Sundays are for Meetings

Like most of my other thoughts, my thoughts on schedule optimization aren't new; check out this piece by Paul Graham for a more refined take. Here, I offer my perspective as a computer science student.

The nice thing about college is that there's a lot to do. The not-so-nice thing about college is that, more often than not, you have little control over when you get to do those things. Between clubs, classes, and coffee chats, a college student's calendar starts to look a lot like the messy dorm room they crash at after burning out for the day.

Sporadic and careless scheduling can lead to a fragmented schedule. Just like how it plagues heap memory management, fragmentation leads to inefficiency in how you approach work, life, and everything in between. Here are a few reasons why.

Context switching is expensive. When you start a task in the few hours you have between scheduled events, the activation energy necessary to start working is high. The more fragmentation, the more startups necessary per task. Best to reduce these costs.

Future commitments take up present headspace. Ever had a call scheduled at 8 PM and spent the entire day thinking about it? Being prepared for future events takes up headspace; making sure you aren't too far away as to be late and making sure you don't forget about the event is nontrivial.

Student work is different than (some) real work. Real work is kind in ways; it's often time blocked, well-defined, and discrete (of course, in many other ways it's much less nice, but these things ring true for some non-academic work). Student work is different: it can flex to fill any waking hour, it usually requires long blocks of time, and it is often unclear when the task is even complete. As a result, having short blocks to do work is insufficient for student work; student work is best completed in much larger blocks of uninterrupted work, which a fragmented schedule precludes.

We now have an idea of why fragmentation is detrimental to your workflow; but what can we do to reduce the cost of fragmentation? Here are some of my personal techniques for reducing fragmentation and, when fragmentation is inevitable, dealing with the costs of fragmentation to stay healthy and productive.

Have a day just for meetings. For me, this day is Sunday. I'm not already bogged down by classes, and I can safely assume that most people I want to meet with are generally free on Sundays as well. Relegating all of my meetings to a single day is great for reducing the amount of clutter in the actual week. Do I run the risk of fragmenting other peoples' Sundays? Yes, but if they, too, treated Sunday as a meeting day, it wouldn't matter. Ideally, in a company, you'd collectively decide on a day or a set of days to be meeting days. But college is less centralized than industry, so I've picked Sunday.

Be explicit about reducing defragmentation. When scheduling with a team, vocalize that you're focused on minimizing fragmentation for yourself and your attendees. There are plenty of tools to help you do this (see: Google Calendar, Clockwise). When you let everybody know what you're looking for in an optimal meeting time, you show respect for their schedules and will find a better time for everyone.

When fragmentation is inevitable, fill the time using small tasks. I keep a list of tiny tasks separate bin from my main tasks. I'm talking tiny, like reading a lease or cleaning your inbox or sending an email. In those half-hours between scheduled events, hammering them out helps me stay productive during time that I couldn't spend resting anyways. It's the perfect time for small things like them anyways. Or, if you're feeling tired...

Take a nap. I contend that napping is a skill, and a trainable one at that. Figure out the amount of sleep that gets you rested without getting you groggy, and try to stick to that. I can't count the number of productive days I've saved with a good nap.

Lastly, unrelated to defragmentation itself but related enough to fit into this post, clear your mental cache. I try to waste very little headspace thinking about things that I cannot do right now. Using a timer to not have to worry about forgetting a meeting in 45 minutes. Archiving an email chain on which I'm waiting for a response. Et cetera.

None of this is new or interesting advice, but it's a nice collection of tips and tricks that help me keep a level head and carve out time for myself amidst a busy day. Hopefully, they work for you too!