The summer after his freshman year at Harvard, Awais Hussain tried the “Uberman” sleep cycle, a method that involves taking 20-minute naps every four hours, so that one ultimately sleeps for a total of only two hours out of every 24. He was trying to solve the problem of having more tasks to do than hours in which to do them. “[It] really saddened me that I didn’t know where my time was going,” Hussain recalls.
And so he embarked upon what he calls a “quest to maximize efficiency.” As a sophomore, Hussain, who grew up in London, abandoned the Uberman cycle for a new model of time management in which he meticulously tracked how he was using his every waking moment. To save time on the tracking process itself, Hussain—who had never taken a computer science course—and a friend created a calendar-syncing iPhone app that streamlined his efforts to account for his time and activities.
Hussain came to recognize, however, that fitting more into each day was not a self-evidently worthwhile pursuit. “I think you have to know why you’re being efficient,” he says. “We shouldn’t think of ourselves as robots who just have to get as much done as possible, which is kind of what this app was trying to do. … And that’s fine, but I don’t really think it’s sustainable.”
Now, he has discarded not only the app but, by and large, his calendar. “If something’s important enough to you to go to, then you’ll probably remember it in your head and you won’t need a calendar,” Hussain reasons. “I sometimes worry that technology...obscures what’s actually important and you just fill up your life with all this crap that’s not actually important.”
Thinking about what is actually important, what does matter and why, is a challenge Hussain enjoys taking up academically, too. He is pursuing a joint concentration in physics and philosophy, and I ask him to discuss how the two disciplines relate.
“They both try and do the same thing, just physics uses mathematics and philosophy uses language,” Hussain tells me. “They’re both trying to answer these big fundamental questions about how the universe works and what we are and what the world is.”
Though the majority of his coursework has been in physics and/or philosophy, Hussain’s extracurricular engagements point to an even wider range of interests. He began performing spoken word poetry for the first time as a freshman and now serves as co-president of Speak Out Loud. His poems, he says, tend to steer clear of realism.
“In my head it makes complete sense why I would talk about a dinosaur, or a unicorn, or Mt. Everest,” Hussain says. “But then when I perform it, people are just like, ‘Oh, that sounded cool. What was going on?’ They end up being very surreal and very metaphorical.”
To relax, Hussain plays pool. His sophomore year, Hussain and his roommate founded Harvard Billiards, which is now recognized as a club sport. In June of 2014, he placed joint fifth-sixth in the national collegiate billiards championships.
But Hussain is hardly interested in earning accolades for their own sake, in billards or in life.
Hussain’s parents emigrated from Pakistan to England when they were in their late teens. “They kind of had to build a life from scratch,” he says. He believes this adds a level of significance to his having ended up in Cambridge. “The fact that I’m even at Harvard is a miracle of sorts. I don’t think I was ever expected to do as well as I did academically. So it’s a real privilege, I think, for me to be here.”
This sense of gratitude has informed how Hussain thinks about the future. Many of his peers, he says, see Harvard as a stepping stone to the next accomplishment. “For me, Harvard is more like a safety net,” he explains. “I feel like I now have a lot of permission to go out and experiment and take risks and mess up really, really badly on the slim chance that maybe something I do will be worthwhile.”