Here's a free-form essay I'm turning in tomorrow. It's in the style of the first essayist, Michel de Montaigne. He wrote essays in the 1500s that resemble blog entries to an amazing degree. Free-form, lots of digressions, all from his own perspective, not trying to convince the reader, and usually citing little real evidence. He even used a really obnoxious background image of his favorite emo band, and some inane animations.
It usually finish my assignments just barely before they are due. From my first quarter, when I was enrolled in five separate courses, I have repeatedly managed sizable workloads with (mostly) high-quality results. However, this phenomenon also occurs when my responsibilities are half as large. If I were tasked to sort a deck of cards, the final king would come to rest mere minutes before the stack's collection. The difference between two minutes and a week of sorting would be approximately one rubber band, fit snuggly across four faces of the deck. Given a month, I am confident I would muster the effort to add a second band (lengthwise).
My shortcoming is not a lack of personal goals. I have a plethora of ideas I would love to implement. Countless hours of thought have constructed many thick neural pathways in my mind. Yet, code, essays, and a book remain (almost entirely) unwritten. As you may imagine, I have not even seriously contemplated any potential art projects. I’m not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. That much I have been realistic about.
This day-and-age, distractions are everywhere. Modern video games can be engrossing for hours at a time; the Internet brings vast amounts of information (useful and otherwise) within several keystrokes; fond friends fill massive contact lists; digital cable television provides hundreds of channels; more novels exist now than ever. Though I successfully avoid the latter two, I admit a bit of knowledge and entertainment addiction. The immediate satisfaction from interactive science fiction tends to trump my desire to keep ahead of deadlines. Would I rather write a finely-tuned essay on the importance of personal responsibility, or play ten hours of “Clam Digger II: Clampocalypse?”
Perhaps my inefficiency stems as a defense for personal time. We are told that completing work early relieves the anxiety associated with unfinished business. Finish a job ahead of schedule, and you will enjoy the same amount of leisure, worry-free. I doubt I would have as much free time if I got an early start on my work. Details which I normally brush aside with a quick “there's no time left for that” would suddenly receive undue attention. In any case, I lost my fear of deadlines long ago. Late-night work sessions are a college student's best friend.
If I gave myself deadlines for my own goals, I could simulate a heavy workload at all times. Then I would accomplish those tasks situated between “real work” and pure play. These tasks could, appropriately, have priority lower than “must-finish” chores and higher than “will-finish” entertainment goals. This scheme suffers a fatal flaw: real consequences. If I fail to turn in a handful of projects for a course, my grade will suffer in an intuitive way; the results are similar with relaxation and my general mood. Yet, an indefinite delay for a piece of writing (which nobody anticipates) does not affect me in a tangible way. Neither (I suspect), would the benefits of publishing a piece of my work be obvious, nor the benefits of keeping my bedroom and dishes spotless.
Now, why am I so concerned with the way I do my work? As I stated, I do good work when required. Many, I suppose, would be perfectly satisfied with this situation. But the facts are simple: if I could simply spend ten percent of my spare time on on tasks more important than reading every bit of high-tech news that marches its way across my favorite websites, I could be significantly more productive with my life. Increased productivity is the most fool-proof way to extend one's life – most importantly, one's healthy and active youth. I would much rather work a little harder now than regret living a “merely average” life upon retrospect. Being a computer engineer, I deeply appreciate the impact of performance improvements. Imagine if we were all ten percent more effective with our lives.
One hypothesis I've formed is that the large variety of work I encounter in my day-to-day school life prevents me from approaching my potential efficiency. Currently, I shift my attention between basic chemistry, biology, robot design, classic literature, a radio-frequency identification tag group project, the ever-horrifying career hunt, and a handful of extra-curricular activities. Not only are there a substantial number of topics, most have little in common with each other (subjectmatter, responsibilities, and scheduling). Michel De Montaigne offered similar sentiments in his brief essay On Idleness:
The mind that has no fixed aim loses itself, for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.
These disparate tasks require frequent task-switching. Each switch includes the overhead of process re-orientation. As David Meyer notes in his work on task-switching (“Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching”, 2001), humans are very poor at rapidly re-focusing their attention on different jobs. Thus, I reserve great hope in my near-future/post-graduation. Restricting myself to a select few major topics and much-more-regulated work schedules may prove to positively affect my effectiveness. Or I may just be lazy.