The Wonders of Having No Time

Simply by virtue of having been alive long enough to make it to college, I’ve lived through some transitions in my life. There was the move from middle school to high school, the change from high school to college, and soon enough there will be the inevitable departure from college into the wide world. The most drastic of all these changes wasn’t when I traded in summer camps for internships or my own bed for a dorm room, though. No, the most dramatic change in my lifestyle happened when I entered middle school in the sixth grade.

There were a few reasons for this: a new group of people to assimilate into, a new set of surroundings, and more freedom than I had in elementary school, but the most important reason is probably the newfound severity of everything. When you leave elementary school, things get truly serious. Sports teams have tryouts, clubs and extracurriculars are serious affairs, and for the first time the grades you get truly feel like they matter. It’s a hectic transition, especially when you’re no more than 12 years old, and looking back I’m not quite sure how I did it. But I do know one piece of advice I would give to anyone going through this transition into the enormous and scary world of middle school: don’t give yourself free time.

I played three sports all throughout middle and high school, which meant that I was routinely getting home at around 7 PM every day, which in turn meant that I usually wasn’t starting my work until about 7:30 or 8. And yet, somehow I was never the last one of my friends to sleep, and I never had issues getting everything done. The reason for this, though, isn’t that I’m smarter or work harder or can get things done more quickly than others, it’s not something to do with me at all. The reason I did my work in a shorter time than many of my peers is that I had no other options. If I wanted to get a reasonable amount of sleep I couldn’t afford to be distracted or to procrastinate; I simply had to work, completely focused and to the best of my abilities, until the work was done. I did my best work with my back against the wall.

This remained the case all through high school, and the idea that I do my best work while on a tight schedule still holds true in college, where I have to fill my time on my own. On the days when I have more free time and less work to do, I find myself remarkably unproductive. I get distracted by my phone, watch TV, surf the web. When I simply have to put my nose to the grindstone, however, either because I have little time or because I set myself a strict schedule, everything changes. Nothing distracts me, and the work that I produce is usually of a higher quality than the work I make when I have more unstructured time.

There’s an old adage related to this known as Parkinson’s law, that goes: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” It’s a wonderful one-liner, but I think it misses something important. When the work we have expands to fill a large amount of time, the amount of focus we give it drops, which hurts the quality of that work. When we force our work to fill little time, we work with a single-minded focus that produces much better results. In others words, if you want to do your work well, force yourself to focus on it.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex