Steal the Mental models I’ve developed to accelerate my growth in any field.
No matter how much people glorify hustling, there’s something no one can deny: Hard work doesn’t scale.
That’s an extraordinary epiphany I’ve realized on a very intrinsic level in the past year, and it has some tremendous implications.
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Let me elaborate.
I’m in medical school. And while I’ve always been a good student, I wasn’t necessarily an extraordinary student. Nonetheless, last year I decided to aim for an All-India-Rank 1 in my upcoming entrance exam called NEET. This exam is the Indian equivalent of the USMLE. The results of this exam will decide what residency I get into and what college I study from.
I won’t get into the details of the exam but mention that it’s one of the toughest exams to crack in the world for a couple of reasons:
The competition is fierce because India is already an overpopulated country, and almost every Indian parent wants their kid to be a doctor.
The syllabus is beyond what you can fathom.
In spite of these facts, I decided that I’ll strive to top this exam.
After making this decision, I soon realized that if I’m to achieve my goal, I have to work smarter than everyone else — because hard work alone cannot get me there for two reasons:
Most of my competition is already working as hard as they can.
There are only 24 hours in a day — meaning that hard work has a ceiling and that it cannot scale.
Hence, to work smarter than every other student in my field, I started searching and brainstorming obsessively to find ways to be more efficient. In a simple sentence, my goal statement was this:
“My one hour of studying should equal someone else’s four hours.”
Now, I realize that there’s no way to actually measure this. All I’m saying is that this is a good mental goal to go after — because it forces you to look for alternative ways to go about achieving your goals. It forces you to build a mindset of efficiency and a tendency to look for the smartest way to do anything.
Simply because — hard work does not scale. Smart work does.
After moving in this direction, I slowly started to learn a lot about how to achieve this. And it yielded results. My scores in the mock tests I gave skyrocketed over time. A few of my friends and I started giving these tests at the same time, however, I progressed significantly faster than they did.
Hence, in this article, I want to discuss a few mental models that helped me work super-smart. I learned these as a medical student, but over time I’ve figured out how to apply the principles in other areas of my life as well. You’ll be able to do so as well. Let’s dive in.
The prerequisite mental model: Smart work is useless without the bones of a consistent action
Before sharing with you the mental models with which I learned how to work smart, I have to tell you about the non-negotiable prerequisite to smart work — which is that you have to take consistent physical activity in the direction of your goals.
Many people — in an attempt to find the smartest way to do something — spend a lot of time thinking, but not much taking actual action. This sets them up for failure.
Think of it like this: looking for smarter ways to do something while not taking actual consistent action is like trying to build the first floor of a building without building the ground floor. No matter how beautifully you construct the first floor, it’s going to fall down and your efforts won’t matter — because you didn’t lay the groundwork.
That’s why you have to find a way to take action consistently. Hard work is not necessary. But consistent work is.
For instance, when I set my goal to go after rank 1, I also decided that I’ll study for 4 hours every day. At the time, my college lectures were suspended due to COVID, so I had a lot of time in my day. However, I didn’t try to study for 8 hours a day.
Nope. I took it easy. I studied only for four hours, but I did that every day. Without fail. Even on weekends. In fact, I even spent my New Year’s eve in my room — studying — happily.
Hence, whatever goal you want to achieve, commit to taking consistent action in that direction consistently.
Over a large enough time scale — say a year — consistency alone can get you much further than other people. You won’t even need to work smart. Simply because, while people might stay consistent for a week or a month, it’s incredibly difficult to stay consistent for a year.
Of course, consistency can mean different things to different people. For some, it might mean working every weekday and resting on the weekends. But for me, it meant every day.
Whatever the definition might be for you, consistency should be a non-negotiable for you.
A pro tip I would give here is to enforce layers of accountability to ensure consistency. In my case, I had two layers of accountability.
I used a timer to actually clock 4 hours of studying. If you decide to devote a number of hours to any goal, I recommend using a timer too. But if your daily actionable goal is something else — for instance, reaching out to 10 clients per day or writing 1000 words per day — a timer isn’t necessary.
I used to maintain streaks on an application called Coach.Me. This helped me actually stick to putting in the hours every day — because if I missed a day, my streak would be broken. Another benefit of maintaining a streak is that it shows you how long you’ve been putting in effort for. For instance, 6 months into my goal, I had a digital record that I had studied for a good four hours every day for 180 days straight. This meant that I had put in 720 hours of quality effort into my craft already. This gave me a lot of confidence that results will come. I felt that success was inevitable.
Now that we’ve talked about forming a solid groundwork of consistency, let’s move on to the specific mental models.
