When I was six years old, I asked my mother if it were true that we would all die someday. My question drew a laconic yes. After a few seconds of doleful reflection, I asked, “Then why do we work?” She didn’t answer.
Today, I work about 34 (actual) hours per week. I consider that a lot, but many in academe would consider 34 hours sheer slacking. When I started my Ph.D. program, a high-ranking professor was outraged at my leaving the office at 5 p.m.; he even wanted to know the name of my supervisor so he could have a word with him about my “dubious work ethic.”
What irks me is not the judgmental attitude; it’s how hard it is to work with people who expect you to be on 24-7. People with kids get a relative free pass; but I don’t have kids, so I’m expected to be available weekends and evenings. But I’m not. I understand that is frustrating for many people, but it’s also frustrating for me to spend a weekend working rather than enjoying quality time with family and friends.
Why am I so adamant about taking time off? As hackneyed as it may sound, life is woefully short. I’m not even two years into the Ph.D. process, and I’ve already heard of two people who died of cancer at a young age. The mere thought of death throws most of us into a fit of intense angst, so we act as if we had all the time in world. But thinking about mortality has its benefits; it reminds us how precious our time is. I’m 26 years old, and if I’m lucky enough to make it to 80, that leaves me less than 2,860 weekends left to enjoy. That’s not an awful lot! This life is all I have, and I don’t want to squander it all on work.
I’ve heard professors say their work is their life. They enjoy what they do so much that they don’t mind forgoing everything else, even friends and family. That might be true for some people but certainly not for everyone. If academics truly work long hours out of passion, their job satisfaction should increase or at least remain stable as they spend more time on research. But studies show that exactly the opposite happens: the more hours academics spend on research, they more dissatisfied they are with their jobs. The reason academics work so much isn’t out of sheer passion -- it’s out of pervasive publish-or-perish pressure.
The expectations of academe are exceedingly demanding. Students and faculty members feel guilty when they’re not working. And when they are, they have an all-too-familiar feeling that more can be done. We all know the consequences: social isolation, stress, burnout, anxiety, poor work-life balance and health issues, to name but a few.
But there’s more. In one of his famous essays, the philosopher Bertrand Russell lamented that “without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things.” Working too much means missing out on museums, festivals, pub crawls, casual reading, music, hiking, camping, canoeing, stargazing, socializing, exploring new cities, picnics, friends, family, romantic relationships, plays, road tripping, workouts, restaurants, lectures, long autumnal walks, video games, board games, sleep, sleeping in, meditation, origami, baseball games, reading poetry, being read poetry, learning a new language, woodworking and, most important, taking the time to see the big picture and take stock of one’s life. My mother still hasn’t answered my existential question, but I’ve figured it out for myself: we work so we can enjoy leisure and contemplation.
But overwork doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. I know a handful of researchers who publish in top journals and still manage to work fewer than 40 hours a week and take weekends off. Yes, all of them have children, and no, they’re not all tenured. Here’s what I learned from them:
They’re clear about their priorities. “He that judges not well of the importance of his affairs,” wrote William Penn in 1682, “though he may be always busy, he must make but a small progress.” Being clear about one’s priorities makes two things easier. First, priorities help you set boundaries. Some professors make it very explicit that weekends are off-limits and reserved for family and friends. They will answer the phone or check their professional email only during certain hours, as they know that nothing can be so urgent that it can’t wait until Monday.
Second, priorities help you set time limits that match the importance of the tasks at hand. You should allot high-priority tasks more time, although in reality people often spend little time on the important stuff. Setting time limits also makes you more efficient. Parkinson’s law that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” has a lesser-known corollary: “Work contracts to fit into the time we give it.” This is one of the reasons why shorter workweeks have boosted productivity in Europe.
They plan ahead. A professor once told me that planning things out helped him make sure that his efforts were channeled toward his goals rather than whatever trifle came his way. Having a daily plan, he told me, meant he didn’t waste time every morning pondering what to do. Besides saving time, research clearly shows that planning helps people feel more in control of their time, lowers stress and anxiety, and boosts life satisfaction.
But, more important, planning helps you know what tasks must be completed in a given day and, therefore, when to stop working. Indeed, the hard thing about work isn’t getting started -- it’s knowing when to stop.
Planning ahead also means not having to worry about all the things you have to do. People tend to constantly think about unfinished projects (this is known as the Zeigarnik effect), which saps precious brainpower that could be used to work on other projects. Research shows that if you have a written plan of how and when you’re going to carry out a task, you’ll stop worrying about it and be more efficient at dealing with other projects.
They’re very organized. People think organization saves time because it makes you more efficient. It’s true, but organization saves time mostly because it averts crises. Some professors use dead-simple note-taking tools; others have elaborate organization systems. In either case, being organized means nothing falls off the radar, becomes suddenly urgent or snowballs into a full-blown crisis -- and crises take an awful lot of time to mop up. (A stitch in time saves nine!)
They take time off. The most productive scholars I know also tend to be the most unapologetic about taking time off. And rightly so. In a little-known passage of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith suggested, “It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”
Smith’s prescient remark is borne out by a slew of studies; working long hours is not only unhealthy, but also counterproductive. Taking time off, on the other hand, will make you healthier, more productive and more creative.
It’s very tempting to work more. After all, work provides money, and money buys leisure. But as economist G. S. Becker pointed out 50 years ago, leisure costs money and time. Vacationing in Cuba might cost $2,000 in money and about a week in time, but if one has no time left because of work, the $2,000 is basically worthless. At the end of the day, time management is all about putting your time where your mouth is, and matching your time investments with your priorities in life is a huge first step toward happiness.
Brad Had is a Ph.D. researcher who studies the science of time management at Concordia University in Montreal.
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