In a couple weeks I'll be leading a workshop for incoming graduate students at my university. I've been trying to articulate the biggest lesson I've learned in the past year. What do I wish I had understood better when I started graduate school? I think the main change in my perspective has been this: managing your energy is exponentially more important than managing your time.
Go hard or go home?
It's easy to think that the best students give 100% to everything they do. It obviously makes sense, right? Those who achieve the most are obviously doing everything at the very highest level they possibly can at all times. That's what I used to believe but now I realize I don't think that's true. For the first couple of weeks, some students are able to give 100% to everything and they momentarily appear as if they are all-stars. Within a couple weeks though, they can no longer keep up that pace. It's impossible to give everything you do 100% as a graduate student.
At first, I felt badly about this. I felt like I was somehow cheating myself out of the true graduate school experience by not staying up until 3 AM every morning and talking about how little sleep I get. I thought the measure of a good graduate student was how much time I spent with my studies and how long I was able to seclude myself in the library each week.
I quickly realized this was stupid.
Do everything well, do nothing well?
Your impact in graduate school is measured in a very different way. You obviously have to do well in your classes and stay up to speed with what's going on. That's a given. But that doesn't require you to put 100% of your energy into class assignments. In fact, if you're putting yourself into your classes 100% you're probably missing out on opportunities to make a true impact. In graduate school it's expected to do well in classes so when you do well, nobody cares. Instead, people (i.e. professors) care about the other things you get involved with. They care about your involvement in a research lab. They care about your assistance in a grant they're writing. They care about your efforts to start a business or start your own research or generally just do something other than do well in their class.
Time for some strategic slacking
Looking back on this realization, I think it applies to non-students as well. You can't go through life giving 100% of your effort to everything. It's a recipe for burnout and frustration. Instead, the truly high level operators get very good at figuring out where they can scale back their effort in order to save themselves for the opportunities and activities that have a much larger impact. For example, is it really worth staying absolutely on top of your email if it takes you hours everyday and results in you losing an opportunity to work on an exciting project with a colleague? Or, is it worth taking hours and hours to fill out a routine report absolutely perfectly if nobody is actually going to read it in-depth and it's just going to get instantly filed away? If doing something routine leaves you too drained to really pour yourself into something that matters, what's the point?
At a certain level, I feel a little dirty even writing this. I was raised to do things well no matter what. I was always told the true test of character is what you do when nobody is looking. I believe that's the case when it comes to issues of morality but when it comes to doing great work, you have to cut corners on the work that doesn't matter so you can focus on what does. Figuring out the proper balance of full effort and partial effort is what often separates people who do and don't make an impact in your field.
The important thing to remember with all of this, though, is that saving your energy does you absolutely no good if you don't fully engage with those activities that really matter. If you cut corners just for the sake of cutting corners then you're missing the point. I wrap up a class paper even though I know with a couple more hours of work I could make it 5% better so I can spend those hours on something that actually matters, like a grant proposal. Getting 95% on a paper instead of 90% is not worth the couple of hours I could spend doing something that could help catapult my career forward far more than an A over an A- on a single paper could.
Find high impact activities and dominate them
Getting good at this requires you to shift your thinking from managing time to managing effort. We all get the same amount of time in a day. However, we all get to allocate our energy uniquely. I much prefer to give the majority of my energy to the activities that will give me the largest return. Figuring out which activities those are -- that's the hard part. And that only comes with experience and experimentation. My message to the incoming students, then, is to not measure themselves based on how much time they spend in the library as compared to the rest of their cohort, but to work hard figuring out where they can work less hard. Take the energy saved by working less hard and apply it to something that matters, something difficult, something in which they can make an impact.
Where can you allocate your energy better? What is taking up a disproportionate amount of your energy as compared to the returns you get from it? How can you fix it?