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Productive Summers: How to Make the Most of a School Break

Here in Iowa, there are only two seasons: winter and construction.

When you’re in that stage of life dominated by educational institutions, there are also only two seasons. There’s school, and then there’s summer.

Just saying that word in your head probably conjures thoughts of bike rides, Kool-Aid Jammers, and that time when Pokemon was your full-time job. And that’s exactly what it’s for – to an extent. Beyond those things, though, summer is also a time you can use productively.

Now, there’s a lot I could say about making summers productive, as doing so is basically identical to trying to answer a question like:

“I have three months free; what do I do with it?”

It’s an incredibly broad question, and we could go in a million different directions with it. What I’d like to emphasize here, though, are three main points:

  1. Summers should be used to gain experience you can’t get inside a classroom.
  2. Too much free time and a lack of structure will kill your productivity, so find a way to constrain your time to some degree.
  3. Spend some time working on yourself

Gain Experience Outside of the Classroom

Unless your vision for your entire life is to do nothing but take tests and tell people that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, you probably have goals that go beyond school or college.

Maybe you want to work on the next Pixar movie. Maybe you want to live in another country. Or maybe you just want become a pro wrestler and crush man’s head like sparrow’s egg between thighs.

In any case, you know college isn’t going to get you there alone. It might have done so 50 years ago, but that’s not the case today. That’s why I think summers are great; they’re an opportunity to gain skills and experience that you simply can’t get in a classroom.

Lots of school administrators don’t like how long summer break is, because students who are out of school for that long will probably forget that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. And look, I get it. I use my rudimentary knowledge of cell biology in my day-to-day life just as much as the next guy. It is immensely helpful when I’m trying to figure out my taxes.

On a more serious note, summer learning loss is an issue. Some studies estimate that students lose an entire month’s worth of learning each summer.

However, you can mitigate that learning loss if you care to do so. Even something as simple as establishing a reading habit can help you retain more of what you’ve learned and keep your mind in good shape. More importantly, though, summers offer you the opportunity to become a well-rounded person.

Sitting in class all year long would be like going to the gym and only ever doing bench presses. You’re going to get chicken legs if you do that, but luckily, friends don’t let friends skip leg day.

Summer is leg day for your brain and for your resume, so like a good friend, I need to tell you to use it.

How? There are a couple ways you can go about deciding what to do:

  1. Start with your goal and work backwards
  2. Pick an opportunity and run with it

If you have a strongly defined goal, go with the first one. For example, say you want to be an animator. What’s going to help you get a job with a studio? Probably a strong portfolio of work (displayed prominently on your personal website) and connections in the industry, right?

Alright, so spend your summer pursuing those things. Look for an internship with a studio or agency. Barring that, find any position that allows you to improve your skills. Additionally, spend some time working on animation projects of your own – in fact, start your own YouTube channel. While you’re at it, start forging connections with other animators on YouTube and other platforms.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t know exactly what you want to do yet. If that’s the case, keep your eye out for cool opportunities, evaluate them, and go for the one that looks most interesting and useful.

This is what I did during my freshman year; shortly after starting classes, I applied to be a summer orientation assistant at my university and got hired.

After spending spring semester going to two training sessions a week – where I learn a ton about my school and met people in almost every department – I spent the summer giving tours and answering questions on panels, planning events, hiring a speaker for one of those events.

Those experiences helped me improve my public speaking skills, added a great line to my resume, and helped me build relationships with lots of faculty and staff on campus. It was a huge win, even though it didn’t offer me direct, technical experience related to my major – which is ok, because the other skills I was able to build were arguably more important. 

The National Association of Colleges and Employers asked businesses what they look for in new graduates; here were the responses:

Career Skills

If you need some ideas for opportunities to pursue, here are a few:

Additionally, you could also use a bit of your summer for some smaller things. For instance, you could take an afternoon to email your professors from last semester and thank them for their contribution to your education. That’d be a great way to build connections and leave some good impressions!

If you have time, you could also email professionals in your future field in order to set up informational interviews or even job shadows.

Don’t Free Yourself of Obligations

Replace your classes with something that constrains your time. It doesn’t have to constrain as much of it, but on the flip side you really don’t want to go into summer with absolutely no form of structure or schedule. A lot of students tell me,

“I just can’t seem to get myself to be productive in the summer.”

…and a lack of structure is one of the biggest reasons. Remember Parkinson’s Law:

Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time you allot to it.

If you allot an entire summer to a personal project or goal, you can guess how long it’s going to take. You can learn from my experience on this one, because I did dedicate one of my summers solely to my personal projects… and it didn’t exactly go well. Here’s the quick version.

During the summers that followed my freshman and sophomore years in college, I stayed very busy. After freshman year, I took a nearly full-time job as an orientation assistant on campus. I spent most of my summer giving tours to incoming students, answering questions from students and parents on Q&A panels, organizing the big freshman kick-off event, and doing other things. I also fit in some extra hours at my regular part-time job at the campus IT center as well.

That was the summer I started College Info Geek; after applying to be a writer for another site and getting rejected, I decided to start my own. For most of that summer, I regularly spent a portion of my free time writing articles and learning how to customize the site to my liking.

