Lessons learned from overloading a straight-A semester at a Top-7 CS graduate program

Context: Because of interests in taking a class by a Professor, I took 6 courses as opposed to the 4 requirement in my final semester of graduate school. 3 of them were at PhD rigor and I was involved in research outside of classes. While it was strenuous and quite a challenge to pull it off, I was able to survive through stress and ace those courses. This post is to detail my learnings as even though I don’t intend to repeat some of the unhealthy processes, the findings could be useful to others.

Be accountable and deliver early. 
Plan ahead and keep others updated of your status in case of any unexpected delays, so you don’t appear unreliable and unprepared last minute. This can come surprisingly handy if you need to reschedule or postpone things due to say, an unmanageable Schedule. Basically to “stay on top of things”, and you’ll get a lot of freedom to move things around without hurting your credibility in return. First impression can really matter, especially since you want to save time from amending broken relationships once you start to cultivate many connections in your career.

Save easy things to the last.
It may be tempting to start the less-demanding tasks to trick yourself into thinking you’re productive, but this is dangerous because trivial tasks can drain your energy and derail you from accomplishing greater goals in the long run. Think of it as an opportunity cost – except the effort required for hard vs. easy things is extremely disproportional – some hurdles are only meant to be conquered when you’re in your best state, and you want to know your bottom line before investing your effort, which helps to relieve a lot of stress anyways.  

It’s easy to get into a series of technically trivial tasks and believe you’re very productive when you’re really just “busy-working”. Examples include writing emails and research without a specific goal/scope. You want to tackle the hardest problems first so when your brain is not as enthusiastic you are still able to churn out meaningful work without burning yourself out. Even in the context of academic research, sometimes it is easy to fell contempt in keeping up with the newest and coolest research publications heedlessly and feel good about continued learning. However, this is often not the most efficient way to deepen knowledge in a specialized domain, as I’ve found with my learning habits at least, that when I’m under pressure with concrete plans laid out, I tend to induce a deep focus mode where I’m at least 50-100% more productive in my analytical skills in a short period of time.

Make Todo lists your best friend. (max. weekly)
One thing I’ve been bad with previously is overplanning things I want to achieve next and underestimate the time it takes to complete them. As a result, I rarely got to stick to my todo list and found myself ignoring them eventually most of the time. When that happens, one should start with finer-grained TODO items that also have shorter duration. Say you’re confident you can finish subtask A of homework 1 in 2-3 hours but you don’t know how long the whole thing will take. What you can do is add the item to TODO list and resolve it ASAP. It can take 2 hours or up to a whole day. But if you add buffers accordingly it’s makes for a reasonable day.

Get into the habit of maximizing productivity and turning it into a lifestyle.
I used to have this illusion where I believe I can switch between different work ethics and just “turn up” the intensity on demand – cram and invest myself into a subject last minute to get to a proficient level in no time. Turns out, in order to be good at something or really fully understand a matter, you have to practice a lifestyle that inherently is different. Don’t make it a temporary on/off switch, rather keep exercising something regularly, and before you know it you’ll be an expert.

Don’t fret (crack) under pressure, no matter how challenging or voluminous the tasks ahead are.
Part 2: coming soon

Keep a laser focus and take on problems one at a time.
Part 2: coming soon

Live a healthy and sustainable diet and schedule. 
It’s not a myth – rest is important. It doesn’t have to be routine, but a somewhat reasonable schedule throughout the day is going to score you big wins at the end of the day.