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Stethoscopes, Compilers, and Hemingway: Enumerating and Accounting

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Recently, I have noticed a gaping hole in our collective academic experience. As students, our lives are filled primarily with two things: events and deadlines. There is that party you need to go to (an event) and that paper you need to write (a deadline). I realize this is an enormous oversimplification for most of you, since we live in a world filled with hybrids of these two ideas. (For example, where would we put a SURPS presentation? It is certainly an event, but one with the preparation required for many other types of deadlines.) Nonetheless, this bifurcation is for the most part how we live our lives.

Calendars manage many of our day-to-day events—when/where we need to be given a time of day. This seems to work extremely well—I am alerted on the calendar application on my iPhone as soon as I need to get off my butt and head somewhere. It is simple and clean.

But deadlines are not as easy to plan our day around. Let’s look at the options we currently have:

We could somehow mark off a block of time on our calendar as a period to get something done. This works really well for many tasks—for example, we tell ourselves, “I will get groceries after dinner”—and that’s pretty much it. This seems to work for meaningless errands—things that you plan for and get out of your way.

We could also make a daily routine to chip off tasks that we do regularly—taking a shower, working out, getting breakfast, the usual. Many have extended this idea to put in monthly reminders in their calendars to do their laundry, check their University balance, cut their hair—the list goes on and on. Most of these tasks are similar to errands—they are simply repeating ones.

As you can see, many of the mindless repetitions of our day/week/quarter have clearly defined goals and time periods in which we need to accomplish them. They are the clerical parts of our college experience and can be dealt with as such.

Yet most of the things that are left—studying for that midterm, writing a research proposal, reviewing that thing in lecture and fleshing out that great business idea—come to define the Stanford academic experience. These are tasks that have real relevance to the richness of our intellectual lives here. Yet ironically, despite (and perhaps because) of their inherent dimension and scope, they are the least-defined parts of our schedules.

What seems to be the answer? Split the work up into manageable chunks? Learn how to say no more easily? Be more organized? Work like a dog regardless? All these seem to be said to us at different parts of our academic experience, from middle school on.

Yet I think that the core of the issue is simple accounting. And no, keeping a list of things to do is not accounting. It is enumerating. The latter holds all its tasks to a false equivalence between its contents that is usually totally untrue. “Get bananas” and “read 300 pages of a novel” just can’t be put into one list without losing the significance of the reading or inflating the significance of the grocery store.

Yet how are these tasks essentially different? Time. One task expects much more quality time over another.

Accounting means to add this dimension of time to the things we are obligated to get done. The one constant for all of us is the amount of hours that are available to us every week. What a great currency, then, to decide a task’s worth against the hours it requires in a day! Let’s say something important will take 10 hours of your time this week. Assuming some other time set aside for classes, extracurriculars, meals, sleep and the like, you know exactly the time you have to play with. Any given Sunday, you immediately realize the worth of the hour between your lunch and your class every day that week. By squeezing the crevices of time for their worth, work splits up into chunks and long periods naturally. It immediately becomes apparent what you can and cannot do. You know when you must work like a dog and when you can relax. All the mottos we were ever given about time management seem to point toward this extra dimension!

The accounting of time with respect to our tasks arms us with the tools we need to make informed decisions about our weeks, our months and our years to come at Stanford. Perhaps in another decade, we’ll be ready for a couple more dimensions.

To tell Aaditya to stop procrastinating by looking up theories about time management, e-mail him at [email protected].

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