I, a slacker, copied an Academic Machine’s schedule for a week (or so I tried)
A self-proclaimed 'slacker' decides to follow the routine of an 'Academic Machine' and reflects on her experiences doing so.
From peak efficiency to falling apart, I learned to push myself while embracing my needs and whimsicalities.
The night before matriculation perfectly captured the absolute chaos known as my schedule (or lack thereof): I hung out with friends until 2am, stayed up until 5.30am writing a newspaper article, and finally slept a grand total of two hours before getting ready for the ceremony. The rest was a haze.
Much like my high school routine, my first few weeks in Oxford saw too many hours of procrastination and too many late nights out. The state of my academic work? Abysmal.
One rare day in the library, I happened to sit next to a strange species known as Oskari Penttinen. In his natural habitat, Penttinen’s behaviour would shock an observer: He had been tackling his reading with a laser-sharp focus, but at 4 o’clock on the dot, he left for socialising. At 5 o’clock on the dot, he returned and dove back into his work once again with military-grade punctuality.
I had heard of the many Youtube and Tiktok study influencers out there but never wanted to watch them, always harbouring some doubt that their productive lifestyles may be a facade. Yet here in front of my eyes was a real-life academic machine. An idea emerged.
Just Monday to Friday, I told myself. Copying his schedule can’t be that hard, can it?
But when I interviewed Penttinen that night to record his exact routine, the first words he uttered sent a chill down my spine: he wakes up at 6.30am and goes to the gym for an hour.
For the sake of my sanity, I made slight modifications to the morning portion, but below is the schedule I vowed to follow.
7am: Wake up and get ready
8.30am: Work in the library (4hrs)
1pm: Work in the library (3hrs)
4pm: JCR tea and socialising
5pm: Work in the library (1.5hrs)
7.30pm: Attend an event; if none, work in the library (2.5hrs)
10pm: Relax in my room
*Totalling 11 hours in the library and 8 hours of sleep.
How does such a rigid schedule cope with spontaneous social events or a last minute change in plans? I asked Pentinnen.
“Because I spend so much rigorous time studying, I stay ahead so that I can adjust for any exceptions and anomalies,” he said. “[The schedule] is extremely resilient and tenacious in nature. It gives me loads of leeway with random events as long as I keep it structured throughout the week otherwise.”
For the purpose of this story, I recorded a reflection of my experience by voice every night.
Hoping that this academic machine schedule would enable me to catch up on my monstrous backlog of work, I embarked on my mission with much determination – until I decided to attend a party on Sunday night and went to sleep at 3am. A wonderful start.
Monday morning, afloat on 4 hours of sleep, I went on a run in Christ Church Meadow. It was barely dawn; a silvery mist hovered above River Cherwell and licked at the grassy grounds. On my meandering route, I passed a family of ducks and, during gaps in the reddening foliage, admired the distant Oxford architecture that seemed straight out of The Lord of the Rings. I felt deeply in love with this place.
Fully awakened by the cold, I ate breakfast in the hall and began working in the library a mere five minutes behind my scheduled time – an achievement for someone as chronically late as I am.
Although my three hours of lectures that day cut into the library time and a seminar replaced my JCR tea socialising, I was astonishingly efficient. I started and finished the essay I’d been procrastinating for a week. Perhaps it helped that I sat right next to the academic machine himself and thus felt supervised.
I went to sleep about 15 minutes past my scheduled time feeling highly accomplished. The only modification I planned to make was to shift my lunch time 30 minutes back to match my friends’ lunchtime; Monday’s lunch was rather lonely.
Tuesday, once again, commenced with a run followed by several productive library sessions. But cracks began to show: I never realised how much of a social creature I am until I deprived myself of human interactions for the entirety of Monday. Time and time again, I lingered at mealtimes and in the hallways to chat with people, before forcibly removing myself to follow the schedule. For the most part, I did.
Rainy weather threw the plan into confusion come Wednesday morning. Too early for the dining hall, I made breakfast and began working at 7.30am. Yet another disruption arose when I worked in my room instead of the library because I needed to listen and speak for my Arabic homework. Old habits crept up and I lounged about, fiddling with this and that but never got enough done. I’m appalled to admit that I nodded off multiple times during my 10am lecture, my fatigue inexplicable.
