Time Management: Knowing When To Stop
Since this is my first blog post, I thought I would write something quite self-serving and personal. I would say one of the biggest changes when moving from school to university is organising your own study time. Whereas school lesson timetables (in my experience) incorporate time to practice and develop your understanding of the topics covered, this has to be self-motivated at university; the time spent in lectures and labs is a tiny fraction of how long you have to spend to learn the content.
My (perhaps unusual) experience is one of potentially excessive time spent studying. This is certainly not to say that you don’t need to put in a lot of time and effort; you most definitely do! More critically, you need to consider a concept which I myself have not fully grasped yet: Knowing when to stop.
There is, in fact, an established adage that I often quote to myself, known as Parkinson’s Law which applies aptly to this situation:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available to its completion.”
This is something I have experienced repeatedly so far at university, especially in relation to programming coursework. For my first piece of CS141 (Functional Programming) coursework, part of the assignment was to create a procedure to choose the next word in Wordle (already a solved problem, so it will probably change next year). There are myriad ways to do this, and this one procedure was worth a significant portion of the mark. Somewhat naturally, the more effective solutions were likely to be more complex, and so take more time to implement. I found a highly sophisticated solution online, and went through the effort to understand and implement it.
In the end, I got 94% on that coursework (with full marks for the word guessing procedure). I don’t see that mark as a product of any exceptional functional programming ability on my part, but rather of the downright excessive time I invested into the coursework. I am certain I could have still gotten an excellent mark in the 80-90% range whilst putting in only a fraction of the time I did. I could have invested that time into other modules, independent reading around the course, or even just recreational activities. I allowed this coursework to eat my time, working right up to within an hour of the deadline.
This leads on to a point about using assessment grades as a reward function. Reward functions are a concept from Reinforcement Learning, where the goal of an (A.I.) agent is to maximise the value produced. The best way to maximise an assessment grade is to spend as much time as possible on the task being assessed. The problem I see here is that, unless you are motivated by genuine interest in the field (which is hopefully at least partially true at university), the long-term benefits of getting 94% instead of 80% on one assessment for one module in one year of your course might not be so great. (I mainly think this is the case of Computer Science coursework, which in my experience tends to be worth a small percentage of the overall grade, even for the module it is a part of.)
In summary, this is an argument against perfectionism: Broadly, consider your motivation for working on something, and how much effort should be put into it in relation to this. Once you have put in enough effort…