As engineering students, we learn how to solve real-world problems. After four years of study, it is interesting to look back and to see how some of the concepts we learned could be applied to arguably the realest problem of all – daily life. In this blog post, we (Bryan and Sam, fourth-year Engineering students) decided to reach out to a few UBC Engineering professors and experienced students to share their favorite engineering concepts, what skills they have learned from them, and how these skills could be applied to improve our daily lives. We summarized their key insights and ideas into a series of two blog posts.
This is the second post of the series. In the first section, we discussed ways to optimize your sleep, diet and general wellness. In this section, we will talk about systems you can implement to make more efficient use of your available time.
Designing Better Routines
Keep a Schedule and Prioritize Execution
If you can keep a schedule, you cut out the stress involved in daily decisions. In a day, each decision we make erodes the quality of our future decisions. In light of this, it would be ideal to make most of our more mundane daily decisions (what to eat, wear, where to study) in advance. This ensures that our limited decision-making power is preserved for making the decisions that truly matter.
Dr. Prashant, a professor in UBC’s department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has the following to say concerning scheduling:
“Most people keep a broader, higher-level schedule, like – I leave for work, have lunch at 12 pm and come back at 6 pm. But they don’t know, for example, what needs to be done at home, and when. How long would it take? If you don’t make such decisions in advance, you find that as the day progresses, the quality of your decisions erodes as you have already spent a significant amount of it deciding where you’d like to get your coffee or what email you should reply to first. It becomes easier to procrastinate and allow tasks to pile up. Establishing a regular time, date and place for when things need to be done creates automaticity in achieving them and reduces the mental effort necessary in doing these tasks.”
Dr. Prashant applies these same concepts to his research. He says, “if I do research ad-hoc then it’s going to go nowhere. That’s why I always tell my students to keep a schedule, write things down and create a timeline. This is what makes research possible. In general, I think having a schedule makes things much more efficient.”
Another area of optimization in Dr. Prashant’s research process is decision-making. For example, a leading measure of a professor’s success is the number of papers published. As a researcher, he can’t afford to get stuck in the decision-making process. Rather than getting paralyzed analyzing decisions, he recognizes that sometimes making the perfect decision is a lot less important than actually getting work done. So, if you find yourself agonizing about where to do your grocery shopping, or what specific subject to study for, just commit to the closest one to hand. Spending time agonizing over decisions can be a form of procrastination.
Collaborate and Break Down Larger Goals
Ronal Vimadalal, a 6th-year Chemical engineering student at UBC, has the following to say about the application of engineering principles to daily life.
“There are two main principles that I have learned while studying Chemical Engineering: collaboration, and systematic breakdown of larger problems.
With the huge Chemical Engineering course load, I realized that collaboration with my peers would be key in being successful in the program. The collaboration takes place in the form of group problem set sessions, last-minute exam prep sessions, mock interviews for co-op roles, and sharing notes for classes. The key skill was to learn how to collaborate without being too reliant on others.
“I realized that collaboration with my peers would be key in being successful in the program.”
The other aspect that Chemical Engineering is all about is systematic thinking. We take classes about molecular catalysts at 9 am and plant layout and design at noon. Such a range in scale of magnitude trains us to approach problems from many different levels. If a process cannot be optimized on a micro level, some macro-level can be tweaked to give the same performance. Every problem can be tackled at different scales and there can be multiple answers for each problem.”
To practice collaboration and systematic thinking, Ronak recommends:
- Taking part in social/team activities (like sports) when you get a chance: encourages you to collaborate and solve problems together.
- Getting involved on campus e.g joining student societies, clubs, volunteering or participating in co-curricular activities.
- Applying system-level thinking to break down tasks into smaller and simpler subtasks. For example, meal prepping and grocery shopping: “If you go to the grocery store without a meal plan or shopping list, you might end up buying things you do not need or end up not buying the things you need. This could make your cost go up or spend more time than you should. So the steps to avoid this will be to plan what it is you want to do, then break down the problem based on the plan into subsets.”
Modern computers employ a technique called ‘interrupt binning’ to limit the effect of interruptions on their processing time. They do this by letting the interruptions to their current process accumulate until they reach a threshold. Only when it reaches this threshold does the operating system stop what it’s doing to handle all those interruptions at once. This way, computers can reduce the time wasted in constantly switching between tasks.
As with computers, human performance is greatly affected by interruptions. Humans can also implement this technique to curb distractions and increase focus, for example, disabling notifications on your phone and only checking them at predetermined intervals in the day. Even if you are waiting for a time-sensitive email or message, setting a shorter time interval to check for important messages could be more effective than merely waiting for them. Employing this trick could help boost your productivity without taking away from the time you may want to spend with friends or on other leisure activities.
“But I’m here to study, not lounge around in leisure,” you may say. While studying hard to get excellent grades is laudable, neglecting other fundamental human needs can cause burnout and, in the long term, be detrimental to our academic and professional goals. Activities such as sleeping, participating in community, building relationships, creativity and other forms of care can be just as important in getting the perfect grade as study time.
For more insight into how to manage your time effectively (according to machines), check out this video!
Time management is among the top skills valued by employers. It is also an essential part of a busy student’s toolkit. We hope these tools and strategies will enable you to tackle the challenges of daily life more efficiently and gain more control of your time.
As we have seen, ideas that may seem far removed from our daily experiences can be turned into useful tools. As we progress through university and learn new things, it may be useful to ask: where in my life can I apply this knowledge?