(Non)sensical schedule optimization
In undergrad, I had what my friends called an “absolutely insane” schedule. I followed it because I felt like there was not enough time in the day to get everything done and I had the luxury of a flexible routine as a student. Sunday through Friday, my day looked like this:
- 2:00—3:15 AM // Gym
- 3:30—6:30 AM // Sleep
- 6:45—10:00 AM // Work
- 10:15—2:00 PM // Class, work
- 2:15—5:15 PM // Sleep
- 5:30—9:00 PM // Work
- 9:00—9:30 PM // Nap
- 9:30—1:45 AM // Work
As you can see, I considered the start of my day to be 2:00 AM. I would take Saturday to focus on non-academic stuff, such as volunteering, making sure I got enough sunlight, and having a social life.
By switching my gym, sleep, and class schedules to times of the day when I had low energy, I was able to maximize my efficiency and do more than I could have otherwise. I would focus on busy work—like double checking my problem sets—whenever I was coming out of sleep and save more thought-intensive tasks, like writing papers, for my prime waking hours. I planned my days the night before and had all my tasks batched and optimized.
Because of this, I felt like I was drowning.
While insane productivity sounds great, this was an unequivocally miserable schedule fueled by coffee and desperation. Every day was a knife fight between deadlines, and I compensated for extra time spent on a task by taking the difference from my sleep. On Saturday nights when I did see friends I felt pressured to get a week’s worth of socializing in before the bars kicked us out. I bartered sleep, quality time with loved ones, and my own sanity in exchange for straight A’s, a couple of awards, and a few needless bullet points on my resume. I was eventually forced to decide between doing less or sacrificing even more to get through the rest of my degree. I chose the former and I do not regret it.
After I stepped off the tightrope of time management, I realized that my approach was principled but my execution misguided. Since I was a student, I had enormous flexibility in choosing when and what to work on. I focused on important tasks at the times of day I knew myself to be most productive, and relegated busy work to times when I was typically more tired. It was good of me to organize my obligations in this way, but bad to take it to the extreme by planning down to the minute and leaving no room for human error. This was unrealistic at best and doomed to failure at worst.
I am happy to say that since coming to MIT, I am back on a (mostly) normal schedule. I do research during the day, work out in the evening, sleep at night, and have a social life beyond one day a week. I say “mostly” because I continue to have weird habits like eating lunch at 4 PM, combining paper editing with my Netflix time, and only taking full showers past midnight. While each of these tendencies arose organically, I now consciously include them into my day because they help me navigate life more efficiently.
If you have the flexibility in your schedule (which most graduate students do) and feel like there is never enough time in the day (which most graduate students definitely do), I suggest trying to find your sweet spot of efficiency by making changes to your daily routine. You know your productive hours and your low points of the day. Optimize around these, and then think about other changes that you could make to streamline your life. Try new things. Mix it up. Take a nap at 3 PM, grade papers as your pasta boils, or go to the gym in between classes. Tweak the parameters of your schedule and find what works best for you. We are engineers and scientists, after all—what’s one more experiment?
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