In defense of quitting
What I learned from almost ruining my first semester of grad school by overcommitting
If a hacker were to break into my phone at the beginning of September and read through my notes, this is the first one they would find:
I think MIT is full of people who have a hard time saying no to exciting opportunities, and I am no exception. I’ve been following a roughly 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule for the past 2 weeks, as part of a haphazard attempt to take 5 courses as a first-semester PhD student. At orientation, in spite of my advisor, student mentors, friends, and family’s advice to stick with a normal course load this semester, I found myself wooed by the possibility of taking two fantastic electives on top of three required courses this semester.
It’s now or never, I told myself, thinking of how one of those electives would possibly never be offered again. It’s doable if I work hard enough, I told myself, having calculated a roughly 70 hour workweek with the course load. This is what it takes to succeed, I told myself, thinking of how David Goggins, Elon Musk, and probably half of the students at MIT regularly lived on 4 or fewer hours of sleep. If they could do it, so could I. After all, doesn’t MIT admit only robots and superhumans? I’d better prove that they made the right choice with me.
After about a week and a half of this academic ironman, I started to run out of steam. Call me weak, but I need at least 7 hours of sleep to function and my carefully crafted plan of collapsing into bed around 10 PM was regularly disrupted by an assignment taking longer than expected, traffic on my commute to and from Cambridge, or interactions with classmates, friends, or family that were not built into my time budget. At a low point, I tried to win back time by eating my meals cold rather than microwaving them for 2 minutes.
In addition to the exhaustion, constantly switching between tasks and too many deadlines had me constantly on edge, watching the clock and unable to fully engage with whatever subject I’d allocated a given hour to. I’d carefully read 100 pages, but be unable to summarize the main points an hour later, because while I was reading, I was thinking of the looming deadlines for my other classes. Although I realized my schedule was unsustainable almost immediately, I clung onto it for another week, not wanting to be a “quitter.”
I think that many of us at MIT have been conditioned to say “yes” to as many opportunities as possible, even when it means sacrificing health, relationships, and concentration. It is, in part, our willingness to hustle, that got us here, and we’re afraid of giving that up. So instead of setting healthy boundaries, we collect books like Essentialism, The ONE Thing, Deep Work, Why We Sleep, and other self-help books that explain (“with science!”) why focus and sleep are critical for success. The books sit, unread, on our overflowing shelves, a symbol of our unmet needs. We pick the books up in brief moments of clarity, usually following a health scare or period of intense burnout. We realize our insane schedules may cost more than they are worth. We make a list of action items from the books, pat ourselves on the back for being so proactive, and then promptly return to our frenzied lives due to some combination of FOMO and hubris.
At the beginning of week 3 of “Mission Impossible,” I realized I’d had enough. I peeled myself away from my computer for a well-deserved running break after 12 hours of fatigued and inefficient working. As the fresh air filled my lungs and I began to jog, I was reminded of what freedom felt like. For fifteen minutes, I ran unencumbered, absorbed by the views along the Charles River. Slowly but surely, the looming list of to-dos settled into my awareness again. I slowed to a crawl, burdened by the weight of excessive and unnecessary responsibility. I pulled out my phone and reviewed my “battle plan” for the week ahead. I knew I was “strong” enough to do another week of 18-hour days, maybe two at most. I had been told repeatedly that graduate school is like a marathon, and here I was jeopardizing my future by treating it like a sprint.
I walked the rest of the way home, submitted a “drop course” form for one of my electives, and emailed the professor to let her know that I hoped to be back next year, when I could give the course the attention that it deserves.
Letting go of commitments can be hard. For days after submitting the “drop course” form, I had many second thoughts, but I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t not just choosing between successfully completing 5 classes and successfully completing 4 classes. I was choosing between a semester characterized by exhaustion, distraction, and guilt about unmet obligations, and a semester in which I know I gave everything my best shot and tried to use my mind at its fullest capacity to lay the foundation for the rest of my career.
While the decision to “quit” my fifth class was a hard one, I’m grateful to my advisor, classmates, and student mentors for explaining the necessity of setting realistic expectations for the semester. In an environment where everyone around me seems so successful, it is refreshing to be reminded that I don’t have to be a robot or superhuman to make it at MIT or in life.
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