Glamorized exhaustion is not productivity

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Photo courtesy of beforethecoffee

MIT is the epitome of glamorized exhaustion. 

I’ve gotten 8 hours of sleep in the past three days,” they brag.

Oh yeah? I’ve been working on this project for 12 hours nonstop.” 

But this attitude and work style just isn’t effective. I’m determined to change how I work to be more effective and more productive.

This realization has not come easily. I used to live and breathe exhaustion. In high school, I had days where I had school 7:45am-3:15pm, then crew (rowing - I was a coxswain) practice 4pm-7pm, then orchestra rehearsal until 9pm. Then homework! In undergrad, I double majored in addition to my many activities, and I was constantly tired.

Last year, something changed. I worked at a research institution, focused on the tasks and projects I needed to accomplish, and worked consistently to achieve these goals. I exercised almost daily. I cooked almost all my meals. And I was the most productive I have ever been.

If a job is easy, what makes the student life so difficult? When you’re done with your job, you’re done. Working at home is not necessary, any work you do is bonus points. But as a student, the structure doesn’t exist. You have classes and deadlines. Go. But to succeed and be happy while you do it, you must create your own schedule.

University students everywhere cram for their exams, then feel miserable and perform poorly. The problem derives not from mental ability, but a lack of consistent time scheduling to activities. At MIT, a typical course is 12 “units,” where a “unit” is an hour of work expected per week. An introductory biology course divides its units to 5 in lecture, 0 in lab, and 7 studying at home, or 5-0-7. Why didn’t I harness this knowledge to plan my week and execute homework with efficient precision? A number of excuses come to mind, I was lazy, I didn’t feel like starting problem sets so early, but the biggest reason was that’s what I always did.

I could get away with these study habits in high school and do well, but college was a whole different ballgame. Even so, if you walk into the reading room/library before 5pm, you’ll see nary a soul. But from 7pm on, the desks are packed with people studying at a time where their brain is far too tired. They end up sleeping in the reading room. During the day, these students fill the hallways, glamorizing their exhaustion and out-suffering their friends. It’s pitiful.

I’m determined to change the way students approach work. Instead of bingeing and writing a paper in a 14-hour marathon, mindfully gather your ideas and craft a well-thought essay. Rather than waiting until the last minute to start your programming assignment, prime your mind early on by thinking through the pseudocode and produce a nicely commented program.

In my last year of undergrad, I used these strategies increased both my GPA and my relaxation time. Starting early really works!

Next time, I’ll discuss the book Advice for New Faculty Members and why it applies to you, regardless of whether you are in academia or not.

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