building a mental database of knowledge
- Vision: Read at least 5 hours a week
- Methods:
  - Set time aside on the calendar
  - Keep in circulation difficult and easy reads
  - Pepper in a fun fiction once in a while
  - Let your curiosity guide you. You'll read what you need to eventually.

Rank ‘em#

Here’s the hardest part — once you have your obligations written down, you must rank them. This helps you make crucial decisions: should I work on homework or practice leetcode for recuruiting? Should I hit the gym or hang out with my friends? There is no wrong answer, only what you decide is more important.

Here’s my ranked list from a couple semesters ago:

- Relationships
- Research
- Classes
- Health
- Tinkering
- Clubs

Notice how relationships is at the top of the pile. I am not asking you to become a robot. I’m not asking you to value work and rules too highly. I’m challenging you to be honest with how you spend your time.

Time is Sacred#

Here’s why I think you should be making alignment lists as well. Time is painfully, awfully, terribly limited. From this very moment, you have roughly 1.5 billion seconds on Earth. That’s it. Yes, really — do the math.

It matters then, to spend your time meaninfully, or at least be honest with yourself about it. I spent a lot of time wasting away my days, never really investing in anything. I realized in college that I didn’t want to live that way. I wanted to get more of my time.