Monday, October 22, 2018

In Defense of Weekends, Evenings, Holidays, and Sleep

I haven't checked my email since Friday afternoon, and there are now 165 unread messages in my inbox. (Only a few are likely to be spam. I have excellent filters and use a separate email address for all commercial transactions.) I am inspired to confess this after having read a recent article on academic overwork and its propensity to kill marriages.

According to the article,

Marital hardships are easily traced to academe’s toxic work culture -- one in which your research must be everything, you are praised for working 17 hours a day in a lab, and you are reprimanded and told you’re not dedicated enough for visiting your long-distance partner or (gasp!) taking a vacation.


Some students experience their professors as demanding these kinds of sacrifices from them. I hope my students do not experience me as demanding this! Nor do I demand it of myself. I prioritize and protect my weekends, evenings, holidays, and sleep. And yet I maintain a productive academic career. This is possible! Indeed, I believe that it is good, for two reasons:

(1.) Other parts of life are important. Maybe if you're David Hume or a cancer researcher on the edge of a breakthrough, the world really needs every drop of labor possible from you. But for the rest of us: Your kids, your spouse, your friends, and your neighbors need your more. Your rebuttal to Schnerdfoot's objection to Imakara et al. (2009) can wait. And you need you more. Live a good, rich life! Don't burn yourself out for this.

(2.) Productivity gains under conditions of exhaustion are minimal. Some evidence suggests that there is little productivity gain above about forty hours a week; and working sixty hours a week might even decrease total output compared to working forty. I suspect this varies considerably by profession and type of labor, but speaking from personal experience, when I am exhausted, my philosophical work suffers. I can't read or write as quickly, creatively, and actively. My teaching energy declines and I'm more of a dud with my students. And I find myself spacing out or spending too much time on distractions like Facebook or my phone. I do my best work, focused and energetic, when I'm sleeping well and when I've been recharging and relaxing sufficiently on weekends and evenings.

Now there are some unfortunate situations in academic labor, where one simply cannot trim down to a reasonably-sized workweek -- for example, if you're adjuncting at multiple campuses or being tyrannized by a demanding supervisor. But setting such regrettable cases aside, I don't think that most graduate students or tenure-track professors, in philosophy at least, need to regularly work more than 40-50 hours per week, except perhaps in exceptional crunch times, if they can work those 40-50 hours energetically and productively.

(I am open to being corrected about the generalization above, across some ranges of situations. And in calling some situations "regrettable" I don't mean that they are merely regrettable in the sense that we should tolerate them with a sigh rather than activity fighting against the institutional practices that create those situations.)

For example, I try to abide by the following policies:

(1.) No academic work in the evening. (I do let myself check Facebook and read popular articles related to academia, and also to do other light reading related to my work, e.g., popular books by authors like Oliver Sacks or Steven Pinker.)

(2.) No academic work on weekends. (Similar exceptions to those in the evening. Also, sometimes I travel on weekends.)

(3.) One hour of exercise every morning. (Sometimes, if I have academic thoughts while exercising, e.g., about blog posts or papers, I will note them down in my phone to pursue later.)

(4.) At least an eight-hour sleep opportunity. (I have some insomnia issues I'm working on, so I don't typically succeed in sleeping a full eight hours, but even relaxing eyes-closed in bed has some value.)

(5.) A two-week holiday in the summer, and assorted vacation days throughout the year. (I don't take every federal holiday, but I more than make up for that with days off that aren't federal holidays.)

(6.) Only four work-related out-of-town trips per year. (I've been pushing a bit higher sometimes with exceptional cases, though, and my trips are often multi-stop.)

(7.) Regular Monday-Friday work hours. (Right now, it's about 9:00-6:15, which is a 46.25-hour week.)

In grad school, I was miserable until I figured out better policies for myself. I felt like I needed to work as many hours as humanly possible, with the result that any time I wasn't working I was feeling guilty. My days were a blurred mix of working and half-working/half-not-working-and-feeling-guilty-about-it, with lots of hazy wasted time and unproductive eyes-glazed reading. Much better, for me, are bright lines between work and home, plus clear policies.

