Up until sophomore year, I was able to get away with using my time pretty much however I wanted. This was probably because of easier classes, not knowing of huge time-wasters like the Internet, and not being able to drive a car (which enabled long hangouts with friends and driving myself to places my parents would drive me before).
When eleventh grade hit, though, I was forced to start actively managing my time. I especially struggled with it senior year [blogpost] (though I did make breakthroughs [blogpost]) and last quarter, but I don’t think I really got a good handle on it until now. I’ve discovered, by trial and error, things to do and guidelines to follow that almost guarantee work being finished on time. This is as much a reminder/documentation for future me as it is advice for others. I’m certainly no authority on this subject; this is just what works for me. It’s just that I’ve been blessed with a really optimal-for-productivity schedule this quarter (more on that later) and when huge variables like that change in my life in the future, I’m going to need to look back at this. Let’s get right to it.
- Move from place to place as efficiently as possible (most of the time). At a huge campus like UCSD, it can take half an hour to get from one corner to the other (Warren College to Galbraith Hall twice a week for Linear Algebra. 🙁 ) Biking takes seven minutes. Each day, I save anywhere between an hour to an hour and a half biking from different meetings and classes. I can’t imagine walking anymore. (Some people like to longboard, to which I say good luck going uphill and godspeed for your inevitable injuries. My suite mate has taken a fall at least three times since the beginning of the year. His latest one involved a gash to his butt and an ugly scrape to his elbow.) Travel fast and safe.The other (far more obvious) thing to keep in mind is to plan your stops to be geographically close or on the way to your next one. Have class an hour apart but want to get lunch? Make sure the dining hall you go to is close or on the way to your next class. This restricts your options a lot more for non bikers, but in general, the less time spent traveling the better.
Disclaimer: Sometimes it’s better to slow down and turn your thoughts inwards instead of towards your next task. If you’re not pressed for time, there’s a huge spiritual and practical benefit to going about a task at a leisurely pace that is easily overlooked in our fast-paced lives (more on that in the next point). I personally find traveling quickly on my bike exhilarating, so I don’t like taking things slow there, but I almost always eat my meals slowly because…
- Meal times double really well as break times. Last quarter we read a bunch of different perspectives on American food consumption and how it relates to sustainability. An interesting point one of the authors brought up is that in the past, mealtimes used to be a communal activity. Back when packaged goods were not a thing, the family would work together to cook using raw materials and eat together right afterwards. It provided them an opportunity to spend time doing something that forces them to be in the same room together until the meal was eaten. I noticed this too about my own family. Though we could be in the same house all day, we might as well have been 1000 miles apart while we are focused on our work and activities, for all the interaction between us. But our basic human instinct of hunger brought us together for a precious 15-20 minutes each day just to sit. To enjoy each other’s company. And talk about things that don’t matter.Between experience at home and the author’s perspective, I decided to extend my meal times to an hour, relaxing over whatever I wanted after the food was gone, from reading a book to talking with friends. Now that it’s been a week in, it’s definitely official. My break time are now almost exclusively meal times, and it works REALLY well. I’ve never found the inner burning need to get my mind off work during work time now – which means I’ve spent a very minimal amount of time on reddit and youtube and video games. Moreover, it’s just more efficient – mathematically, I’m simply tacking on an extra half an hour to each meal time, but it’s an optimal sweet spot to do so. The magnitude of relaxation it gives me is far greater than an hour of Super Smash Bros. Brawl or whatever else.
It’s so strange. I tried so hard in senior year to focus on stopping the bad habit of wasting time on the Internet, but I guess all it took was allocating my leisure time to the right time slot. I’m really grateful I found it though.
- Using the SelfControl Application. I don’t really need this anymore because of 2), but near the end of last quarter I used this and it was the perfect solution to my problem. SelfControl unconditionally and irreversibly blocks any domain for a specified amount of time up to 24 hours (even if you uninstall SelfControl), after which the websites will be accessible again. This solves the main problems with other website-blocking software:One, for example, is that blocked sites are easily accessible via a password which, unless you have an accountability partner (and you may not be comfortable with one), you have to write down and keep somewhere. This never works because at some point you’ll give in to temptation, or you may lose it and screw yourself over, especially if you’ve blocked a site that also has a lot of value (Facebook, for example, which is a great PR tool and the most complete, accessible contacts list in existence).
With the way SelfControl works, you can reassure yourself that a) there is absolutely nothing you can do to access the website you’ve blocked until the time is up and b) you are guaranteed access later – so it’s better to just not think about it and have patience. In practice, this mentality truly lets any temptation out of your mind, because it’s so much easier to let go of desire when you can reassure yourself you can fulfill it later on. By the end of the 24 hours (the time I usually set SelfControl to), I have almost forgotten about the sites I usually waste time on, while urgent communication through Facebook happened through my Nexus 4 (which I would keep in an inconvenient place when not necessary).
