The Effects of Habits on Energy

I've learned that I generally like to fill up my schedule - I like to keep myself busy. I find myself happiest when I'm able to engage myself variety of activities and follow through with those activities.

I wasn't always quite as busy in my life as I am today, so going through that transition was a rough learning experience. For most of my life, I was pretty much left alone with large amounts of free time and almost no pressure to structure that free time! Learning how to structure and think about my time is something that I had to struggle through.

The Difficult and the Easy

Here is one observation that I have: there are things that are somewhat easy, and there are things that are hard. Brushing your teeth is easy, slogging through electromagnetics program sets is hard.

Now, the easy things, you don't really think about. You just do them, and they take up very little of the daily amount of mental energy that you have. Think about every time you brushed your teeth for the last week, and you'll notice that you probably don't remember or care to remember much.

The hard things, you have to think about. They require complex problem solving. They frustrate you, and make you want to bang your head against the wall and wonder why you're having such a hard time. Going through all of the year's paperwork for an IRS audit stressful and complicated. Likewise, losing your keys in the morning and spending an extra 15 minutes finding them is also semi-complicated.

The complicated things tend to drain your energy level much more than the simple, habitual things. For the most part, you don't want to just go about your day doing mindless tasks but you do have a limited supply of energy for the more complicated matters. This is where time management skills come into play: the ability to anticipate and schedule the things that require real time is very valuable.

The Lesson Learned

Year after year, many college students are thrust into new, unguided territory and are forced learn the hard way. There are students who did learn proper time management, and those who did not. For the students who did not, life can be a huge struggle for some time, especially if those students are involved in time-intensive majors like Engineering or Computer Science.

The one mistake I made early on was to focus solely on motivating myself versus establishing good habits. Like the fundamentals for any skill, good time management skills come forward by internalizing the basics first, creating good habits that you can use to build on. If you focus on getting the other parts of your life under control, you can start to make progress and improve your time management. Start getting ready the night before. Make sure that you follow up with any task quickly, and avoid putting things off.

The more things you can internalize, the less energy you'll have to expend for those particular tasks, and the more energy you'll have to focus on other things.

One thing I've found helpful is this - on a Sunday, creating a list of everything I need to accomplish for the week. The list doesn't have to be complete; I can always add something to it later. I shouldn't have to be mentally filing through tasks over and over again during the week.

Some Discussion

Keeping good habits is always a plus, but there is an interesting conclusion to be drawn about the role of automation in software development. The more tasks that can be automated, the less the developer has to worry about those remedial tasks and focus more on what's important.

And this is a huge reason why command-line based tools are so important and still relevant in today's software world: they're easy to automate. You can't automate a GUI as well, unless it has software bindings to each function. Command line tools, especially when they follow the standard unix approach are easily coerced into doing something in a script.

These tools help to push your habits into something you don't have to think about, leaving you to worry about other, more important issues at hand.

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