There’s no shortage of time management advice. Maybe it’s time to reconsider our approach, says Eileen Parkes.
A Saturday morning email from a senior professor arrives. A flurry of Reply All emails swiftly follow. Should I join in — show I’ve read the email on a sunny Saturday?
The academic life has a reputation for long hours. A recent global survey of academics makes bleak reading, with researchers describing ever-increasing workloads and struggles with work-life balance. Earlier this year, academics worldwide joined a Twitter argument about their working hours, with many agreeing that a 60 hour week was an expected part of an academic career.
Is a 60 hour work-week sustainable? And do those who work 60 hours achieve more than those with an average 40 hour week? It’s a difficult question to answer. Current evidence suggests that beyond a certain number of hours per week — around 40 — productivity actually decreases. It has been argued this research only applies to physical labour, not academic work. But we need to appreciate our brain is a physically limited resource. Like the rest of our body, the brain can tire and become exhausted. Like the elastic limit of a spring, we can stretch too far and sometimes beyond easy recovery.
Maybe we should ask where the pressure to work long hours comes from. The pace of science seems to be increasing — driven by impact factors and the race to be first to discover or publish. The need for a high-impact paper to gain promotion, tenure, or grant income threatens scientists’ ability to be objective in their research, and has driven a reproducibility crisis. Scientists lose their fundamental motivations in the busyness of academic life and burn out. Sometimes, they quit entirely. Others adapt by becoming jaded: ticking the boxes, and forgetting the joy of scientific discovery. In her book Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science, the philosopher Isabelle Stengers writes that “Under constant surveillance and pressure, [scientists] have been effectively cut off from whatever it was they cared about.”
A senior academic once told me “Cancer never sleeps – neither should you”. As a sleep derived mum, I winced. In a digital society, where our smartphones have the ability to keep us constantly connected to the workplace, there is sometimes the expectation we are always available. Just because research is flexible, and we can work around the clock, doesn’t mean that we should.
As humans, our main advantage over computers is our ability to think laterally and creatively. These constructive thinking and emotional skills are adversely affected by long hours and lack of sleep. Rather than pushing our brain harder and faster, treating it like a machine, we need to value its ability for deep thought and contemplation to grapple with important questions.
Fortunately, first steps have been taken by employers and governments towards recognising that not all hours are equal. French law made headlines worldwide when legislation was introduced in 2017 to limit the hours employees could send or receive emails. The UK-based Athena SWAN initiative encourages institutions to stick to “core hours” for all mandatory meetings, designed to be family- and school run-friendly. As Professor Geraint Rees, Dean at University College London, says, “Science doesn’t get solved any time soon, so don’t panic.”
Maybe a balanced life and approach to scientific discovery is possible, after all. When I feel most frantic at work, it’s like I’m running to stand still without achieving what I want. My to-do list might be well organised but it’s overwhelming. When I take a step back and choose to spend time on what I want rather than what I feel I should, things usually start to fall into place. Rather than struggling with time management and trying to fit it all in, maybe we need to rethink our strategy.
The Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney writes
“I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit.”
Maybe science needs to do the same.
Eileen Parkes is a clinical post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, exploring the immune response to DNA damage. Outside the lab she loves spending time with family and using social media to talk science. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.