So I Took Time Off to “Explore My Interests”… Now What?

How to be productive when you have seemingly unlimited amounts of free time

B Mo
B Mo
Nov 29, 2019 · 10 min read

I’ve taken a lot of time off since I first started school at Stanford, ranging from periods of 3 weeks to an entire year.

My freshman year of college, I was in 3 clubs, a Division I sports team, and way too many classes. I felt overwhelmed and alone, especially since every other student was stupidly smart and on top of their shit (or so it seemed). I was working myself to the bone even though I didn’t have a clear idea what I was working towards and why.

Taking time off was the best decision of my life because I determined the direction I wanted to take and gained concrete skills to move in that direction.

By designing and executing a thorough plan of action, I gained much needed clarity during my gap year. I also gained concrete skills that ranged from managing an e-commerce store to programming a web application.

1. Set an ambitious roadmap

2. Execute the actual day-to-day

3. Stay accountable and remember to self-care

I am currently taking my senior fall quarter off to focus on my passions, and will be using this two month period as my example.

Step 1 — Set an ambitious roadmap

Brainstorm what you want to do

The few months leading up to my 2 month productivity period, there were ideas constantly floating around my head for what I wanted to work on. Some were related to organizational management and startups, others were related to blog post concepts. I pulled on these threads and dug deeper. Since I knew I wanted to write, I read Medium articles and wrote messy drafts for articles like this one. Because I am interested in tech and startups, I read about tech companies like Tesla in my free time.

  • What have you wanted to do but were prevented from doing because of your previous schedule?
  • Where do you want to be 5 years from now? What skills do you need to do so?
  • What activities do others do that make you feel a little envious?
  • Who are the people that you admire, and what do they do?

Set personal OKRs

Broad philosophical overview of OKRs (by Roadmunk)
  • Key Result 2: Take biweekly Ableton lessons (music production software)
  • Key Result 3: Program a virtual reality game in Unity
  • Key Result 4: Write and publish 5 articles on Medium

Step 2 — Execute the actual day-to-day

I like to visualize that my mind is made up of two parts: one is the higher mind that knows what I should get done for long term goals, and the other is the lower-level child mind that is instinctive and primitive. The latter mind executes quickly and is very creative. However, it is emotionally driven by habits of desire and avoidance — just like a child.

The purpose of personal Objectives and Key Results is to provide clear focus so that the higher mind can manage the child mind in order to execute on long term goals.

For each key result, consider how you would execute it. What are tactics that help you stay focused and motivated? It is important to know the habits of your child mind so that you can design a daily routine that breaks down undesirable barriers. It is also important to consider that your child mind is childish. When a child makes a mistake, you don’t want to yell at her (at least, I hope not). If you want your child to learn from her mistakes, you gently redirect her to the right behavior and positively reinforce this behavior in the future.

1. Set a single main goal for the day: What’s the one thing that I can do today where, if I get it done, I’ll be happy?

This should be completable in 2.5–3 hours. An example of this might be: write an article draft about taking time off.

2. Give an uninterrupted 2.5–3 hour time block in the morning to do it. ☀️

In Angela’s Duckworth’s book Grit, she says that the key to achieving expertise in a skill is through high-quality, deliberate practice. Deliberate practice means uninterrupted, focused time working on specific tasks. This means: no texting your friend the latest cat meme, no clicking YouTube clickbait, and no scrolling through Instagram. If you catch yourself doing so, don’t beat yourself up; realize that it is your child mind getting distracted. Gently refocus your attention to the task at hand and congratulate yourself for successfully redirecting your energy.

3. Timebox my work time.

I use the Pomodoro technique, where work time is segmented into 25 minute chunks, with 3–5 minutes of break between each period. If at the end of a 25 minute period, you want to continue working, only continue if you think you can do another full 25 minute chunk. If not, then take a brief break. By scheduling short, frequent breaks, the mind is given time to recover and stay alert. I also avoid my phone and laptop during breaks to stay feeling refreshed.

4. Meditate.

11/10 would recommend.

Step 3 — Stay accountable

Accountability buddies

And remember to self-care!

When managing your own time, you’re really doing two things at once: you’re managing and you’re also executing. This can get overwhelming at times and that is why self-care is so important.

Self-care should make you feel good in the short-term and improve your health in the long-term.

Figuring out the right self-care habits is a life-long process. Some examples:

  • Go to the gym
  • Meditate
  • Play Smash Ultimate
  • Dance on a night out with friends
  • Take a nap
  • Read a neuroscience textbook (Apparently my dad likes to do this to unwind 🤔hey, whatever works for you)
If playing video games helps you relax, then use it as your form of self-care — in moderation.

In conclusion

I hope this inspires readers to reflect, think about their personal goals, and achieve them. Formalizing the process of taking time off has been several years in the making for someone like me who has taken many gap years and enjoys goal-setting, skill-building, and behavioral design.

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier.

B Mo

Written by

B Mo

Founder at | Engineering @Stanford | Designer @Stanford | Fellow @LightspeedVP | Software Engineer @Google

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier. Join a community of storytellers documenting the climb to happiness and fulfillment.

B Mo

Written by

B Mo

Founder at | Engineering @Stanford | Designer @Stanford | Fellow @LightspeedVP | Software Engineer @Google

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier. Join a community of storytellers documenting the climb to happiness and fulfillment.

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