Mental model #1: How to deal with infinity: Rank the actions you can take based on their ROI
To achieve any given goal, there are an infinite number of actions you can take. And this is where the problem lies. Because while all actions might move the needle to some degree — not all actions move it significantly.
For instance, to be a digital writer, you can take many actions. You can spend an hour learning better vocabulary to sound smarter. Or you can spend 30 minutes every day coming up with better ideas for your reader.
In theory, both of these will move the needle and help you be a better writer. But the return on investment of the latter will be much more than that of the former.
Hence, you could also say that while studying advanced vocabulary will theoretically help you be a better writer, in the practical world, it’s stupid because there are many better things you can do with your time.
Since your time is limited, you only want to focus on the actions that will move the needle the most. You only want to take actions with the highest ROI. Let me give you examples:
As a medical student:
As I mentioned before, the syllabus for a medical student is unfathomable. This means that the person who tries to study everything ends up studying nothing. Hence, I decided to master the most important topics first, and ignored everything else. Let me tell you exactly how I did that.
The conventional method of studying looks like this: A student studies an entire chapter first and then solves questions for the chapter. I reversed the process and tried something that’s called pretesting.
I solved the questions first. And then, I studied the chapter. So while reading the chapter, I spent extra time on topics from where questions were asked and ignored the topics from where no questions were asked (at least for the time being). This helped me focus more time on important topics and less on trivial topics.
Let me share another tangent to this.
In India, we have 19 subjects in medical school. And I used to spend a lot of time studying the subject of Surgery because I believed it was an important subject — which it is. However, after I started giving tests, my test analytics told me that I was already outperforming my peers in Surgery by a lot. But I lagged in some other subjects like Anatomy and Biochemistry.
The moment I found this out, I stopped studying Surgery and started studying Biochemistry. The reason was obvious enough: One hour of studying Biochemistry was more beneficial to me than studying one hour of Surgery.
As a writer:
As I mentioned before, there are a lot of actions you can take as a writer.
You can learn how to write better titles.
You can learn how to use a better vocabulary.
You can learn how to write great conclusions, etc.
While all of these move the needle to various degrees, I devote most of my writing time to these two actions:
Coming up with great titles (because at least as of now, titles matter a lot in digital writing)
And backing those titles up with great ideas so that it’s not clickbait.
I don’t really spend any time learning better vocabulary because I don’t believe it helps.
Simply put — while there are a lot of things you can do, you should not try to do everything. Instead, focus on the very few actions that move the needle the most with relatively least effort on your end. These are what we call high ROI actions.
Here’s how you can do this:
Step 1: Think of every possible action you can take towards your goal and jot them down.
Step 2: Rank them based on their ROI. Research and take the advice of experts in your field to do this.
Step 3: Focus most of your energy on the actions at the top of the list.
That’s how you tackle infinity.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this list is dynamic, and not static. For instance, what’s high ROI today, might not be tomorrow.
For instance, if an obese person desires to be more attractive, the highest ROI actions for him would be to go to the gym consistently and watch what he eats.
On the other hand, is someone like me. I’m already pretty lean, and muscular. I look great with clothes on, but I’m not necessarily shredded. Now, if my goal is to be more attractive — a higher ROI action for me would be to buy great-looking clothes rather than obsessing over my diet.
Simply because buying great-looking clothes is very easy if you can afford them, and obsessive over calories is much more difficult.
Now I’m not saying that I don’t have to watch what I eat — I have to. And I do. Having a low body fat % is also one of my goals. I’m simply saying that buying better clothes is a higher ROI for me than obsessing over my diet if I want to be more attractive.
Hence, the lesson here is simple: keep thinking about what are the highest ROI actions towards your goal — try to actually rank them — and focus most of your efforts on the top of the list.
Mental model #2: Make other people’s weaknesses your biggest strengths
A chain is only as strong as the weakest link.
— English Proverb
There are 19 subjects in medical school, but not all are created equal. Some are inherently easy, and some make students want to pull their hair out.
For instance, dermatology is a pretty easy subject because it’s small and there’s not much to memorize. On the other hand, Biochemistry is one of the toughest subjects in medical school because most of it needs to be memorized.
Understandably, as a subject, Biochemistry is a common weakness for the majority of medical students.
Hence, to get ahead of the competition, I decided to make Biochemistry and other memorization-heavy subjects my strength. Here are a few actions I took in that direction:
I bought a subscription to Pixorize. This platform helps medical students learn subjects like Biochemistry with much more ease by creating visual mnemonics in the form of sketches. They create a scene and sketch for every topic — and walk us through them with the help of videos. Of the batch of 100 people in my college, only I own a subscription to Pixorize. And hence, I reap the rewards.
