A few months ago, I was inspired by Cait Flanders’ slow work experiment and decided to try one part of her experiment: tracking my work hours. Some professions have time-keeping built into their jobs (e.g., Xin’s billable hours or my friend who works for a defense contractor and has to charge every 6-minute increment to a project 😮 ). However, as a prof, I have a ton of time flexibility: as long as I don’t have in-person meetings or a class to teach, nobody could care less where I am. There aren’t any vacation days or sick days. I could be in Bora Bora 99% of the time, as long as I bring home the bacon (i.e., research funding).
There’s a whole culture of assistant professors working their butts off. There are legendary stories of very successful young profs working day and night, and I can certainly believe it based on their research output. But I also suspect there’s a bit of exaggeration going on too, akin to college students bragging about all-nighters. Philip Guo is one academic blogger who I like, and he’s written about working hours and estimated 45-60 hours per week. So I wanted to see where I stack up. I hypothesized that I would tend more towards the lower end of the workaholic spectrum, as I’ve observed I’m slightly more relaxed about work compared to my peers.
Number of Hours Worked
So for one month, I kept a spreadsheet of how much I worked, in 1/2 hour increments. I didn’t include lunch, breaks, or just plain ol’ procrastinating – only the hours where actual useful work was being done (including emails – they are useful as long as you can filter efficiently!) After one month, here are the results:Summarizing, the statistics are:
- Average weekday: 6.95 hours / day
- Average weekend: 4.7 hours / day
- Average week: 44.25 hours / week
I seem to have pretty chill weekdays, but make up for it by working on the weekends. Do other people work on weekends? My industry friends look at me like I have three heads if I tell them I worked on the weekend, but I think for academics, working on the weekend (at least a little bit, e.g. checking email) is pretty much the norm. Even senior folks will tend to reply to emails on the weekend or evenings, although nobody would be upset if you didn’t, as long as there wasn’t an impending deadline.
Oh yeah, and the typical academic calendar doesn’t really affect working hours. Finals week? Spring break? That just means fewer teaching responsibilities and more time to focus on research, yay. Right now it’s the summer, and although in general fewer people are in the office due to travels, there’s definitely still the expectation to work on research while there’s more breathing room, before the academic year starts.
In the short term, the time flexibility of academic positions comes in pretty handy. The day after my big deadline (the second Tuesday), I was completely burned out and decided to take the next day off. I cancelled all my meetings and spent the day binging on books, movies, and video games. I guess this wouldn’t have been possible in a regular job. It’s nice to be able relax completely rather than spend the day at the office pretending to work.
Time of Day Worked
For fun, I also plotted the time of day that I worked. Again, people couldn’t care less when I get into the office, as long as overall productivity and bacon-bringing is going well. Here’s that plot (the higher the bar, the more likely to work at that time):
Seems like a bit of a late start most days, heh. About 10:30am-6pm seems to be the usual on weekdays, plus a burst of work around 10pm. I do find that second burst quite helpful. I usually come home, make and eat dinner, digest a bit while vegging out on the couch, then start up another session of work. Usually I’ll leave some easier work for the evening, like replying to emails or doing boring admin stuff.
On weekends, the time distribution is fairly uniform. I think it’s because I alternated working on mornings/afternoons/evenings, depending on what other errands I had those days.
What I Learned
This was quite a fun little experiment! So what did I learn from all this? Here’re some observations:
- I work less than I thought. Compared to my defense contractor friend, who usually bills 45-55 hours per week, or other academics, I seem to be on the low side. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. It’s good because I have a decent work-life balance? Or it’s bad because I’m not pushing myself and being as productive as my colleagues?
- Quality over quanrity. On the days where I logged fewer hours, I was sometimes doing more useful/intense work, resulting in me stopping work earlier due to fatigue. On the days where I logged more hours, it was sometimes because I was stuck in some useless meetings. Number of hours worked isn’t everything.
- You can’t push yourself too hard. On the day that I worked 11 hours, I was super burned out the next day. In general, on days when I worked a lot, the next day was usually lighter because my brain was tired. You only have a finite number of mentally-awake, productive work hours before you need a break.
- An early start increases those productive hours. Still, if you want to increase your productivity, getting up early did help. On those mornings where I made myself start working earlier, say 8 or 9am (I know, I know! it’s *relatively* early for me, ok 😛 ), I was able to log more hours.
- Tracking made me want to work more. I guess I’m a gold star chaser, because every time I logged an hour of work, I got a little adrenaline rush and wanted to improve my “score”. I was almost sad when the experiment was over. These are probably bad tendencies.
- My gross pay is $64/hour. With taxes and everything taken out (let’s say 50% total), my net pay (salary / hours) is ~$32/hour. That certainly puts random purchases into perspective. A pair of $100 shoes = 3 hours of work? That’s more hours than I was expecting!
What do you think is a reasonable workweek? If you work, how many hours do you work? Do you work on the weekend?