Thursday, September 11, 2014

Challenge Your Office Mentality



Today I have the pleasure of inviting Amber Davis once more for a series of two guest posts. Amber wrote last year on Optimizing your Workday for Productivity, amongst other. Amber is a political scientist and a PhD coach. She studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD candidates and created the HappyPhD Online Course to help you write your PhD (almost) effortlessly. On her blog, she is giving away the online course twice to celebrate the new academic year. Click here to enter the competition.


Many academics work ‘always, everywhere’. They work weekends, evenings, and holidays, and there is no clear distinction between ‘time at work’ and ‘time off’. With flexible schedules, why not finish that abstract while you’re waiting for your plane, or type up your results on a Sunday afternoon? ‘Work’ can slowly start to take up the largest part of your waking hours. Worse: when you’re not ‘working’ you may feel guilty about it. Work-life balance, they call it. The balance often goes askew.

The reasons for an out-of-whack work-life balance tend to vary depending on where you are in your academic career. In the PhD stage, the most common reason tends to be a combination of procrastination, combined with an inability to switch off from work at the end of the day because ‘I didn’t get anything done’. In the ECR and tenure stages (oh, if we would only be there already!) it is mostly the result of being completely swamped with responsibilities and obligations. Workload starts to take on an entirely different meaning (oh, life was good during our PhD days!). In any stage of the academic career, the message that working ‘hard’, in the sense of working long hours and being available is laudable is reinforced. We start believing that we indeed need to ‘work all the time’ to get our work done, and that nothing less will do when it comes to being, and being perceived as, a ‘hard-working’, prolific, serious academic.

The troubling aspect of this way of approaching your work is not the flexibility of schedules. It is the assumption that endlessly sitting at your computer with your documents or email open is virtuous and constitutes work. The truth of it is that it is NOT the best way to get your best work done. Or any work, for that matter. At least not if you don’t want to be wasting your time more than half of the time! Our brains aren’t wired for long-term, steady state achievement. It’s a shame that plugging away for unlimited hours seems to be the norm, a norm that can be daunting to challenge. But if you dare do so, you may become more prolific than you could have previously imagined. Your energy will lift, your ability to focus will improve. And you’ll be able to shut your laptop, without the worry and the guilt.

The first step in challenging this ‘work-til-you-drop’ paradigm is to challenge the 9-5, or 9-6, or 8-8 or even 8-10 paradigm. The current norm is still very much centred around the idea of ‘office hours’: you work from 9-5 (or longer), with a lunch break in the middle, and maybe a coffee or tea break in the morning and afternoon. Entertain the idea that this might not be the best way to structure your workday. Rather than attempting to work at a steady state and in a linear fashion, envision your workday as a series of sprints.

Work in intervals that are long enough to get things done, but short enough to force you to focus without letting your energy slump. When followed by a period of relaxation you will allow your energy, focus and spirits to remain high. The relaxation part, the ‘non-working’ part is as essential as the part that we normally think of as ‘work’. It is the part where your brain re-sets and recharges, and shifts from analytical thought, which is of crucial importance for thinking logically, hermetically and analytically, to a more free-flowing state of being which allows for sudden new insights to occur. Both are needed for academic work. You need analytical focused thought for running your analyses, making sense of your results and constructing a logically sound argument. But the insights, the breakthroughs, the previously unimagined solutions, do not present themselves when you are focusing on the task at hand. They happen when you let yourself daydream, when you relax, and when you are unfocused (read an article about the brain science behind it here). The bottom line: to foster original thought, and to allow for the more creative parts of mental processes to happen the brain needs to relax, not be narrowly focused.  

If you give working in intervals a try you will see you’ll be able to work much shorter hours while getting more done, because you are taking advantage of the way your brain is designed to work. Even better: you can start enjoying time off without the guilt! For all the workaholics amongst us: now you can be ‘productive’ while doing absolutely nothing except letting your mind wander. What a revolutionary idea! To start, I would suggest experimenting with three 45-minute sessions of focused work, followed by 15-minute breaks, preferably in the morning, and before you have overloaded yourself with other stimuli and distractions. Maybe you’ll find that you get more done in those three hours, than you would have done in a whole day previously. You could use the afternoon to do less mentally challenging work: reading, say, or looking up references, answering email, and doing routine and organisational tasks. I would urge you to leave work early. Yes, you have permission! I believe that a 6-hour workday is often more than long enough (depending of course on your particular commitments). In the long run it’s the only way to keep it sustainable. It is not humanly possible to do intellectually challenging sprints for more than so many hours a day. Fewer than you probably think. Challenge your office mentality. You need to spend less time working, not more. Trust me on this.

To make working in intervals work, there is one catch. You need to focus, and work as intensely as you can, during those 45-minute intervals. It’s a sprint, not a marathon! Don’t pace yourself. Go all out. Give it everything. Pour your heart into it. A simple but helpful tip: disconnect from the Internet while you’re working. Looking up references can wait. So can those news sites and Facebook! A second tip: get very clear on what you actually want to be working on in that work session. Make it as specific as possible. That way it becomes doable. With distractions out of the way, and a clear focus, you can start chipping away at that next paper or chapter.

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