I wrote the following essay a while back for the Cornell Engineering Graduate Student Association, but hopefully anybody can get some use for it.
tl;dr: time is the one resource humans really can’t make more of (yet) so don’t squander it. I’m like one of those people who yells at you for throwing away a plastic bottle, but with time.
Your time is incredibly valuable and you need to spend it wisely. Who knows how much more I could have accomplished if I had this epiphany earlier.
Nobody will value your time’s true worth: instructors, peers, students and most insidious ifyou aren’t wary – yourself. It is always possible to gain more money, knowledge or friends. As for time though, there is a hard limit of 24 hours in a day (except of course, when daylight savings ends in the fall) and a single lifetime for each of us.
There will always be hundreds of demands on your time: daily email, meetings, seminars, friends, collaborators, students, advisors, papers to be read, experiments … But just as you wouldn’t give fifty dollars to just anybody who asks (I’m assuming you’re on a graduate student budget here), you need to be discerning with how you spend your time. In graduate school, it is so easy to become a time spendthrift without realizing it. Tangential sub-projects and homework assignments that ultimately render little benefit can eat time endlessly for as long as you keep feeding them. Cornell is filled with enough meetings, seminars and events that it is possible to lose days of your life to them without even realizing it.
To some of you, this is going to sound like blasphemy: one of the most valuable realizations I’ve had since I became a grad student is that just because you started something, doesn’t mean it’s worth finishing. These sound like the words of a quitter – you didn’t get into graduate school by quitting. Stopping something you started is for lesser humans. But by realizing when the completion of something (an article, a project, a lecture) doesn’t merit your precious time, you in fact give yourself the gift of the time to finish the things that actually are worth completing.
The commendable desire to save money is one of the most insidious things that can lead to misspending of time. External demands to spend your time in order to save money are common, especially in cash-strapped labs. A common example is the choice between spending days or weeks building a piece of equipment versus purchasing it. Sometimes the monetary savings are for you–graduate students often fall prey to the idea that the product that is cheaper but requires a significant time input is superior to the one that is more expensive but faster: “Dude, I save five dollars a week by making my own yogurt!” “How much time do you spend making the yogurt?” “Oh, about three hours.” In many situations, the tradeoff is worthwhile, if the amount of money saved is large enough or you will gain a tangential benefit. My point is to always be cogent of the fact that it is a tradeoff, and you need to value your time appropriately in the balance.
Of course, if after considering the cost-benefit, you find these things are worth the price you pay in your valuable time for whatever reason – experience, knowledge, or enjoyment – by all means do them. Just as with money, there is little point to having time to do things if you do not use it – I’m just encouraging you to be responsible with your time and be able to say to yourself why you spent it. I would just implore you to treat your time not as something that just goes flying by, but as an asset more valuable than gold, that can be used to buy almost anything, and thus should be spent with deserving discretion.