Last Edit: 2020-12-02
How to be productive across multiple obligations
Students are always working on something. Whether it's homework, pre-professional clubs, recruiting, passion projects, there's always something to do. Work/life balance as a student? Forget it; there's an assignment due at midnight. This is especially exacerbated during the pandemic, where the line between work and life is even more blurred than usual.
So how should you approach getting work done? Should you work on every single thing every single day? Are you destined to experience the burnout that comes with doing this?
I've recently had some friends ask how I find the time and mental energy to work on a variety of seemingly disparate things, like helping run Dorm Room Fund or teaching a course at Penn while being a full-time student. I never thought of myself as having good time management skills at all, and there are definitely other people who are much, much better at balancing commitments their than I am. But one thing I like to think that I'm good at is avoiding burnout from working on too many things, especially when progress stagnates or things get out of hand.
Part of this is because a lot of what I do are actually pretty intertwined (e.g. doing NLP research helping me stay sharp with investing in ML companies and helping me teach more interesting lectures). I think the most important part, however, is how I like to structure my work days.
A lot of times college is referred to as a balancing act, where all obligations have to be kept in stasis, combatting gravity (i.e. deadlines) at all times. However, I find that I do my best work and avoid fatigue by treating it as a juggling performance, where I throw all the other balls away and just focus on the matter at hand.
When I told my friend this, she thought it was unfathomable. And to be fair, it really only works where you aren't constantly putting out fires, so this could be my senioritis talking. Sometimes, this is just hard to do, with weird group project meetings and one-off requirements sprinkled throughout the week. But even then, just carving time around them for a single task, and waking up with a single accomplishable goal did wonders for me.
(it's not just fun metaphorically)
Focusing on one thing at a time and assuming everything else will get done when it was time helped me with my biggest problem when drowning: feeling bad because I wasn't getting the most out of my work/material. I would always feel that I was rushing studying or research because of other external factors (i.e. other assignments). That feeling goes away after a day of hard work, where I could honestly say that I devoted that day's working hours to a single thing. Not to mention that avoiding context switching helped me get in "the zone", where I was comfortably in my flow state and getting to the core at the matter at hand.
In a way, this is just reframing the benefits of procrastinating: staying focused because there is something that needs to get done today. Channelling that type of energy into something less stressful and on your own terms is where I think the value lies.
Writing about productivity or work/life balance can get preachy really quickly so I try to avoid it whenever possible. But, framing my day-to-day as juggling instead of balancing act really did help me with handling all my obligations that students are forever burdened with.
I hope that during the pandemic, where it seems that a lot of my students are overstressed and drowning in work, this way of framing mountains of work serves helpful (or at least gives the perspective that you're always in control).