I read a lot of books on memory techniques by grandmasters and record holders in the field. This helped me develop a skill that enables me to turn a common weakness — memorization — into one of my strengths.
Over time, these actions helped me gather an extremely unfair advantage over my competition. An advantage so big, that most of them will never be able to catch up.
Similar common weaknesses exist in any field. For instance, in fitness, while most people may consistently go to the gym, it’s much more difficult to look after their diet. To turn this common weakness into a personal strength, I’ve taken specific actions:
Practicing and being good at delayed gratification. I (almost) never eat something the moment I feel like eating it. I always try to create a gap between instinct and action so that I have better self-control.
Never keeping junk food at home. Because it’s much harder to resist eating something calorie dense if it’s sitting in your house.
Deleting food delivery applications from my phone.
Whatever goal you want to achieve, figure out the common weakness in the journey — and turn them into your strengths. You’ll advance much more quickly than the masses.
Mental model #3: Stand on the shoulder of giants, decode and then code.
This is my preferred method of jumpstarting my growth in any field.
Stand on the shoulder of giants: Whatever goal I want to achieve, I buy a digital course or a book that will teach me exactly how to achieve it. I suspend my disbelief and don’t try to figure out whether their advice works or not. I simply follow their advice verbatim for weeks or months and give their method a fair try.
Decode: If their advice works, I try to decode their actions to understand the underlying principles.
Code: Once I understand the principles, I code other actions based on the same principles.
That was a bit confusing, so let me elaborate with an example.
When I wanted to build muscle and lose fat, I bought a $50 course by Jeremy Ethier instead of relying solely on Youtube Videos. I prefer paying for courses because they provide a step-by-step guide and remove all the guesswork.
When I started reading the course, many things didn’t make sense to me. For example, the workouts were shorter than I expected. Before that, I was working out for longer — and still not gaining results. I thought to myself, “How will cutting down my workouts help?” But I suspended my disbelief and followed the course verbatim.
Sure enough, I achieved great results. Turns out, I was making some crucial mistakes earlier — like not tracking the weights I lift and not progressively overloading — which is why I was not getting results even with longer workouts. But with a proper method laid out in the course, I was able to get better results with relatively lesser effort.
Then, I tried to decode the underlying principles of his advice in the program. For instance, Jeremy’s leg workout helped me build great legs. Here’s what his suggested workout looked like.
3 sets of the barbell squat with the rep range 6–8, followed by a slow set of barbell squats at 70% weight of the normal sets for 8–10 reps. In this slow set, he recommended taking 4 controlled seconds to bend my knees and one second to lift the weight for every rep.
4 sets of Bulgarian split squats at 8–10 reps.
Followed by a few other exercises for my hamstrings and calves.
Of course, it’s possible that my legs grew better than other body parts due to genetic factors. But it’s also possible that it’s because of the peculiarities of the workout. Assuming it was the latter, I tried to decode his suggested leg workout and came up with two underlying principles:
Slow, and controlled reps at a lower weight than normal working sets help in hypertrophy.
Exercises that target muscles one side at a time are great to iron out asymmetric power and hence, yield greater overall power over time.
After figuring out these principles, I tried to apply them to my other workouts.
For example, I added an extra slow and controlled bench press set after my normal working sets. And I did some unilateral pressing exercises on machines to help ensure symmetric power in my pecs. I applied the same principles to my other workouts as well.
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Unsurprisingly, I’m witnessing better results.
This mental model is helping me grow faster than others because it eliminates many common mistakes that others make.
For instance, most people don’t believe in buying courses and prefer doing and learning stuff themselves. However, I believe that if you can afford it, buying a digital course has no downside — and an incredible upside. You get to learn from experts at an affordable price, and you skip the time it takes to figure it out yourself.
Another mistake people make is being critical of the advice of the giants or the mentors they choose. They think they know better which makes it difficult for them to follow the advice of people who’ve already achieved what they want to achieve. Stupid.
The mental model I shared above — Stand on the shoulder of giants — Decode and then Code — allows you to get better results faster, understand the basic principles on a very intrinsic level because you witness the results yourself, and then allows you to expand your growth by further application of those principles.
Tying everything together
I truly believe that you can achieve your goals much faster than others by realizing that you can hack your growth by betting on smart work.
However, before even thinking about working smart, you have to figure out how to take action consistently. There’s no place for smart work if there’s no action. Once you’ve figured out how to take consistent action, use these mental models to accelerate your growth:
Rank the actions you can take based on their ROIs and focus your efforts only at the top of the list.
Figure out how to convert people’s weaknesses into your greatest strengths.
Stand on the shoulder of giants — decode their advice to understand the underlying principles — and then code other actions based on those principles.
Contributed by Akshad Singi
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