How I’m managing a CS Masters while working full time (Part 2) — Time management and why it is sometimes not the most important thing

Weekday:

  • 6:30am — Wake up, tidy up, make coffee, start reviewing lectures / tackling assignments
  • 7:30am — yoga routine
  • 9:00am — start full-time work
  • 12:00pm — lunch for an hour, squeezing in about 30 minutes to review what I went over in the morning.
  • 6:00pm — dinner and a short nap
  • 7:00pm — 10:30pm — study

Weekend

  • some time in the morning to study breakfast, then head out for a bit, then start studying again in the afternoon and evening
  • same thing for Sunday

The timetable above may look quite packed, but it’s a schedule that seems to work for me. Mainly, the schedule works because my retention and understanding is better when I work in small chunks of time, spaced out throughout the day. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether squeezing in more work during lunch was helpful at all. Why pack so many sessions into a day? In fact, I started doing it only when, during one week, I felt I had so much on my plate that I had to squeeze out every available moment. However, later, I found that the midday review, coming after a “break” in the morning, actually gave me the mental distance I needed to process the material better.

For example, I was once trying to practice XSLT, which is a language used to rewrite XML documents into a new format. In the morning, I wasn’t understanding the imperative statements very well, but taking time way from the material, and then trying to understand the documentation again at lunch and in the evening, went a long way to me finally being able to write my own XSLT statements.

Another reason why this schedule seems to work is because I never have to think about whether a time is for studying, for leisure, or for work. This structure has actually been super liberating and also a great way to manage stress levels. When I didn’t have things the day planned out to the full, I would worry that I wasn’t working as hard as I should be, that I should be prioritizing some commitment over the other, etc. With a schedule, I have a time for everything. I know that if I follow the schedule, I will have hit the minimum units of work everyday that I feel I should be committing, and any time leftover after that I can use for recharging. I am prone to worrying, and having such a schedule has been helpful for managing my moments of insecurity and self-doubt.

Why time management is sometimes secondary when you want to be effective.

Such a granular schedule, however, doesn’t always work. I have realised that I am a human being, and human beings do not function at the same level, at the same time, on any day of the week. Some mornings, I wake up still exhausted from the night before. On those days, it is just kinder on myself to sleep more and study less. The blurry mental state I have when tired just doesn’t lead to real learning.

Related to fluctuating mental and physical states, I’ve also found that energy management is just as important, if not more important, than time management. By energy management, I mean squeezing in work when at times of the day when I am productive. Mornings are usually this time for me. But sometimes, after a day full of meetings, sitting down to code uses a different part of my brain, and that part is still pretty fresh and able to work. In fact, as an introvert, it almost feels like a treat to be able to sit in the quiet and study after a long day of talking, talking and more talking. When I work when my mind is fresh and ready, I can think through my assignment or lecture material better with fewer dead ends.

**this is also why, by the way, I never, ever neglect exercise. I need to exercise everyday to feel mentally and emotionally regulated, and for my brain not to be sluggish. Again, I realise not every one needs this, which is precisely the point of this post — personalising one’s routine with small refinements to be more effective.

But this most important tool so far has been mastering the “Inner Game”

I used to be an athlete who played varsity sport throughout university and high school. With that background, I’ve understood early on that, at any one time, there are always not one, but two games going on. To paraphrase Timothy Gallwey,

Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game, and an inner game. (the Inner Game) is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation.

The obstacles of the inner game are very much psychological, and usually come from inside oneself rather than from any external force. I like to summarise the inner game as a fight against self-sabotage.

And this fight has been a lot more challenging than any CS concept. Finding ways to play the inner game, more than any time or energy management strategy, as by far been the most crucial thing to helping me feel a little more settled into this degree.

“You are in this very noisy place when you are working”, a friend once observed of me as I struggled with arithmetic progressions in high school. “half your mind is doing the problem, and half your mind is agonizing about your performance”. I totally agreed. The quantitative subjects have never come naturally to me. I was the student who would leave math exams in tears, who would take twice a long as the next student to understand a concept. And more importantly, over the years, I had let these experiences affect my mental state when I had to tackle quantitative concepts in mathematics or statistics. Self-doubt, nervousness and insecurity would all be constant companions while I worked, which meant that I was always really only studying at 50% capacity.

So, without surprise, I ended my first exam of the semester again in tears. I had run out of time, I had only managed to answer half of the questions, and I had felt like, despite all my practice, I hadn’t properly grasped the material. Of course, this state of affairs couldn’t continue. This first thing I decided to do was to take a practical, less emotional approach to studying (easier said than done, but having matured since being an undergraduate definitely helped).

I came up with a list of study techniques and tested them out one-by-one for see how effective each one was. I started asking questions before I got totally stuck, rather than after I had let myself chase my own tail for too long. I started trying to think of my own examples to concepts. When learning a new language, I tried to think of the different things I might try to do with that language beyond the examples covered in the lecture. Previously, I would always hear fuzzy advice about “understanding” the material, usually from people for whom the material came naturally. For me, I realised that I would have to break down what “understanding” meant for me, from first principles, because the techniques I needed to engage with the material sure weren’t obvious to me. (I should note that I speak five languages and picked all of them up easily. When people ask me how I do it, the only thing I can say is that I learn a language by “feeling it”, which I know is as unhelpful as saying you need to “understand math” and causes my engineer friends to roll their eyes).

This is still very much an ongoing journey, but one initial observation has been that engaging with the material in this (perhaps more meaningful) way requires me to tap into some amount of creative and playful energy. It’s on me to explore an equation or statement and see the different ways it can or cannot be applied, for example, which removes the pressure on me to perform or to reach a particular end state. This has definitely lifted my mental burdens.

Coming back to the Inner Game, I guess I tackled my own inner game somewhat indirectly. By looking for concrete techniques for mastering technical concepts, I realised one technique was not to get too focused on a perfect end state. I needed to engage with the material in my own time, in my own way. This approach then coincidentally helped me to worry less about not passing my exam; it freed me up to focus on the material in front of me.

By the end of the semester, my final exam went a lot smoother than my mid-term test. I am by no means a high-achiever, but at the very least I am better than I once was. At the very least, through writing out clearly the way I study and manage my time, energy and inner game, I will be better prepared to experiment, refine and learn more about my approach more next semester.

I work with data in the little red dot