My weekly operating systems projects were due Sunday night. I'm not the best programmer, and was taking a few other time consuming classes, so these weekly projects consumed most of my weekends.
During particularly cruel assignments, some friends and I would work in the lobby of my dorm Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Unfortunately, the long table we camped at faced a main entrance to my dorm, so we had front row seats to watch parades of smiling students with more exciting lives than ours shuffling in and out of the lobby. Friday nights, they'd leave around 10pm to go downtown, to parties, or to generally do something more fun than debugging segmentation faults. Five hours later, they'd stumble back in, and the sad realization that I had been in the same spot for five hours, usually with nothing to show for it, would push me to retire for the day. I'd wake up Saturday, stress eat an obscene number of Lucky Charms at Kinsolving, and head back to the lobby. Saturdays were game days, so this time everyone would leave for tailgates as I booted up my laptop. We'd leave for dinner around 7, which entailed walking through campus with our haggard faces, laptops in tow, through students who were just then leaving the game. If we were lucky, we'd come back to the lobby just in time to see them all leave for the post game parties. I have clinical FOMO, so these weekends were torturous.
At the end of that semester, my neck aching from being hunched over my computer screen, my caffeine tolerance through the roof, I swore to never take a hard class again. As soon as winter break hit, I forgot most of what I learned about virtual memory, threads, and semaphores, and I didn't care. If I ended up at a job that required me to use any type of CLI memory debugger, I'd flee to business school immediately. This immediate discarding of whatever information I struggled so hard to learn made the entire experience seem absurd and useless.
Since that grueling semester fall sophomore year, I've taken taken drastically different courseloads from semester to semester, some light, some heavy. These varied experiences have changed my perspective on hard classes. Maybe it's a coping mechanism for myself to move past the fact that I spent insane amounts of time every week sweating over pointers, but I am starting to see the benefits of taking hard classes just because, of struggling for the sake of struggling.
While I didn't learn much about operating systems, I did learn about myself, as corny as that sounds. Taking one really challenging semester early on in your college career, reveals what you're capable of. I'm a firm believer in not working too hard (this is a topic for another post) and generally take easier classes than a lot of my over-achiever friends. However, at the end of my freshman year, I felt lazy, which is what motivated me to sign up for some hard and time-intensive classes (including OS) the fall of my sophomore year. "Heavy schedule" is personal, not absolute, of course. If you're breezing through 20 hours of grad classes, 2 part time jobs, and research, you're hard semester would be much different than mine. I slogged through the semester, but I hated it. I'm not the kind of person who programs for fun, so being constantly immersed in code frustrated me.
I did, however, no longer feel lazy. I no longer feared hard work. It was almost like exposure therapy. Prior to that experience, if I knew I'd have to pull an all-nighter or spend all weekend studying, I'd stress out about the idea of working hard itself. I'd ruminate on how awful that day was going to be, on all the fun I'd miss out on. A few weeks into the semester, however, I made peace with the stress. It'd be 2am on Sunday, all of my OS test cases would still be failing, I'd have a 5 page essay about ancient Indian texts I could barely read, but instead of dwelling on how screwed I was, I'd just put my headphones in, blast the Social Network soundtrack, and accept that I wasn't going to finish re-watching The Office that night.
I'm now the stereotypical lazy senior. I haven't challenged myself like that in a while, and I've definitely noticed myself becoming much lazier as a result. Last week, I groaned about not being able to lie in bed on Reddit for an hour since I had a two page essay to write for my lower-div rhetoric class. Sophomore year me would be so disappointed. I'm considering piling on some obligations for the upcoming semester as a refresher.
Hard work also gives you a greater appreciation of free time. Most people have passions outside of school and work, and while it's easy to blow these off for a few weeks, if it seems like you'll never have time for them, you'll eventually squeeze out things like Netflix or memes to make time. Freshman year of college, after class or after working on an assignment for an hour or two, I'd dive onto my mattress and scroll through pages and pages of Reddit. I realize now that this is actually an awful break. I didn't feel anymore rested or motivated to work afterwards. I wouldn't be able to remember any of the posts I'd open, so it was almost as if thirty minutes of my day had just vanished. Most people don't crave doing nothing or completely brainless work for a break, but rather crave engagement with a different activity. You can keep up a focus all day as long as you vary the activity you're focusing on. Playing guitar, writing, or even just working on a different class is not only more rewarding, but also just as mentally relieving. So, as you get better at handling more work, you'll scan for inefficiencies until you're at a point where each day you go to bed proud of what you've accomplished.
Even after you remove the hard work from your life, these habits carry over. I was utterly jaded with programming when registering for the semester following OS, and so I only signed up for two, lighter technical classes. My other classes were jazz appreciation, existentialism (pass/fail), and intro to Buddhism. If I took those classes first semester freshman year, I would've felt like a lazy hippy. I would've squandered all my free time, refused to take on other obligations, and at the end of the semester, look back and not remember where all my time went. Instead, coming out of the OS semester, I was much more conscious of my abundance of free time, and spent it in ways I didn't regret.
But do you really need to take hard classes to do this? Why don't you just stop wasting so much time by yourself? This is an argument I often tell myself when I think about registration. My intrinsic motivation is severely lacking. It's easy to want or dream about utilizing my free time to the fullest potential, packing my day with passions unrelated to school, but in practice, I'm half as efficient with my time if an external force is not holding me accountable. This accountability can come from my GPA, a boss, or an officer position in a club, it doesn't really matter, all I know is that I'm awful at disciplining myself, no matter how organized my Google calendar is or how motivated I was the night before while binge watching Terry Crews hype videos.
So, when registering for classes this semester, consider challenging yourself for the sake of it. Find your upper limit so later on, when your schedule is no longer packed, you savor the empty periods instead of taking them for granted.