The Freedom of Restriction

A necessary consequence of following the Minimum Work Principle is that you will have little choice in which questions you answer. Knowing in advance exactly which questions you will answer and exactly which content you will put in those answers saves a huge amount of time during preparation. Equally importantly, this restriction eliminates a substantial amount of decision-making and uncertainty.

We usually view choices as a good thing. But in a pressurised situation like an exam, choices are far more paralysing than they are helpful. They incur great cost for minimal gain. They introduce additional decision-making and uncertainty, which are the root causes of all exam disasters.

To equip yourself with choice is to dilute your focus across a greater range of exam material. By spreading your efforts over more material, you also reduce your level of competence in any one topic or subject. By learning more than is necessary, you are willingly wasting time. Taking this approach towards exams might give you a broader overview of your subject, but it is a very inefficient way to get high exam scores.

I know of more than a few cases where the availability of choice allowed panicked students to abandon the question they were working on in favour of another. I don't know of any cases where this resulted in a good exam score. Not only does this sort of erratic behaviour waste time, but its impact on your confidence will cripple you for the remainder of the exam.

In exams, choices offer only one petty advantage: the ability to sidestep difficult questions. However, this ability entirely evaporates when you take an exam where all the questions are difficult ones. Then there are no easy questions to sidestep to. All you are left with is the burden of choice.

Recall the end of the previous chapter, where I talked about the approach I took towards my university topic choices. Contrary to popular belief, this strategy was far less risky than learning a greater number of topics to a lower standard, all for the sake of dodging difficult questions.

Being fully committed to each question actually reduced feelings of panic and instilled a sense of calm. I knew exactly which questions I would attempt before the exams even began. No time or mental energy were wasted wondering whether a different question would have been a better or easier choice.

I had learned each of my chosen topics extremely well, so it didn’t matter when some really nasty questions showed up. I didn't need choices because my highly focused preparation allowed me to answer those questions without too much difficulty.

As with most aspects of life, quality beats quantity.