Routine in Chaos

Discovering opportunity to hack your own personal productivity habits
April 2021
Clara
D.
Mechanical Engineering

About a month into my first semester at MIT, I found myself sitting on my couch at 4pm, still in my pajamas I’d been wearing all day, working on a math Problem Set (PSET), with a bag of pretzels as my only meal of the day beside me when I thought:  What the heck am I doing? Who have I become??

For years working in the engineering industry before my time at MIT, I maintained a strict work schedule: up at 5:30 am, pressed work clothes and perfect hair, 30-minute commute to work, hours of scheduled meetings, briefs, site inspections, and reports. Drive home through traffic, go for a long run, make dinner, and go to bed prepared to repeat it all. 

Everything was scheduled and everything required a specific place to be, and a dress code for the occasion. I told myself this was the environment and schedule I thrived in – it was what I was used to.

Now, I was in my first semester of graduate mechanical engineering studies at MIT, where the only requirements written into my schedule were zoom links to classes, most of which could be viewed asynchronously on my own schedule... or lack thereof. 

Like most people who have had the privilege of working from home during the pandemic, I was enjoying a wonderful sense of flexibility, but with it came a nosedive in productivity and stable routine. 

On my long runs (which were sporadically scheduled, sometimes at 6am, sometimes 6pm) I thought many times about which of my old routines and productivity habits were products of the standard modern workplace routines that have been ingrained in our society, and which were my natural patterns that optimized my own productivity. I didn’t know which worked best for me, and I felt a little lost.

While remote classes, or “Zoom University”, bring their own challenges, there are lots of opportunities for creating work routines that work for you. In this world where tightly scheduled time blocks have become more flexible, there is now space to explore your own optimal work habits, and incorporate them into our daily routines. 

I found this opportunity a few weeks into my semester, after a string of days that seems to run into each other with late nights, irregular sleep schedules, and questionable nutrition patterns. I was fortunate to be able to join the Mechanical Engineering Graduate Coaching1 group, where we inspected our own patterns and routines when it came to work productivity. This was an extremely helpful resource, where students of the Mechanical Engineering department were able to work in a group setting. We were guided through exercises that were neutral to any one habit or routine being the “best” way, but instead practices identifying which tools worked best for us. Two of these exercises that were extremely helpful are described below, and can be used for your own practice: 

  • Time blocking: for one week, document everything you do in a notebook with how long you spent on the task and how well you were able to focus on it. At the end of the week, you can reflect on how your time is spent and when your best times are for giving full energy and focus to your work. This allows you to audit which tasks are most important and which you can “edit” out of your life, and create a flexible schedule of time “blocks” to schedule your deep focus work.

  • Goal visualization: remove any external work factors (either by closing your eyes or sitting someplace relaxing away from your work). Think about what your main goal is that you are working toward right now. Think BIG. This could be publishing in a certain journal, graduating with a degree, or being accepted to your dream school. Spend time visualizing how it will feel to achieve this goal. After this exercise, write down your “guideposts” of smaller goals that will get you to this main goal. This exercise allows you to have a framework for how to focus your work routine and ensure you are centering them around these touchstone goals in order to work towards this big goal.  

While things did not change overnight, I was able to experiment with my schedule to see what worked best for me to achieve my big goals. I swapped my nightly runs for morning workouts to kickstart my day. I noticed that my energy seemed to be highest between 10am and noon, so I would reserve that time for deep focus on research or exam preparation. I set an alarm on my computer to shut everything off at 11pm so that I could set a hard boundary on when I would be done with work each day. 

The purpose of this post is not “Productivity Tips From an MIT Engineering Student”, but rather a call to action to examine your own innate productivity habits and experiment during this time where the confines of our external schedules have been relaxed. Maybe you have great energy to dive into the mornings and evenings, and you can take an hour or two in the afternoon to relax. Maybe instead of your usual early morning breakfast before a long commute to work, you can sleep a few more hours in the morning and power through a deep focus session at night. Experiment with what works for you

For me, my structure is still changing as I find the best habits for my workflow and goals. While I have stopped eating pretzels for lunch, there are still many times I’m in my pajama pants all day, as I have found a direct correlation between productivity and comfort. 

1Dr. Kelli Hendrickson’s Mechanical Engineering Group Coaching. Explanations of tools and techniques are from the writer's personal experience in the coaching environment. More information can be found by emailing mary_jo@mit.edu.