Vitamins vs. Painkillers

Laura Gao

11 Jan 2021 • 3 min read

In 2020, I spent most of my time on painkillers.

In a single sentence, my past year and 4 months were characterized by one thing: constantly grinding to meet deadlines.

Take January 2020, for example. I was researching DECA 7h/day over the winter break trying to meet the impossibly tight PI research schedule. I did 5 roleplays a week to prep for the Provincial competiton. Wrote 8k words in 5 days to cram my TKS application in before early deadlines. Shoved all the work of a 2 month science fair project into 3 days.

The extra free time from the pandemic didn't change things. Participated in 3 week-long hackathons in October 2020 without as much of a 1 day break between them. Right after hackathons, I spent 10h/week on my newsletter comic, spending 16 days on a single newsletter and feeling like trash the whole time because the newsletter was sent well after the end of the month. Then was the Instacart challenge, where I made a 40-slide high standards deck and singlehandedly designed the UI for 5 Instacart app features, all in a week. Right after was creating my next newsletter -- 5 days of constant newslettering. Then spent 5 days constantly doing the podcast. By then, it was well into December.

The whole time, I had the weight of firstly, not doing quantum computing, and secondly, not doing cold outreach -- weights looming over my head that I knew I didn't have the time for, thinking I'll do it after this deadline is over. But as soon as I kick out one deadline the next one comes right in, the time never coming for me to do what I want.

And the thing is, completing one deadline never made me happier, because I knew there were things I wanted to do that I wasn't getting done. Each deadline was just another thing I felt like I had to get done. They were tasks I did out of obligation, not tasks that brought me joy. I call them painkillers: I put so much work into Instacart not because placing top 5 is something I really wanted, but because I didn't want to be a shitty TKS kid that didn't put effort into the challenge. I did newsletter comics (SMH 16 days spent on a single one) not because I thought newsletters were valuable (they weren't -- I have no network) but because didn't want to be a shitty TKS kid with a trashy newsletter. Painkillers are things I did out of avoiding pain rather than out of wanting to build my life.

Then came winter break, and holy fuck I had my focus presentation in 2 weeks and I haven't even started quantum computing. The past 2 weeks were consumed with the stress of this presentation, every hour with "x days till focus presentation" as the only thing on my mind. You could probably tell by how I titled my past updates.

From Updately

For the past year and 4 months, I was constantly in a state of stress, constantly griding for the next deadline.

That was fine. I mean, I needed deadlines to keep me going. If it weren't due to the external accountability, I would not have created a high standards Instacart deck so quickly. I wouldn't have learned digital art. I wouldn't have achieved as much in 2020.


I just got past my most recent deadline: finish Grover's algorithm and my focus presentation before Jan 9. Now, I no longer want to chase deadlines. I no longer want to be constantly consumed by thoughts of the next due date. I no longer want to spend the majority of my time on painkillers, with no time left to build the life I want to live.

Basically, for the past school year, I constantly felt like I was falling behind. I don't think I felt a sliver of happiness for 3 months straight. Sure, I got results, but I was numb to them. Making top 5 for the Instacart challenge didn't make me happy. Making provincials for DECA (with a total prep time of 30 mins lmfao) did not make me happy. Getting Canadian champion of a math contest didn't make me happy. Getting invited to judge season 3 of ML didn't make me happy. The 10+ wonderful compliments I received about my November and December newsletters didn't make me happy. Twitter followers didn't make me happy. I realized that spending time on painkillers will never make you happy.

A paradigm shifting moment came when on last Thursday morning, when I got the oracle of my search algorithm to work, I felt genuinely so happy. Like. Happy. Pure joy. I haven't been truly happy since maybe September; there was something else weighing on my shoulders: not doing outreach, not working on quantum computing.

And… when I spent time on QC, on something that I had wanted to do, there was no reason to be sad.


No more chasing deadlines.

Now, I will spend time on what I want. Stuff like QC. I realize how happy spending time on quantum makes me. I call tasks like this vitamins: things I do because they excite me, time I spend to move towards a happier life rather than avoiding pain.

I quit everything because I wanted a chill January to focus on my priorities: video, QC, and networking. No studing for DECA. No practicing cubing. No aviation exams. I want to spend a month playing with adobe animate and not having to worry about getting anything else done. I wanted to catch up on everywhere I was failing behind, make right the wrongs of 2020: build friendships, sleep at fucking 8pm, get back into velocity.

A January on pure QC and animation is the dream January for me.

January will be my vitamin month. Everything I do will be moving towards personal fulfillment rather than avoiding pain.

I want to build the life I'm excited to live. Check out my 2021 goals ;)

Your turn. What do you spend most of your time on: vitamins or painkillers?