SelfControl is Mac only, and I don’t think Windows has an equivalent out there [Update: Windows does have an equivalent called Cold Turkey. Thanks Keshav!]. However, this article describes a lot of other great software for both Macs and PCs that approach solving the problem for maintaining focus while on the computer in a bunch of different ways. SelfControl worked for me. Maybe a different tool will work betterfor someone else.
- Schedule commitments that require you to move from one place to another, and schedule everything else in blocks of work time. Up until about three weeks ago, I habitually made the mistake of trying to schedule each individual task (i.e. do Math HW from 1:30-2:00, CS Project from 2-3pm, etc). What would ALWAYS end up happening, WITHOUT FAIL, (and like an idiot I continued to beat the long dead horse), is that I’d be deep in the task when the end of time hit. So I’d have to choose between ending my task when I’m most productive at it, or pushing everything down by however long I went over time. I usually went with the second option because I couldn’t deal with having multiple unfinished tasks, and the resulting breakdown of structure just also broke down my self-discipline. The thought process usually went something like this: I broke the rules I set down for myself. If the rules I set down for myself work best when broken, why should I follow any other rules? or something like that.Blocking out a few hours of work time and simply prioritizing a list of tasks (it’s very important to write down ALL your tasks on the same page so assigned priorities are optimal) works a lot better, mentally.
- Figure out the optimal portable solution for when grinding is necessary. By grinding, I mean churning out 7-8/10 material in time for a deadline. I say portable because no one really knows when or where the time to grind will start – the solution cannot depend on environmental variables, and should be with you most times of the day, by default. Some people can grind without preparation, but I’m definitely not one of those people. For me, I’ve discovered that engaging in some power poses for about one minute followed by sliding on my Sennheiser Momentums and turning up instrumental-only electronic music with a consistent, repeating, deep baseline without the acuteness of dubstep, like Sun Burst by Minnesota, One by Swedish House Mafia, or the Sly Cooper 2 Nightclub Theme, all while ignoring all incoming interactions from humans and technology, is really effective for me.Something about that repeating baseline. It brings out some inner work-beast hidden deep within me, and the repetitive nature of the music keep riling it up until it’s taken over my soul and it expands until I become my task at hand. That’s when I know I’m grinding.
- Working out. Feeling good about yourself is closely linked with productivity – a simple google search will reveal that. As I expressed yesterday, maintaining my fitness is central to my spiritual well being. My grades were always higher during cross-country season in high school, and I always get more work done when I spend an hour or two in the morning working out or running. It’s a fact of life.
- Work hard (separately) and play hard (separately). I don’t think I understood this over-quoted phrase correctly until this quarter, because you can work hard for two minutes and play hard for 3 hours (you think it’s atrocious and then you look back at some of my days last quarter…).It’s best interpreted as working hard in the same proportions as playing hard, and the longer the work or play time is, the farther separated they should be. Planning on going to a hackathon this weekend, which will be almost nothing but fun and traveling and meeting new people and doing what you love for 36 hours? (That’s me!) Work hard the entire previous week with no long break times. No binging on Brawl or going to the mall. Work and play have to balance out.
And does it make sense to squeeze in 5 minutes of work just before embarking on a weeklong adventure? Of course not! Nor would you be motivated right after (like three minutes after) the end of 10 hour brawl marathon to work on anything at all. It works the other way too. A 5 minute break after a 10 hour coding session isn’t going to do anything for you.
So what to do in the transitions between work and play? Things that are mandatory tasks but aren’t stressful, or things that simply allow you to think of nothing. Like cleaning, doing laundry, brushing your teeth, shaving, walking nowhere. Whatever works for you. The transition is a deceleration period that can consist of activities that affects you in a way similar to a break, but devoid of thought.
Work hard, play hard. Be honest with how long and hard you’ve worked, and how necessary each break you think you need is. Like I said earlier, breaks for mealtimes are great because you get to hit two birds with one stone AND they’re mandatory, but sometimes you just won’t have time to eat dinner. In which case, keep the work hard, play hard mentality in mind – the correct way.
And that’s it. A great thing to remember and keep you going is that productivity engenders more productivity. Feeling good about yourself and having confidence in your abilities to finish the task at hand is honestly the best enabler of continued performance you’ll find. The first steps are the hardest. Future me, I don’t know how far long your journey to your maximum productivity you are, but just follow these tips and don’t give up!