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Start Your Semester Off Right By Quitting Something

Ben’s YearTrash

In a recent blog post, Ben Casnocha summarized his adventures during 2008. Here are some excerpts:

I traveled to Quito and the Ecuadorean Amazon jungle, Zurich, Prague, all over Costa Rica, Alaska, and rural Tennessee… Gave a dozen paid speeches in various U.S. locales. Read 60 books. … Wrote a hundred thousand words on my blog…Won an essay contest. Made new friends. Tried to become closer still to old friends…Fished for halibut off a boat…Met one-on-one with David Foster Wallace and then mourned his death. Philosophized. Watched too many Seinfeld episodes….Plotted world domination.

This seems like a lot. And it is. But in this post I draw an unexpected conclusion: the long length and indisputable awesomeness of this list should inspire you during this upcoming semester to do much, much less.

We begin with a simple question…

What is work?

Allow me to hazard an answer. I define work to be anything that requires a non-trivial amount of your time and attention by a given deadline. For example, studying for an exam is work: it requires you to spend lots of time with your notes in the period before the test itself. Running a student organization also generates lots of work — forms to submit, meetings to organize, events to run: all things that require time and attention by a certain deadline.

When I say you should quit something this semester, I mean that you should quit something that generates work.

Drop that extra science course you shoe-horned into your schedule. If you can’t do this because your double major is drowning you with requirements, then drop one of your majors. While you’re at it, put a torch to your activity schedule. Do you need to be so involved in three different clubs? Choose one and kick the rest. Nervous about letting go? Take baby steps by first declaring an activity vacation.

I want you to quit these sources of work so that you’ll have more free time to do the type of things that inspire Ben. As you might have guessed, I don’t consider most of the items on Ben’s list to be work. These are actions that Ben decided to do because he wanted to do them at the time. He was under no obligation. There were no deadlines.

Decoding Radical Simplicity

As you know, I’m a fiend for a simplicity. I think doing less is the miracle cure for the modern student life. It gives you time affluence which makes you happy. It’s also the only route to becoming famous at something, which will also make you happy.

People often mistake my love for simplicity, however, as a love for inactivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The goal of my philosophy is to keep significant percentages of your time unscheduled. That is, not dedicated to work.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything in this unscheduled time. Indeed, I’m a big proponent that you should aggressively use this time. Follow Ben’s example, and fill it both with activities that simply make you happy (eg., watching Seinfeld and fishing for Halibut) and those that expose you to new things that might one day blossom into something impressive (eg., entering an essay contest or setting up a dinner with someone famous).

The key is to resist the urge to slip too quickly from freestyle exploration into more structured work. If your explorations turn up something that really resonates with your interests, then, reluctantly, and only after much consideration, you can transform it into a longterm work-generating commitment. But I would argue that in this case you should quit something else to make room.

To me, the ideal student lifestyle has classes, one or two work-generating pursuits that are receiving longterm attention, and copious amounts of unscheduled time left for exploration. If you’re doing nothing, or, much more likely, if you’re doing too much, you’re at risk for getting stuck in a stress-inducing, non-impressive, busy-work saturated rut.

So start your semester off right. Reduce the amount of work in your life. Then go live it.

18 thoughts on “Start Your Semester Off Right By Quitting Something”

  1. Do you really think that if we cut some work based activities that we’d actually transfer those resources to more studying. We all know that we should but there are so many leisure activities drawing our attention; sports, video games, tv, friends, food…

    I think that the key to being efficient at anything is to have so many things to do that an individually values that they must behave efficiently with their time.

    I think that your really suggesting to become more time efficient which Casnocha seems to be really good at.

