Study. (Reflections 4/4)

Hi everyone! Welcome to the final part of my 'reflection' series- a collection of blog posts where I share memorable stories from my university life. These experiences have also taught me a few key lessons I'd also like to share. Once again, I've listed these lessons below for convenience (with the ones relevant to this post bolded). Still, stick around if you want to hear the full story.

You might have heard a lot of these phrases before because some are very cliché. However, I'm a firm believer that things are cliché because they are true, it just sometimes takes a specific event or two to make you realise how real they are.

  1. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with
  2. Theory gets the grade, practice gets the job
  3. You're responsible for creating your own opportunities
  4. Your habits are a reflection of your identity
  5. 80% of the output comes from 20% of the causes

Fourth Year

After clicking the submit button, I sat back in my chair, with an overwhelming sense of emptiness. Finishing your last ever exam just don't hit the same when it's online huh. This basically sums up my entire experience with 2020 and the pandemic. Thinking back, this whole year has been a rollercoaster of emotions. From the excitement I felt after receiving my graduate offer, to the disappointment of it being put on hold because of the virus, and then the ensuing stress of spending the next 4 months applying for new jobs. On top of this, UoA had its own bag of surprises, from grade bumps to a last-minute switch to online exams. Yeah, my life is a movie 😎. Except the movie is a shitty Netflix original where the writers introduce new plot devices every few episodes to push for an extra season and hit revenue targets.

I spent a long time thinking about what I wanted to write about in this post. In a way, fourth-year didn't really teach me anything 'new', but instead, allowed me time to learn from the decisions I made over the past few years. As seen in my previous posts, one big theme in university has been my mentality around academics- which has constantly been evolving and adapting. As I progressed further through my degree, I've been redirecting more and more energy from studying into other endeavours I find more rewarding (i.e. running DEVS, doing personal projects, spending time with friends). Even so, I've surprisingly still been able to maintain a pretty solid GPA over these years. If you asked me how at the time, I probably wouldn't be able to give you a proper answer. But now that I've had some time to reflect upon my time at university, I'd like to share two concepts that I think have had the most impact on my academics, which hopefully can help you guys out too.

The first tip is around finding the motivation to study. Motivation is a funny thing. It seems like you have an infinite amount of it when your lying in your bed, thinking about how "tomorrows going to be different", but you can hardly find the energy to roll out of bed when tomorrow arrives. Motivation is also easy to muster up before your exam to get into your dream degree, yet maintaining the same level of drive once you get in is so difficult. It's something I've always struggled with during high school. Yet, somehow, like magic, I've found it strangely easy to find the motivation to study since entering university. I mean, it's not like I ever started enjoying it . But I could somehow bear staying in the library for long hours at a time when everyone else would see it as torture. So why ? To be completely honest, I still don't know for sure, but here's my best guess at what changed since high school and university,.

At the end of the day, getting the motivation to consistently study first involves making it a habit. But how do you effectively form habits? Well, James Clear, author of 'Atomic Habits' suggests that habits are most easily created when they align with your identity- the person you believe yourself to be. He phrases this nicely as "Your current behaviours are simply a reflection of your current identity". Let's take the example of exercise. Most people set goals like "I want to run X km's each week" or "I want to lose X kg's". James calls these goals outcome-centred not identity-centred. Instead, an identity-centred goal is "I want to become the type of person that never misses a workout". The idea is then you start doing things that prove to yourself "Hey, I really am becoming this type of person". Eventually, the outcomes that you initially strived for will just become a by-product of your identity. If you never miss a workout, then you'll eventually get faster or lose weight.

So how did I incorporate this mentality? Well, as I said, I don't think I ever tried to intentionally. But, after doing pretty well in my first year at university, I realised people started coming to me for help on things like assignments or exam study tips. Although James doesn't mentions this in his book, I believe a massive influence on what you believe your identity to be (for better or worse), is based on how those around you view you. Because people started seeing me as the 'go-to study person with good grades', I started subconsciously building this into my identity. In some ways, I probably didn't want to let these people down, so I would strive hard to maintain this part of my identity. I wanted to be the person that could help out when my classmates needed it. Eventually, this became a positive self-reinforcing loop. Doing something like teaching a friend a difficult concept would further solidify my identity, which would then motivate me to continue working hard.

I had a similar experience in high school. After completing my first set of CIE exams in year 10, I ended up with all my grades being above 80%. I was probably pretty salty at the time as none of my scores were considered 'exceptional'. Still, I somehow found being consistent quite comforting, knowing that none of my grades were 'bad' either. These thoughts somehow eventually manifested and became apart of my academic identity. Then, like a blessing or a curse, all my grades for the next 2 years were in the 80 range. No more, no less. Nothing exceptional, nothing terrible either. Just like the identity I believed in, I finished college as an above-average student. Once again, even though I might've never explicitly thought 'Oh, I'm not going to try to get a 90%', there was something there holding me back subconsciously. Some artificial limitation that I placed on myself. I mean, I still can't confidently say that this was the sole difference maker between my high school and university performance. Still, identity definitely played a part in it.

"Your habits are a reflection of your identity"

The second tip I've discovered is a concept known as the 80/20 rule. The idea is that 80% of the output comes from 20% of the causes. So how does this apply to academics? Well, in the second post of this series, I talked about how I started spending less energy on studying, and more on building out personal projects in the second semester of 2018. So naturally, I expected my grades to drop quite a bit. If I were to put a number on it, I would say I probably put in half the effort I did compared to the first semester. Even so, my overall GPA remained pretty unchanged. I mean, sure, I wasn't in contention for the top in course spots anymore, but who cares right? Whether you get 100% or 90%, they're both still an A+ at the end of the day. You can think about it this way. After you've studied past a certain point, each additional hour you put in has diminishing return*s. Getting the next 1% becomes exponentially more challenging than the previous 1%.*

Sure, there's nothing wrong spending a bunch of extra hours studying for a paper to be fully prepared for any question the lecturer asks. But is that a good use of your time? You might be able to use those same hours studying for a different course and get significantly better returns. We can also take the example of improving your CV. Say you have an 8.25 GPA. How many more extra hours do you think you'd need to put in to improve that to an 8.5? 50? 100? Maybe that's not the best use of your time then. If you didn't have any personal projects, investing those same hours into building something would improve your CV by many magnitudes compared to a small GPA bump. Conversely, if you already had three personal projects, then adding a 4th would hardly strengthen your CV. That first project you put down provides 80% of the benefit of having personal projects on your CV. Each one afterwards adds significantly less value. It's all about balancing the limited amount of time we have each day, and making the most efficient use of it where possible.

"80% of the output comes from 20% of the causes"

So that wraps up the last post for this series. This was a pretty fun and insightful experience reflecting on my university life, and I hope you were able to take away something too. I'm still figuring out and improving my own writing style, so feel free to send me feedback if you have any at If you have any questions, or things you would like me to write about, please let me know too! I'm still figuring out what direction I want to take this blog, so I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by, stay safe and see you next time!

© 2020 Andrew Hu