Time Constraints and the Bare Minimum

On the last night of finals week this past spring quarter, I was exhausted from finishing exams and still grading my students’ programming assignments. I couldn’t fall asleep because my mind didn’t want to forget what I was feeling by the next morning, so I had to write it all out in a journal (on paper! whoa!) before I could finally stop thinking about it. I neglected transcribing this until now, half out of embarrassment and half because it’s something I still change my mind about. Here it is, (mostly) unedited.

When I took CS106A, I was coming off a pretty bad fall quarter, in terms of my grades. That experience convinced me to take the bare minimum in the winter: IHUM, PWR1, CS106A, and a seminar about medicine. Sometimes, I regret missing out on classes like Introduction to Moral Philosophy and History of the Constitution, but I was incredibly happy that quarter. I discovered my love for computer science that quarter and ignored the warnings that CS106A wasn’t reflective of computer science as a field, and I’m darn glad I did. I was willing and able to dedicate a huge amount of my time to interacting with the material, making sure I was fully understanding everything, and investigating any extra topics I was curious about. By the end of the quarter, I found myself waking up at 7am without an alarm because I couldn’t wait to work on my assignments. I went to sleep excited about what I had done that day and I woke up with solutions for the bugs I had been dealing with the night before. I was in love.

Fast forward to now, just over a year later. I’m so exhausted I can barely get out of bed. I can’t focus in lecture because I’m worried about five other obligations. I just can’t engage with my classes the way I used to. Rather than starting my assignments as soon as they’re released, I wait until the night before–or even the morning of–and pound out code I barely understand, submitting minutes before each deadline. I’ve been this way all quarter–barely scraping by in my classes, finishing a midnight assignment only to immediately have to move onto the next obligation on the list.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a lack of interest. CS106A was not the end of my passion for computer science. I still can’t believe that I learned about multithreading, networking, web applications, public speaking, and contemporary ethics this quarter. I got into this mess because I couldn’t bear to drop any of the amazing classes I was taking.

The problem was that I had an extremely misguided view of time constraints. The analogy I told my friends earlier this quarter in order to justify my workload was that time is a box to be filled with activity “sponges.” You could pack the box lightly, allowing each sponge to fit in without compression, or you could squeeze in one more thing and have the other sponges make room. I kept saying that whatever I did, I would be stressed because the sponges would simply expand to fill my time, so having N + 1 activities wouldn’t be quite so different, anyway. Eventually–and I say this not to brag, but to prove a point–I ended up taking four nontrivial classes, working to finish off my year-long research project, section leading CS106B for the first time, and continuing as secretary of WiCS. I was exhausted out of my mind and I could barely think straight by the end of the quarter.

I kept telling myself I couldn’t miss out on any of these things and that I just needed to be a part of all of them, but in retrospect, I think I might have ended up missing out on all of them. I deeply regret not dedicating as much time to CS110 (Principles of Computer Systems) as that class deserved (because, seriously, I’ll probably need concurrency patterns for a significant portion of my career), I don’t think I actually understand Ruby/JavaScript, and I barely did any of the cool readings I was assigned in philosophy. I haven’t finished my final research project, which means my work at the lab is continuing into the summer, and I’m still a terrible public speaker because PWR2 was such a low priority. In short, I barely learned anything this quarter, aside from the fact that it is uncomfortably easy to “do well” without actually internalizing any of the intended lessons.

In spite of this, it’s incredibly hard for me to convince myself to take a step back. I just don’t want to–I think about what I would be willing to give up, and I come up with nothing. In writing this, I had hoped that I would convince myself that what I’ve been doing is stupid, not the best use of my time, and, in the end, extremely unhealthy.

I miss appreciating my classes. I miss being able to give a subject my undivided attention. I miss the feeling of waking up, excited because of everything. I absolutely could have had that feeling with any of the things I was committed to this quarter, but wanting all of them left me with long-lasting memories of barely any of them. I’m calling myself out for my unhealthy behavior and I’m taking a stand. No more 20 unit quarters, no more triple activities, and no more working myself into the ground. This fall, I’m going to take the bare minimum, and I’m going to appreciate every second of it.

In the two weeks since I wrote this, I’ve realized a few things.

First, concurrency is definitely everywhere. I’m pleasantly surprised by my prediction regarding its relevance to my career.

Second, it concerns me that I didn’t even consider the “having a social life” sponge or the “sleep” sponge or any of the other non-academic sponges when I wrote this. I should think about those aspects a lot more than I have.

Third, after writing this and thinking so much about it all, I still don’t want to take a step back. I felt so empowered that night, thinking that I could just say “Screw this system and screw the duck syndrome!” and magically expect my obligations to disappear. That’s not really how the world works–especially in college–and as my memory of spring quarter fades, my desire to fall into this exact same trap comes back. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe I was being melodramatic. Maybe I can take it this time. Even as I write this, I worry that if I hit the publish button, I’d be holding myself publicly accountable for my unhealthy behavior. It’s something that I needed to say, but it’s something I’m afraid to act upon.

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