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Today is Tuesday April 7th. It’s my sister’s birthday, and also roughly 4 weeks since we were sent home from college. For myself and my fellow students, it is a pretty devastating time. If it’s difficult for society’s most privileged, we probably have a serious problem. Some of the smartest people I know have been reduced to job hunting, watching TV, and playing video games. Not a horrible way to live, but a far cry from the state of flow and productivity these same students find themselves in at this time.

From my experience, breaks from high intensity work can be rough. When in the midst of a high pressure semester, I crave the release from a long weekend. But breaks are disruptive. The first few days are fantastic, tons of time to cook, catch up on TV shows and culture, and sleep in. But pretty soon, a couple of things set in. You remember your passion projects, all the work you said you would do over break, and you step on the scale. The scale is a big wakeup call, very key. Being at home, you have decreased productivity, and excess time.

For some, this is a recipe for depression, but for others, an opportunity. Staying motivated while at home is exceedingly difficult. But with this challenge, a whole new generation of people will be empowered with the ability to learn on their own. It is a process for sure.

Here’s how it went for me:

Week 0: Netflix and Youtube

Netflix and Youtube!

This is what my calendar looked like the week we were sent home. The decision was made on Tuesday, which meant the three tests I had studied for were cancelled. While this was disappointing, the rest of the week was very enjoyable. I hung out with friends, caught up on my work backlog, and binged Lil Dicky’s new show Dave.

Week 1: Spring Break: Coronavirus Hackathon

Coronavirus Hackathon!

I direct an event on campus called MedHacks. It’s a 72 hour health themed hackathon held at the Johns Hopkins Hospital every year in September. Our faculty advisor, Dr. Joshua Vogelstein, had the now ubiquitous idea of hosting a coronavirus targeted datathon. Naturally as bored as I was, I tried to do some organizing to quickly put something together. I had some calls, recruited some MedHacks people to help, and while it didn’t succeed by any measure, it was a good way to channel some energy. The end product was a compiled list of datasets and some recommended projects (link).

Near the end of the week, I started studying for some exams I had the following week, but I resorted to shows and cooking to pass most of the time.

###Week 2: Exams


The three exams I had before school was suspended were rescheduled for this week. Since these were half semester classes, they were still graded. Only a week later, productivity dropped tremendously. Loss of motivation, distractions, there were many excuses and all had an effect.

Week 3: Clinician Meetings

Narrative Violation!

At Hopkins in the Biomedical Engineering Department, we have a design team program where teams of undergraduates will work with a clinician to solve problems that might have engineering solutions. This happened to be the week where all meetings were to be scheduled. Keeping up with all the video meetings was a form of Zoom 101.

Week 4: Back to Flow

Narrative Violation!

In my experience, it took 4 weeks to truly get back to flow state. This week, I finished my todo list. I did an online midterm, got ahead on a group project, and finished all my homework for the upcoming week. This means I can start new exciting projects, go on offense for a change.

What did we learn?

Many time, I’ll get hit with a cliche and in one ear it enters, and the other it exits. Truly understanding these cliches and deriving value from them takes first hand experience. Here are my takeaways:

  1. When you are in flow, do everything in your power to maintain your flow state
  2. When you lose your flow, play defense. Set alarms early, fast, put walks in your daily calendar. Limit your losses and don’t try and do everything
  3. Maintain some semblance of schedule. Shower at the same time. Do pushups at the same time everyday. Have your own desk
  4. Don’t do everything yourself. Make part of your motivation impressing others.
  5. Avoid bullshit. I recommend not watching self-help videos. Use social media to keep in contact with friends but not much more. It gives you the illusion of work, but you’re not doing any work if all you are doing is reading headlines.

These past couple of weeks, I’ve seen some amazing people do some amazing things. A COVID-19 hackathon run by CBID at JHU had over 2,000 participants and students my age around the country are coming up with solutions very quickly. A recent grad from Hopkins started a cleantech newsletter. Cures for COVID are in the pipelines.

Change takes time. Momentum shifts are inevitable. I have learned that this is par for the course. Make sure you come out of this quarantine period proud of yourself.

Published Apr 7, 2020

Harvard-MIT PhD Student