Every year, the Intel Science Talent Search brings 40 teenage scientists to Washington, D.C., to showcase their research. The projects are impressive. Eric Chen, for instance, just won the 2014 competition (and $100,000) with a project that used computer modeling to study endonuclease inhibitors, which can prevent viral replication. His work, Intel STS reports, "may lead to a new class of anti-flu medicines that could protect against a flu pandemic while new vaccines are being developed."
Zarin Rahman won seventh place for studying screen time and sleep among students, documenting that students who used devices late at night performed worse on various measures than their well-rested peers.
That’s not bad for age 17. But what’s equally impressive to me is how these young people manage their time. Their original research requires hours of work on top of normal high school commitments, and these young people undertake vast extra-curricular activities too. When I chatted with Rahman and Chen on the phone recently, I learned that Rahman edits her school yearbook. Chen fences and does more community service than the vast majority of us will ever get around to.
Yet it all fits in the 168 hours they (and we) have each week. Here are their strategies for taking on big projects in the midst of a busy life:
168 hours is a lot of time. But if you don’t figure out where those hours should go, you’re relying on chance to get things done. "Every night before I go to bed I plan out my day," says Rahman. She figures out what time she needs to wake up, and plans the rest of the day in 30-to-60-minute increments. "By planning everything out, one, I know I’ll do it, and two—I know I’ll do it in a timely fashion." Having a schedule meant "...[keeping] myself sane through all the crazy things I had to get done."
Sure, there are a lot of apps out there. But don’t automatically assume they’ll make you more productive. Rahman experimented with using her cell phone to keep lists and schedules. "But I found that writing it down with pen and paper increases my commitment. Writing it down with pen and paper means I really have to do this. On a cellular device it’s less real, less solidified to me."
If you want something big to happen, you need to dedicate time to it, "even if you don’t know exactly what has to be done," says Rahman. In any given day, her research might have involved reading something in the literature, or writing a paragraph in her report, but by blocking in half an hour or more most nights, she knew she would make progress. Progress leads to results.
When we have a lot going on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and give up. But breaking tasks down into doable chunks helps a lot. "I found, with school homework, if you have 50 exercise problems, you can do five problems here, five problems there," says Eric Chen. These small steps make a big assignment easier to finish.
Lab research not only takes time, it often takes an uncertain amount of time, with bursts of activity punctuating long, slow periods. Chen learned to adjust. "I’d say my philosophy is that your work is like a gas in that it will always expand to fill your available time," he says. The temptation, when realizing you have 10 minutes before the next burst of activity, is to say "10 minutes? I’m not going to be able to do much in that," but he learned that in 10 minutes, he could write a paragraph in an article. He could do five math problems. He could send out an email to fellow fencers. All that kept the to-do list from getting too long.
Chen fit his homework into small chunks of time in the lab because it left his weekends open for other projects. One recent project? Helping older Chinese Americans use their computers and curating resources for them—an undertaking that began after Chen’s grandmother complained that she was taking two buses to go buy Chinese language newspapers. Chen realized, "Wait, can’t she look up the news online?" Now she can—a result well worth his time.
Even downtime can advance you toward your goals. Chen reports that he plays the piano as a hobby. "I don’t have the time to commit to playing an hour every day, but when I’m tired of working I take a break and play the piano." While Rahman does admit to watching TV from time to time, she says that she usually takes breaks from homework to do tasks required for her extracurricular activities. "If I have a block where I’ve been studying for an hour, I’ll take 15 minutes and browse through the yearbook pages," she says. Needless to say, she has the whole yearbook staff on a schedule of deadlines they’re all working toward meeting—to get yet another big project done on time.