As I sat in my online Arabic class, the greyness that had been brewing all morning broke the dam. Suddenly I felt so overwhelmingly sad. I knew – somehow I just knew – that I must find my friends right away or I’d start crying right in the middle of class.
Heart racing and breathing erratically, I faked a Wi-Fi issue and stumbled to the hall, collapsing into a seat by my friends. The immediate comfort felt like homecoming.
I described to them, incoherently, that The Schedule™ was like the Soviet Union. For the first two days, my rigid planning worked like a high modernist miracle, with the best efficiency I’d ever experienced in my life. But it’s not sustainable. My utter deprivation of a social life built up to a tsunami of sadness that crashed down on me; and thus the USSR fell apart.
(Apologies for the analogy; I’m a PPEist after all.)
Penttinen’s warning during our interview rang true. He told me frankly: “Don’t replicate my schedule – it’s one of a workaholic. I’d say it’s not sustainable for everyone. A fetishisation of efficiency is unhealthy.”
Silly me, trying to be an academic machine. But in my moment of vulnerability, my friends, bless them, swept me into their circle of hilarity, teasing, and debating the differences between jumping jacks and star jumps (don’t ask). I felt reborn.
I had an immediate surge of productivity that afternoon. An insightful conference session and a fascinating lecture were exactly the reset I desperately needed. Although my friends went out that night, I took the rational decision of staying back to get my work done.
“That’s how life is supposed to be, spontaneous and going with the flow,” I reflected in a rather emotional voice recording that night. “I got urgent tasks done but didn’t try to push myself further than that. My life is again under control.”
I knew my lack of peak productivity Wednesday meant an enormous amount of work Thursday, but I was hopeful.
Indeed I was extremely productive Thursday despite various deviations from The Schedule™. I slept in for an hour, skipped the run, but completed the week’s economics problem sheet in the library. I took certain measures to keep my focus, such as putting my phone far away when it kept distracting me. I painted my friend’s nails and chatted in the kitchen.
When I went out with friends, I brought my iPad because I still hadn’t started the philosophy work due Friday morning. Thus began a strange night of doing logic problems in various odd locations around Oxford: a tavern, the Corpus beer cellar, the Merton bar, and finally finishing in the Brasenose library at 2am. My friends chatted around me, their familiar voices a comforting chorus, and I occasionally chimed in.
“It’s a chaotic day – no schedule or planning or anything,” I reflected that night. “But I was surrounded by friends and I was so productive. I would say it’s a happy day.”
Friday, much like Monday, was jam packed and began with a chilly run on four hours of sleep. Yet unlike the mechanical, soulless efficiency of Monday, I felt alive on Friday. I thoroughly enjoyed my lecture and stayed behind for 45 extra minutes to talk with the lecturer.
That evening I threw myself into having fun. With friends, I went from college to college until I headed to sleep at 4am, before which I recorded: “wow, this is life. Having fun and being a teenager, lovely and lively.”
So where does that take me? I hold so much respect for Penttinen, who has since become a good friend, but I also recognise that this academic machine lifestyle is not in my nature. Recalling how Penttinen called exercise and JCR tea “foundational pillars” that he won’t miss even if he has an essay due and is panicking, I realised that hanging out with my friends is my “foundational pillar” equivalent.
Despite the breakdown on Wednesday, I did catch up on all my work and even enjoyed certain elements of The Schedule™ such as waking up early for a morning run. Moreover, Penttinen admits that he, too, procrastinates sometimes and checks his phone (he does have a social life, with an impressive Snapchat score of 766,000+); but he also sets clear goals for himself. I plan to follow his example and adopt some tricks for self-discipline. I might even follow The Schedule™ a day or two per week, but no more than that.
Being an Oxford student elevates us onto a pedestal where we may be expected to work like academic machines, but whilst we should prioritise our degrees, we are just ordinary humans inside – and that’s okay. In exploring what kind of routine works for me, I learned to push myself while embracing my needs and whimsicalities.
P.S. Some entertaining exchanges from our interview, the recording of which also captured my heartfelt response.
Penttinen: “Waking up at 6am is horrible. I’m not doing 6am – but at least 6.30am.”
Me: “…Okay, big difference.”
Me: “How long after arriving at Oxford did you establish this routine?”
Penttinen: “Maybe 24 hours.”
Me: “Good Lord!”