  2. Do you really think that if we cut some work based activities that we’d actually transfer those resources to more studying. We all know that we should but there are so many leisure activities drawing our attention; sports, video games, tv, friends, food…

    I think you misunderstand. I want you to cut work-based activities exactly so that you’ll spend more time doing sports, video games, tv, friends, and food. I am not suggesting you become more efficient with your time, I’m suggesting that you reduce the amount of scheduled time and fill the rest with more free form exploration. This, I think, is what Ben is really good at. (For example, he participates in 0 organized clubs on campus and never overloads his course schedule. He likes an abundance of time to do what he wants to do.)

  3. I would definitely agree with you on cutting some things out if you’re feeling overwhelmed. If you’re “drowning” get rid of some of that weight that’s causing you to sink. There’s probably a lot of fluff in there that you don’t want to be doing anyway. I see many people who go through so much stress because their schedule is so loaded.

  4. What if you *enjoy* your extracurricular activity? Although I do debate, I have lots of friends that do it – making me look forward to it. However, it takes up nearly 20-30 hours/week but I’m really good at it..

  5. ^ Ditto law journal. Probably the biggest status-whore conventional boring lawyer activity ever, and it takes up a lot of time, but I like taking a red pen to some poor academic’s work, pointing out all the things they’ve done wrong and making them substantially rewrite it before The Journal will accept it for publication. I have no idea why law schools let their students do this when the authors clearly know more about the topic than the student editors, but it’s fun.

    Anyway. I don’t think one activity is ever really a massive problem even if it’s very time consuming – it’s more about splitting the attention/concentration than the time. I did a lot of classical music (probably also around 30-ish hours a week) in high/middle school and aside from my schoolwork and non-obligatory things like baking things for school fundraisers or showing up for the odd non-competitive sport like yoga that was all I did. I was never truly stressed even though I was taking all-IB classes and graduated valedictorian (not a zen one, unfortunately – never discovered innovation, which probably wasn’t that relevant to what I wanted to do anyway), because there were ways to fit things around when you only put one thing first. Then I started law school but kept trying to play my instrument at a pre-professional level and it all went bad because I had to go the extra mile for two things (‘things’ including the add-ons like orchestras and work experience and journal).

    On the other hand, I dropped lots of things last semester and just spent an embarrassing amount of time online. It was kind of fun, but I actually did more random cool things when I was stressed, due to inertia. If I was in the library anyway I was more likely to go to the talk there by the famous author, or pick a cool book off the shelf, or walk out to the quad to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the lawn, whereas if I had to walk from my off-campus house and tear myself away from TV I wouldn’t have bothered.

  6. I have to disagree. Last semester I was very underscheduled and spent a lot of time just hanging out with friends and exploring and that was great. But advocating more and more free, unstructured playtime does not work, especially for me. My brain operates best on a busy but balanced schedule. There’s a balance you need to strike between solid, structured work and unstructured exploration, and between academic work and the kind of work you call “busywork”, like clubs and student activities, which can actually be incredibly rewarding. An ideal schedule (for me) is class and solo studying during the day, with breaks to meet friends for meals; clubs and rehearsals, etc. in the afternoon, a little more studying after dinner, and then hanging out until bedtime. Yes, most of that is scheduled time, but it makes me value the unstructured time more.

  7. There’s a balance you need to strike between solid, structured work and unstructured exploration,

    I agree. Most students are imbalanced in this regards towards the structured work end of the spectrum, which is why I preach the art of simplicity. A more interesting point, however, is how one structures unstructured time. In other words, Ben’s actions, though unstructured, are not “playtime.” He is able to use this flexible time to expose himself to lots of interesting things. I’m wondering if the real lesson missing here is how to best make use of unstructured time?

    I smell a post brewing…

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  9. I think you read my thoughts exactly: this is what I plan to do for the coming semester at Harvard. Fewer classes (no more taking more than the recommended course load). More independent research. One quality extracurricular.

    I had to do a lot of self-convincing to reprogram myself not to think of this as “slacking.”

  10. I had to do a lot of self-convincing to reprogram myself not to think of this as “slacking.”

    You’re not alone. I’ve met several Harvard students over the past year or so that have come to similar conclusions and have loved the results.


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