When the next summer (after my sophomore year) came around, I started my first full-time internship. I worked in the computer networking department at a large financial corporation, and I opted to work a schedule of four 10-hour workdays per week. That gave me Fridays to myself, and I largely used them – as well as every other night after work – to write articles. If you look back at the archives, you can see that summer 2011 was pretty busy – I was writing up to 30 articles a month at that time.

So then the summer of 2012 rolls around. When my junior year of college ended, College Info Geek was finally starting to make some money. Traffic numbers were improving. Everything was on the up and up.

So I decided to make what seemed like a logical choice: I decided to dedicate my entire summer to working on College Info Geek. No internships, no part-time jobs, no summer classes, nothing.

The decision made sense economically; since the business was starting to thrive, every minute spent working elsewhere would have been worth less, comparatively.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet learned about the value of using external obligations to constrain my time and boost my efficiency. I hadn’t yet internalized the truth of Parkinson’s Law:

As a result, that summer was horribly unproductive. I don’t even have to rely on my memory about this; here’s how I started my Fall 2012 preview article:

“This summer was a bit of a lazy one for me. While I did do cool stuff like meet awesome bloggers in San Francisco, explore Japan, run a Warrior Dash, learn to surf, and jump out of an airplane, I didn’t do a huge amount of actual work this summer – and that’s a bad thing.

I learned something important over the last few months. I learned that you can actually have too much freedom, and that a healthy amount of structure and obligation in your life can be a reeeaaaaallllyyyy good thing.

For me, quitting all my scheduled commitments in order to free up my life for College Info Geek stuff seems to have backfired a bit. I found that I actually got more done on this site when I had a bunch of stuff to do.”

I was, in short, trapped by my freedom. And I paid a huge price in lost potential progress because of it.

When I was reading through Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! recently, I came across a story from Feynman that gave me some additional justification for touting the benefits of structure. This story relates to Feynman’s famous insistence to always teach classes – even though he was an famous physicist and could have easily spent all his time doing research:

“I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, ‘At least I’m living; at least I’m doing something; I’m making some contribution’ – it’s just psychological.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940’s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could no sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get an idea for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from students. Nothing!”

Interacting with other people and exposing yourself to their problems keeps you on your toes and helps you to innovate. External structure and obligations constrain your time and force your brain to be more efficient with what’s left over.

Removing these elements from your life will almost always result in a net negative effect. You can certainly reduce them at times in order to free up more hours for personal pursuits, but I believe you should never eliminate them.

This is part of the reason I choose to co-host Listen Money Matters. It’s not my podcast, and I have only limited decision-making power over when and how often we record. Sometimes that’s a pain in the neck, but it forces me to schedule my work around it and be more efficient with my time.

Of course, I’ve learned other tricks for managing my time well. During the summer of 2014, I decided to treat College Info Geek like a company, and therefore to treat myself like a professional doing a job. To that end, I created structure around the site; I set up a publishing schedule, created a goal in Beeminder to ensure I’d stick to it, and also started using Habitica to build other useful habits.

Looking back, I’m not surprised at all that College Info Geek started to grow significantly right around this time.

What you can learn from this experience of mine is that your personal projects can have structure as well. You can use apps like Beeminder and Habitica, as I did, or you can find accountability partners. In general, I think using commitment devices is an all-around great idea. I elaborated on this idea a bit more in this video:

Work on Yourself

At this point, you might think I’m telling you to fill up your summer with as much work as possible – I’ve been telling you to go after opportunities, create structure, and constrain your time. Maybe you’re thinking,

“What gives? Isn’t summer break supposed to be a break?

The answer is yes. I do believe summer should contain some time for fun and relaxation, and you can have it while still making most of your summer productive. I definitely made time for fun during my summers:

Getting a picture in every building on campus

I spent part of a summer trying to get a picture inside every building on campus – we failed, but the attempt was fun.

Warrior Dash

My friend Andy and I did a Warrior Dash – an obstacle race with barbed wire to crawl under, walls to climb, and fire to jump over.

Dumb gaijins in Japan

The coolest thing I ever did during a summer was visiting Japan with two of my best friends. We were pretty much lost for the first couple days, but the trip was amazing!

In my opinion, the “right” way to spend your summer – if that’s even something we can define – is to use most of it productively, while breaking up the work with small pockets of high-density fun.

Instead of hanging by the pool for three whole months, plan an amazing trip that lasts a couple weeks. Additionally, make some time after your work each day for relaxation – just like you should do during the school year.

Aside from pursuing opportunities and making time for fun, though, there’s one other thing you should do during your summer.

Unless you’ve picked an opportunity that takes up a huge amount of your time, you’re likely going to have more free time during the summer than you would during the school year. That makes summer the perfect time to work on yourself. You could do things like:

  • Defining your goals more clearly – or making an impossible list
  • Reading more consistently
  • Building an exercise routine
  • Forging new habits
  • Challenging yourself to learn a new skill by practicing every day

I always relished having enough time to step back, evaluate how I was doing in my personal life, and then take steps to start improving – and summer, like the beginning of a new semester, is a great time to do that.

Wondering if you should spend your summer taking classes? Here’s how to decide.