It's my last semester at UT, I'm in 10 hours, and I have a lot of free time. Last week, I woke up at 9 and went back to bed, the chance of something urgent needing my attention on any arbitrary day being so slim that I didn't even hesitate. Sometimes I'll wake up early on purpose just so I can get that warm feeling of drifting back to sleep. I eventually rolled out of bed at 11, just in time to catch my pre-med roommate readying his backpack for a 12 hour day on campus.

I had class in a few minutes, but it was cold outside, the lectures were skippable, and I had just found a long profile on John McAfee that looked interesting so I sunk back into my mattress. After a few rounds of hearing students walk by my window on the way to class, all discussing agendas and happenings, I was too ashamed to remain in bed. I got up and showered until I ran out of hot water. While showering, I tried to run through my to-do list and plan my day, but I couldn't come up with any obligations.

When you have nothing to do for an extended period of time, like winter break, lasting happiness hinges on intrinsic motivation. If you use this time productively, it can be incredibly fulfilling. You don't have to waste any time. You don't have to pull an all-nighter for a mundane class on medieval Bosnian headwear that you're only taking since it fulfills 3 flags at once, or spend hours compiling attendance spreadsheets and organizing completely unnecessary meeting notes as a club secretary, or toil at inserting more SEO friendly keywords into the website of a company that promised you challenging data science work but then realized you'd have to do whatever they handed you anyway. These are extreme examples, but no class, job, or organization is perfect, and you'll always end up having to complete some time-consuming task with little to no utility. With no obligations, you can reclaim all those lost minutes and put each one towards exactly what you want to do at that moment, pursuing those dreams repressed by work.

For this reason, I always try to maximize my free time, but it never works out nearly as well as I imagine.

The problem is often times exactly what I want to do at that moment now liberated from the clutches of external demands is binge The Office for sixteen hours, characters and plotlines blurring together until it's not even enjoyable, just something to pass the time because my body and bed are now fusing together and it's too difficult to go on any out-of-bedroom excursion longer than fetching more barbecue Pringles from the kitchen. A few days of this will suck the enthusiasm for life out of most people and so it's tempting to fill my free time with extra classes or clubs to avoid wasting it. Even if I'm stuck organizing spreadsheets, it at least provides a small sense of worth and accomplishment-- which is hard to come by without a to-do list filled with similar demands that make a satisfying sound when you cross off an item-- and anything is better than having to be surgically removed from your mattress.

My first semester junior year, I didn't have much work. I'd wake up as people were finishing class for the day and spend the rest of it watching TV, playing an absurd amount of Super Smash Bros, and other things that were absorbing in the moment but left me empty afterwards, as I recognized I'd just spent precious hours of life doing mildly engaging activities I wouldn't remember the next day. I'd berate myself and resolve to start writing the next day, the fulfilling hobby I was supposed to be spending my free time on, the ideal compromise between present and future happiness. But writing was hard and I wasn't good at it and it takes a lot of willpower to get yourself to do hard things you're bad at if no one's asking you to. The key phrase for me is "if no one's asking you to". I was bad a lot of hard things, e.g. operating systems, but I had no problem dropping 50 hours into writing a barbaric malloc if the alternative was failing the class. And so, for the rest of the semester, I set out to find a way to close that wide gap between my intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, to be able to wake up at 9am on a Sunday to do something no one asked for.

Which I'll talk about in part 2.

Add new comment


The views, opinions and positions expressed by the authors and those providing comments on these blogs are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of UT Computer Science, The University of Texas or any employee thereof.