These policies haven't interfered too much with my productivity. I have a light teaching load (1-2-1 on the quarter system, with teaching buy-outs sometimes), enabling more research publications than most philosophers have. With that caveat, in the last two years, I've published eight research articles (some co-authored), a co-edited anthology, two science fiction stories, and 17 minor or popular pieces. I am currently teaching a 400-student class on Evil (with 5 TAs), plus an honors section, plus a graduate seminar; and I am chairing five PhD dissertation students and an undergraduate honors thesis, and I'm hosting a visiting post-doc. Plus, I have my blog and a variety of (minor to moderate-sized) administrative duties. I have a book manuscript due in November and of course several other writing projects in progress.

Maybe my work would be better if I spent more time on it? I'm not sure. But even if so, I suspect that the world will manage just fine.

So if I don't quite get through my inbox today, please forgive me! Also, there might be some typos.

[image source]

ETA Oct. 26:

While this post has generally had good reception, a number of people have expressed the view that in their academic jobs, they are forced to work over fifty hours per week either (a.) to keep their jobs, or (b.) to keep their jobs while also having time to do research work that they value, or (c.) to keep their jobs while also managing complex and demanding lives outside of work. (The background assumption here is that there is at least some productivity gain for working over fifty hours, which I'm sure is true for some people in some situations.) I don't deny this, and it is certainly not my intention to scold people in this position.


Wayne Fenske said...

This is all excellent advice, Eric.
It's commonsensical and obvious,
which is why so many academics are oblivious to it.

Anonymous said...

More than half of all faculty are adjunct and roughly 3/4 are non-TT, so I'm skeptical about the generalization that only "some unfortunate situations" is a fair assessment of the situation.

I don't disagree that the things you list are important, but it seems pretty clear that most academics aren't merely choosing to overwork themselves. They're choosing between overwork and no position in academia whatsoever.

Callan S. said...

Good post, IMO. It reminds me of crunch in the game development industry as well. To me it seems there's something about intelligence based work that treats it as if it's not like physical labor and you can do it all day long...and thus should do it all day long.

I think philosophy needs to dip down into subjects like this fairly regularly (though not all the time)

Unknown said...
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Nick byrd said...

Sounds like the work routine that I have come to know and love (

However, you seem to fit more work into that routine than I do, given your description of what you've got on your plate right now. Have you any thoughts (here or elsewhere on the blog) for how to fit so much into limited time?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Anon 7:44: The adjunctification of university teaching is horrible. I confess that the 50%/75% figure surprises me, at least if it’s taken to be representative of philosophy. Do you have a link to data on that? Also: not all adjunct cases are the same. Long-term adjuncts on one campus seem often to be doing okay from a work-hours perspective (though underpaid, and I’m sure it varies).

Nick: I am probably more efficient than average, which I tend to attribute to high energy and enthusiasm, which I have when (1) I sleep well, (2) I take evenings and weekends off, and (3) I focus on projects I find fun. (In some other blog posts, I praise fun.)

dionissis mitropoulos said...

Hi Prof Eric Schwitzgebel.

The following habit of yours is the same with Carnap's. Here is yours:

"No academic work in the evening."

And here is Carnap's similar sleep-related habit, narrated by Quine:

Carnap's habits were already austere: no science after dinner, on pain of a sleepless night."

Good for you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very interesting! I have the same trouble. If I do something that feels too much like work after dinner, I have trouble falling asleep.

For the record: My reply above at 7:41 a.m. was during my morning walk, when I couldn't resist spending about 10 minutes on Facebook, which led me to reread my post and notice the comments. (The rest of the walk was just a walk.) Just got into work now at 9:18 a.m. and finished yesterday at 6:05 p.m.

Arnold said...

Have you just proposed living in the present "now" as an exercise exploring what energy is for...

Michael Brent said...

