Craving Structure

Storyteller on a mission, breakfast enthusiast, reluctant master's student

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When I started at MIT, I left behind a job in a New York City office. While my job was varied—never the same two days in a row—it did have a few things that gave it structure. I got up at the same time every day and had a desk with a phone that didn’t ring before I was expected to be sitting there at 9:30am. I had a great project manager who managed our team deadlines and made sure that things were on track.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the desk with the phone and managed timelines made an unpredictable role feel manageable. It established rhythms and routines that signified to my internal clock when I needed to be working and when it was okay to be off the clock. 

Then I started grad school. All of a sudden, my schedule changed daily and each class, lab, student group and my TA appointment all felt like separate jobs. I had to manage seven different moving targets and ever-shifting schedules. I thought I would enjoy breaking out of a 5-day work week for the freedom of research, investigation, curiosity, and learning. Instead, I started waking up in the middle of the night thinking I forgot something important.

I spent my first semester and a half in this anxious-ambiguous place. Then in March, I heard a talk by an entrepreneur who was dealing with a lot of unknowns while building a company. She said something that really stuck with me: if your life doesn’t provide structure, you have to create it yourself. My first thought was that I desperately needed to find ways to add structure to my life. 

Second, I wondered why structure matters so much to us. What about the way we’re made makes us crave structure and rhythm? As I was considering this question, I was reminded of a book I read a few years ago by Jeff Hawkins, On Intelligence. Hawkins describes a memory-prediction framework that the brain utilizes to match incoming sensory input to patterns in our memory. Our brains don’t like to spend energy interpreting everything we sense and experience, so the brain tries to predict when we’re experiencing “business as usual.” 

What does this have to do with managing my lab projects and class schedule? I realized that we’re hardwired for prediction. Without any sort or regular rhythm, my schedule and projects was constant guessing game—what’s next? What am I forgetting? Did I ever respond to that email from my professor? Have I done everything I need to do today? Is it okay to rest now, or is there more I need to do? 

As a grad student considering starting my own company post-graduation, I don’t expect to have the predictability of a regular, nine-to-five schedule anytime soon. Instead, I wonder if there are other ways to add touch points in my week to add some predictable structure to my time. If I start a crazy day knowing that I’m going to a 7pm gym class, does that somehow satisfy my internal desire to predict? Would I rest better if I had a daily cadence of reading and responding to emails at a specific time? 

Cadence (noun): a flow or rhythm of events, especially the pattern in which something is experienced.[1] 

A new daily rhythm
For me, I’m starting with a simple daily cadence: I get up at the same time each day. That gives me an hour in the morning to read, pray, or write down what’s in my head. It’s a type of meditation that helps me to touch base with how I am feeling. I don’t have a scientific way to prove that it has an impact, except for the fact that I miss that time when I hit snooze instead. 

The next experiment: How do you know that your week is over?
The next cadence I’m hoping to establish is one that signifies when I can leave my work at “work” and spend time doing things that I love, like cooking with friends or playing my new acoustic guitar. Since I don’t have a regular work week to establish when I should be working, I often feel guilty when I take time to recharge. I’m hoping that a weekly rhythm will help me to start to draw some boundaries between work and time off.

We’re built to like predictability. I don’t think that means we should live predictable lives—I don’t think most of us would want that. However, I do think it can be valuable to build some structure into our schedules to satisfy some of our need to know what’s coming up next. Perhaps that even makes us more open to the unpredictable, wonderful, serendipitous experiences that make our lives exciting and rich. 

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/cadence

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