For a long time now I’ve been trying to find ways to maximise the productiveness of my time. Whether that comes from my current ambition to achieve great things, or from a feeling of needing to catch up because of the wasted years of my early twenties, I now jump at any opportunity to be able to do more during the course of a day and immediately incorporate it into my life.
It took going back to university after a six year hiatus, and at the age of 27, to get myself into this frame of mind. Mathematics at Cambridge, recently voted the hardest degree in the country, was definitely beyond me when I first started in 2003. This wasn’t for lack of intelligence or knowledge, but for a lack of discipline, and due to my entirely incorrect view of the world and life in general. Aged 19, one cannot really be expected to make the right choice every time, but I was woefully unprepared for the dedication that was asked of the students, and laughed off the minimum suggested 40 hours a week of mathematics that we were supposed to do.
The second time around, I knew what to expect. I also knew what was most likely to go wrong, and how to best avoid it. So even before coming back, I started spending four hours a day learning the first two years’ worth of material that I never actually really learned. This was on top of the general workload that came with running four companies, so I would do this first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and in the middle of the day during the less hectic afternoons. I waited for the lack of interest to kick in, and sure enough after a few weeks it did – it was no longer exciting to be returning to university, or to be solving complex mathematical problems, and instead it began to be yet another chore.
Ready for this feeling, and convinced that I would not allow myself to give in to it, I continued forcing myself through this routine. It certainly made work more fun, as work ended up being the welcome break from the mental strain of learning two years’ of complex material in just one summer. But the effect of this forced discipline was even greater than I had anticipated. Arriving at university, I found the workload easy to cope with. There were some more moments of readjustments needed – just before the Christmas holidays I mentioned that I’d actually be doing some work in the holidays, maybe two hours a day, and got laughed at when the rest of the group explained that the holidays were the time when people actually did the main studying, and that any less than eight hours a day was pointless. But at least those readjustments were easy to cope with. During revision term I sometimes did 14 hour days of straight studying.. The 21 year old me would have struggled with doing that much in a week.
It got me thinking about why I had found it so hard to work at this level, and why the students around me never complained about having to deal with it. Asking as many people as I could, I pieced together their responses into a clear conclusion. None of the people who were truly successful in academia grew up in a treat-based culture. They never felt that if they did something they did not like, they would end up getting or being able to do something that they did like. Their world view did not contain two separate categories of activities – boring work-related ones, and exciting fun-related ones. They simply filled their day with things that were productive, never longing to be doing anything fun and frivolous.
On hearing this, many people’s response is that their life must have been no fun at all, but this is wrong. With that attitude, they could still enjoy everything from watching TV to hanging out with their friends – the difference was that they did not crave or miss these activities while doing everything else. And the results of this kind of upbringing were phenomenal. In 2003, being a successful student meant that you were doing well academically, playing a sport and running some sort of society. In 2012, being a successful student meant having all of these things, but also having been published, having had a number of high-ranking internships, and having started your own website or online business. People leaving Cambridge with just a first class degree were considered average, since so many people had managed to get all of those additional achievements.
We cannot turn back the clock, make different decisions, and alter the course of our lives to how we now know they should have gone. But what we can do is to learn from the most successful young people of today, and adapt our thinking to coincide with theirs so that the rest of our lives follow a better path. This post is about the single most unfair advantage that a person can not just have, but can actually get. It is a world view – a personal perception frame – that hard work should be relished and enjoyed, and that frivolous pastimes should not be used to motivate us to do it. And I don’t mean just any work, but the really hard work. Pick the activity that you most dislike. Perhaps it is producing some report or budget forecast, or going over detailed documentation looking for errors. Train yourself not to see it as a chore, and not to look forward to what you are going to do after you finish. It can be done, and once it is, the advantage you will have over others in whatever you choose to pursue will be simply phenomenal.