One of my greatest regrets from high school and the start of my Olin career is that I overloaded. I still do, but I'm much better, very conscious of it, and try hard to monitor it so that it works for me instead of against me.
I thought the point was to cram as much knowledge and experience into my tiny little brain as possible. Going outside and lounging with friends? Feh. Must stuff physics into brain. Enjoying a leisurely dinner with my aunt? No way. Coding was so much more productive. The more things I could do, the better off I'd be in terms of what I could contribute to society, and so forth.
There's a certain thin, clear sweetness to the rhythm of a grueling night of work. There is something to be said for singleminded devotion to a problem - or a host of problems - and a frantic period of activity, mad dashes, a mind bubbling with idea overload, knowing that you're making sacrifices because the thing you're working on is just that important. And you get a lot done, that's for sure. It makes life worth living.
But there's also a lovely part of life where you can go dancing, lie in the grass reading Milton, slowly sip some very hot, rich chicken broth, play music, hug people, and kind of... well, not do anything particular at all. It's glorious. It's productive in a different way. It makes life worth living in another way.
The first kind makes the second all the sweeter, and the second gives you space to do the first. It's like being an athlete; you need to push yourself to perform, exceed your limits, occasionally collapse gasping on the floor because you've run too fast or tried to do too many push-ups, or you won't get any better. But you need rest periods to rebuild and refresh. And I always love the feeling you get after a hard workout, after a long shower, when you finally lie down and almost glow with a light tiredness; it's satisfying and makes the rest seem much more vivid.
By doing less, I give myself the freedom to do more. I've done more intense sprints, seen more moments of gloriously quiet beauty, gotten more done, been happier, and touched more lives - as far as I can tell - ever since I started saying no. I'm still bad at it, as anyone will tell you. But I'm slowly finding my balance.
Do I miss pulling allnighters? Yeah.
Do I like getting at least 4 hours of sleep a night? Oh yes. It feels so good. I haven't fallen asleep mid-class since I stopped pulling allnighters; it makes a huge difference.
Do I wish I didn't have to make the tradeoff? Heck yeah.
Is the choice I made (sleep is important) the better one? Well, yes. For now, at least. And I'm okay with it.
I remember going to Gill's office sophomore year. This was when I was pushing 20 credits plus research and 2 jobs, committees, projects, FWOP, TAing, and pulling 1-2 allnighters a week. I was drained, bleary-eyed, dog-tired, desperate to overload even more, and agonizing about the things I'd have to turn down ("aw, Gill, if only these three classes weren't scheduled simultaneously - I'd take them all!")
Now, y'all know that Gill's got the exact same problem of wanting to do everything. But he told me that life wasn't about trying to do everything, it was making choices (one of those choices being the choice to try to do everything). And that if you had two options, and decided one was better, it didn't mean the other one wasn't good also. You make a choice, you go with that choice, and maybe you wish you could have done the second as well, but you know you made that first choice for a reason, and you accept that and enjoy the things you are doing instead of fretting about all the things you aren't.
Easier said than done, especially now that my world of opportunities has exploded; when you spend the first umpteen years of your life butting up against a ceiling of possibility and desperately looking for people to talk to and things to do, and all of a sudden
that ceiling vanishes and possibilities appear, it takes a lot of self-control to not grab 'em all at once; it's like offering an everlasting buffet to a man who's been living in famine for 15 years. But if you eat too much, you'll get just as sick.
Making the most of abundance doesn't mean you should overfill. Abundance means you have the freedom to choose what you want - not that you should grab as much as you can just because it's there. It's all about enjoying the food.
Slow down. It'll help you run faster.