Time Management

All through high school I had really high standards for myself. Not the grades, mind you (I admit, humblebrag, my grades were always uncomfortably high, probably as an expected but still sad byproduct of this process (yes, I’m actually complaining about grades being too high. I don’t want my report card to have lots of Bs or Cs, but I really didn’t need to pour enough resources into schoolwork that I graduated as valedictorian, when there were so many other personally and socially meaningful things I could be dedicating effort into creating — but that’s a subject for another post (humblebrags all the way down. Somebody get some internet pitchforks and poke some sense into me))), but simply how I managed my time for doing homework.

In my opinion: not very well. I always spent too much time surfing the internet and doing things less urgent than homework, then ended up sleeping at midnight or one o’clock or whenever often to finish what I should have done earlier.

And yet, compared to many of my friends (definitely not all, though), that’s not late at all and the amount of buffer time I had between finishing work and having it due was positively luxurious. But then, I suppose, I didn’t have the same amount of math homework. But to counter my excuse, I had additional responsibilities such as practicing olympiad problems and preparing weekend presentations and translating the school newsletter. So I don’t actually know if my workload was significantly lighter than average or not, ergo I don’t know whether my time management skills were significantly better than average or not. It seriously doesn’t feel like they would be.

And allegedly, even when I’m procrastinating, it’s more productive than my friends’ procrastination, maybe even Paul Graham’s good type of procrastination. Often when I gripe about how much my former self procrastinated they will ask me what I’ve been doing and, after hearing the answer, tell me this. What have I done to put off homework? Oh, I did some olympiad math problems, committed to my GitHub projects, read a bunch of programming blogs, organized my old chemistry notes from two years ago, and surfed the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Yeah. Total waste of time. Meanwhile certain friends surf 9GAG whenever they get the chance. (Which is not to say that I don’t procrastinate in obviously unproductive ways sometimes — I surf reddit, YouTube, and TVTropes of course. Sometimes I even just read my own blog or dig through old folders in my computer. I’m weird. But anyway.)

So, I don’t think much of my time management skills, but I also wonder if I’m being too harsh on myself. Then again, I think conventional wisdom says competing with yourself is psychologically healthier than competing with others, and I agree, so I guess that’s that: I have lots of room for improvement.

Why do I have such high standards for myself over this? Because I wanted to get into, and thrive at, a “good college”. That phrase is in scare quotes as usual because I don’t think one should rank and compare things as multifaceted as colleges with unqualified generic modifiers like “good” (see first text-wall), but for my purpose here I mean something like “highly demanding of intellect and work ethic”, so I think I’ve done the first item. Now, each time I think about how much I procrastinate in high school, I have doubts about whether I can handle the workload required for the second.

The optimist in me objects that my high-school track record is okay because the assignments I have to do are all over the map — they belong to subjects I find boring but have to take anyway, because my school is so tiny and understaffed and I don’t have much choice if I want to academically challenge myself (or at least look like I’m doing so). At college, I’d find myself far more interested in assignments from math or programming or other subjects I hand-picked from a gigantic catalog. In fact, I already spend a nontrivial amount of time talking to friends already in college about their math or programming homework problems, and in some cases solving those instead of doing my own homework. Won’t it be great, to finally be able to follow my passions and earn academic credit for it at the same time?

But the pessimist in me says no, I procrastinate because some part of me just doesn’t like being told what to do and nothing will be fun to me once it becomes a responsibility. Those college assignments I’m getting from others? I don’t enjoy doing them because of the subject matter, I enjoy doing them because it’s an escape from the actual responsibilities looming in my face. Once I get to college I’ll find the whole scenario reversed and end up wanting to edit internet friends’ essays or learn how to draw or something instead of doing math psets. Look. Instead of doing the linear algebra homework, which I have already consciously decided there is seriously a lot of, I’m writing this detailed blog post instead of just firing off filler posts for the streak (were you wondering whether I was going to link to it in this post at all? ;) ). Okay, harnessing my perfectionist tendencies to write lots of words was part of my original intention, but I already expressed the necessity of filler posts a while back and now I’m still serving up two heavy-duty self-analysis posts in a row.

Example of what happens when I do a homework problem:

A problem in section 1.2 told me to do some stuff in MATLAB. So I spent half an hour messing around getting my MATLAB license from MIT and installing the behemoth and doing unproductive stuff while waiting for it. Then I spent half an hour learning MATLAB so I could actually do the assignment as functionally as possible — even though I had to process 30 vectors and the loop syntax would obviously be easier to pick up, I just had to dig out the equivalent of a functional map (spoiler: cellfun or arrayfun or something else depending on which structure it is — ha! no typeclasses! My tastes in programming language are so warped by Haskell :( ). Then, instead of writing the solution up at that point, I spent half an hour trying for inexplicable procrastinatory fun to write my MATLAB computation out as a single expression and golf it. I learned that MATLAB’s lambdas a.k.a. anonymous functions look like @(x) x/norm(x), and you can’t call them directly with normal function call syntax (like even though you can write f = @(x) x/norm(x); f([1;2;3]), you can’t write (@(x) x/norm(x))([1;2;3]) (which is stupid and brings up bad PHP memories)), but you can call them directly using feval, as in feval(@(x) x/norm(x), [1;2;3]).

Then I got my results, looked at them carefully, and realized I had misread the problem and was golfing the wrong thing. Luckily, it was easy to fix. So I fixed it and got my results and was puzzled because it still seemed wrong. Then I spent half an hour doing the math, computing a double integral on a hemisphere using spherical coordinates, and realized the problem was wrong (at least, it heavily implied an incorrect and completely irrelevant solution and answer). At this point I posted it to the Facebook study group and waited for corroboration or disproof. I got corroboration. It wasn’t my fault.

That’s two hours right there. For a single problem that could have taken fifteen minutes, if I had just searched up what the MATLAB functions did and performed the corresponding computations in Haskell or Python or Sage. Admittedly, I’d probably want to install MATLAB on my computer at some point, so maybe that choice wasn’t really wasted, but the point remains. And fine, actually all the time lengths are made up, because I’m really bad at this sort of estimation when I’m not paying attention, because I definitely hadn’t planned to blog about it at that point. I have no idea how long it took, but it was an unacceptably long time, okay?

I don’t have any good solutions for myself or anything, except to become more aware of when I procrastinate, and maybe get some friends who will look at me funny if I try to explain that I’m spending an hour more than necessary to get an aesthetically pleasing MATLAB solution, where for some perverse reason “aesthetically pleasing” means “no semicolons”. I hope that won’t be difficult once I get to campus. Oh yeah, and I guess I need to declare fewer implicit vacations from HabitRPG, although it doesn’t help that a gross supermajority of my party is totally absent and there’s less feeling of accountability there.

Oddly, I still have this nagging feeling that I manage time better than the average MIT student in freshman year, because of all the people who posted about finishing their FEE a few minutes before (or after) the deadline. But maybe that’s just because finishing right before or after a deadline is more post-worthy than finishing with lots of time to spare.

I don’t know. Comments are welcome, but as usual I expect very few of those.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)