In support of Anon 7:44, here's some data:

"Some 73 percent of all faculty positions are off the tenure track, according to a new analysis of federal data by the American Association of University Professors. 'For the most part, these are insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and few protections for academic freedom,' reads AAUP’s Data Snapshot: Contingent Faculty in U.S. Higher Ed."

j w said...

as a new grad student in southern california i intentionally came in to my ph.d with a clear goal of not doing academic work unless absolutely necessary after 6pm. obviously papers and other stuff will happen. but i've been trying to hold to that. and to prioritize lifting 5 days a week.

and so far it's been the best decision. i don't feel more behind than normal. and i feel relatively rested and even keeled. sustain it for five more years lol.

great advice and needed reminder.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Interesting data, Michael. There are a few types of situations that I wouldn't be inclined to include among that 73%, from the point of view of adjunct labor that is experienced as exploitative by the adjunct: graduate students who are teaching courses rather than TA-ing, especially when it is a voluntary choice and a single course (from other points of view, this might be non-ideal); and part-time adjuncts who are teaching on the side in addition to either their primary career or as retirees (e.g., my mother who is retired from full time teaching as is teaching as a part-time adjunct because of her love of teaching, or a clinical psychologist relative of mine who taught a weekly night class at the local community college).

(Some of this might still be structurally exploitative in encouraging universities to hire labor from inexpensive sources rather than from higher-paid tenure-track or similar sources.)

Trevor Hedberg said...

In some ways, this is remarkably similar to what I wrote and discussed 4 years ago on the Philosophers' Cocoon:

I'm glad to see further evidence that people can be extremely productive on a 40-50 hour work week, though I am not sure I will ever match your level of research productivity, Eric.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link, Trevor. Yes, pretty similar advice. We are converging on the truth! :-)

Anonymous said...

All excellent advice on avoiding workaholism, which I totally agree can make an academic (ironically) very unproductive.
However I note that you (and your commenters) all appear to be male - thus recognition by the Philosophy profession for your efforts with your chosen time window is relatively straightforward. Please spare a thought for your colleagues who are female or members of other minority groups, who have to achieve much more in order to attain the same recognition in terms of publications, citations, promotions et al. - at the same time as (if they have an ounce of compassion) doing extra service work to help other members of minority groups gain recognition in our profession that is commensurate with their ability.

Ina said...

Adding to the immediately above: if you're the primary caretaker for a child/ren and/or primary household manager, adjuncting, even in a really super-cool humane situation like I'm in (thank you OSU!) is exhausting (note that I'm up at 1 a.m. grading papers because that's the first time I've had to do uninterruptedwork today). And if I were supporting myself and child on my job alone, I'd be even more overworked, because I'd be working more than the two jobs I do currently. So while for some people, the pattern of letting work bleed all over the place is just unreasonable expectations by bosses/workaholism/buying into the "macho" academic culture, for some of us, it's the only way to manage our responsibilities (feed, chauffeur, and generally manage kid life, pay bills, occasionally figure out where the floor has gone to under piles of paper), do a decent job as an academic, and pay the bills .

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon and Ina: Yes, that seems right, and the post did not show as much attunement to those issues as it should have.

Tamler said...

This is great! if you can achieve your level of productivity with 40 hours a week, I should be able to achieve mine with 7 or 8.

Yohan said...

This is crucial advice.

And there is a cultural/political angle to this: when people overwork, they influence the baseline state of competition -- so the more people work during the weekends, the more people feel the need to work to compete. This becomes a positive-feedback loop.

When people take leisure (and dare I say it, idleness!) seriously, they also create the conditions for other people to be able to use their time for things other than "productivity" -- that holy cow of modern civilization.

SM said...

Hi Eric,

I am pretty late to this one, but I was wondering how much time you spend reading during your current 9-6:15pm work day. I'm a graduate student in the dissertation phase, and I find myself alternating between heavy periods of reading and heavy periods of writing, but wish I could blend these two activities a bit more. But of course, even on reading days, I can't really read for more than three hours without feeling like I'm losing steam. Whereas on a writing day, I don't mind a four to six hour writing session, with breaks, of course.

Just curious about your thoughts. Thanks!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi SM!

I'm about the same on reading and writing. "Reading" is more complicated as a faculty member than as a graduate student, since it mingles into reviewing files, reading for referee reports, preparing for classes, giving comments to colleagues, friends, and students, skimming through stuff you've already read to make sure you're remembering correctly when citing it, etc., so that it's less common than as a graduate student to have extended periods of pure research reading. I kind of have to schedule and appointment with myself for it. And yes, then about 3 hours is my limit.