At my school, being busy is a point of pride. God forbid someone be happy, relaxed, and have free time.
Conversations at the beginning of the semester always go something like this:
“Hey how was your break?”
“I just slept the whole time I was so dead from last semester”
“Me too. I literally didn’t get off the couch all break.”
“How is your schedule this semester?”
“I’m taking 5.5 credits; it’s going to be terrible, what about you?”
“I’m taking 6; I’m actually going to die”
“Oh gosh, let me know if you ever want to die together”
I’m not kidding when I say I’ve had pretty much this exact conversation like twenty times at the beginning of each semester. Later on, when classes are up and running the conversation shifts to something like:
“Hey are you free this week?”
“Uh I can maybe do 30 minutes on friday afternoon, but I have 3 midterms and 4 club meetings. I haven’t slept more than 4 hours all week.”
“Oh ok I’m really busy too so maybe next week.”
I don’t know why being busy is put on such a pedestal here, but it continuously blows my mind. Maybe this isn’t the case at every university, and maybe it’s just part of the extremely pre-professional culture here at Penn, but part of me thinks that this obsession with business never really dies and instead just evolves as we go through different phases of our lives.
It seems like everyone I know is busy with all of things they are supposed to do and only a handful of people consistently make time for things they want to do. Even though I am consciously aware of this fact, I still fall victim to business throughout the semester. “I’ll get back to my passion projects after this week of grinding on school work”, I say to myself. But sometimes a week turns into two or a month and then I forget what I was even going to do for myself in the first place.
In my opinion, part of the problem can be resolved just by living in day-tight compartments. When you’re always living in the future it’s easy to say that you’ll make time for fun and make time for yourself once you finish “xyz”. The problem with that approach is that you pretty much never reach that free time because some other task gets in the way. By focusing on living and enjoying every single day, it becomes a lot more important that enjoying yourself is part of every single day. That being said, it’s easy to say “have fun and be happy every day”. But actually living that? Much harder.
So where do we start? I like to look at my work and obligations while keeping the Pareto Principle in mind. In essence, the Pareto principle says that 20% of one’s work contributes to about 80% of the results. So by drilling down on what your high value tasks actually are, you can reprioritize your focus and attention to what matters most.
When I first arrived at Penn as a freshman, I joined a million-and-five clubs. Today I’m in exactly 0 clubs and would not have it any other way. While I’m not advocating that you should quit all your clubs or otherwise tangential obligations, make sure that you’re doing them for the right reasons. I think clubs can be great when they represent something you love or something you really want to work on, but I only joined the clubs I was in because I thought “it would be good for me”, whatever that means. Once you’ve evaluated and maybe eliminated some of the things “you have to do”, it’s time to think about how to do the work that can’t be eliminated.
The great thing about the Pareto Principle is that you can literally apply it to everything. So for the work you need to get done, it is likely that you can separate some 20% of what you’re doing that is actually helping you get results. The other 80% you should deprioritize and even consider eliminating where possible. For example, I used to waste a lot of time making flashcards for classes until I realized I literally never used those flashcards and terms were rarely tested. Goodbye flashcards. I used to take super detailed notes on every single reading until I realized that getting lost in the details actually made it harder for me to grasp the big picture of the class. Goodbye super detailed notes. In this way you can start to get rid of things that aren’t serving your goals. It may be kind of hard at first to figure out what exactly is ok to get rid of, but like any other skill, you’ll keep getting better the more you practice. And eventually, it becomes somewhat habitual to eliminate things that are wasting your time. Protect your time!
I think one of the other key issues is that sometimes people don’t even realize they should be protecting their time. It wasn’t until I realized that my time is literally my life that I started thinking about how I was spending it. When you’re signing up to do something, just keep in mind that you are signing up with your life. “Learning how to say no” is becoming super trendy in the personal development world right now, but for good reason. While exploring opportunities and new activities can be so fun and rewarding, everything you say no to is really giving you hours of your life back, so you can spend it on what really matters to you. Be intentional with your time.
Ok so now that we understand the importance of time and have hopefully eliminated a few things to get back more time, what do we do with our newfound free time?
It may seem like all we ever want is more free time but I’m consistently surprised at how often I find myself bored the first moment I get free. What I’ve found is the most satisfying way to spend my time actually isn’t rushing from one activity to the next, but to simply slow down and focus on living every individual moment. The more I focus on this, the more enjoyable it becomes. I used to always listen to books and podcasts at double speed. I wanted to consume as much information as possible as fast as possible. But over the past few months, something interesting started happening. Double speed suddenly felt too fast, a little rushed, almost fake. So I slowed it down to 1.75x. A few weeks later I had the same thought. Down to 1.5x. This kept happening until a few days ago I realized I had actually settled back down to 1.0x, normal speed.
Now I’m not saying that you can’t listen to things at faster speeds (I still listen to all of my boring lectures on double speed). I just want to highlight that sometimes all it takes to feel more satisfied, happy, and fulfilled in life is taking a step back, slowing down, and really focusing on living every single moment.