Less is More: Why Working Shorter Hours Is a Better Idea

I have just finished ‘The Slow Professor’ by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. It reflects on time pressure and stress in academia, and on how academic life has sped up to such a degree that quality of research, teaching and life suffers. (It was a present from prof. Hein de Haas – do check out our ‘How to Write a PhD’ interview with his tips on productivity and self-care). At one point in the book my jaw dropped: it is the chapter on time management, where a number of books and approaches to the academic schedule are discussed. This part would be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

They note that most academic time management literature will not leave you reassured and comforted, but rather leave you ‘feel like you’re not working hard enough’. Ten-hour days are considered ‘more than adequate’, 55-hour work weeks the norm to strive for, working for 12 hours on Sundays ‘realistic’, multitasking smart, and getting up at 4 in the morning to write before the rest of the world wakes up a strategic way to avoid stress and increase your productivity. ‘With some trepidation,’ Berg and Seeber write, ‘we confess that these models of time management and productivity strike us as unrealistic and simply not sustainable over the long haul for most people.’ Alright, so that made me laugh.

I have issues with the counting hours approach in academia. A much better way to approach productivity is to work with your mental energy, and align your day according to how it waxes and wanes. It is depth and quality we are seeking. And if you use your best hours well (doing research/ writing) all the rest becomes doable and less overwhelming. It will take less time, too… Time isn’t linear, because energy and attention aren’t linear. Instead of focusing on how we might expand the number of hours we work so we can fit everything that needs to be done in, might we not be better of asking how we might increase focus and attention, so we can reduce that number of hours? What if we can let go of the counting altogether?

I went for a coffee with a HappyPhD course participant of several years back who finished her PhD cum laude (she has become a friend – she is doing really interesting work on how to live fearlessly), and she mentioned that ‘less is more’ was the insight that had helped her most during the time she was finishing her PhD. It is unfortunate that academic culture leans the other way!

Circumstances, work loads, energy levels, habits, preferences, and personalities differ, but I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach is useful regardless. It is practical and it is realistic. And it is a more intelligent way of working with your resources than maximising hours and ‘managing’ every minute of your day. (Which kind of feels like the walls closing in on you!)

A few points on how and why strategically working fewer hours leads to increased productivity:

Mental Energy – Not All Hours Are Equal

Your brain cannot do challenging mental work in a focused way for more than so many hours a day. One of the books quoted by Berg and Seeber state that an ‘approximately 10-hour day is more than adequate especially since we really can work for most of this time.’ (As opposed to the general workforce which according to this author ‘waste a tremendous amount of time chit-chatting at the water cooler and lunching for a full hour.’)… Errr, no. You cannot focus for ten hours a day. And you cannot conceive of your day as a monolithic ten-hour block. It isn’t efficient, and it sets you up for mental exhaustion. It’s much better to distinguish between the hours you realistically can and want to focus intensely (say 2-3 hours, in approximately 45 minute segments), and reserve them exclusively for your intellectually most challenging work. The rest of your workday (3-4 hours in similar or longer segments) can be spent on less demanding tasks. In really busy times you may add extra work sessions, but you will realise that they are only suitable for certain types of low-intensity work (answering email etc.). Focus matters, not time. Match your mental energy and focus to the demands of the task at hand. An occasional ten-hour day may be warranted, but as a model of productivity it is ridiculous. (Strong feelings!)

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Short Run

Mental energy is your currency. How to keep it high? How to keep your mind sharp and present? In this context you have to think about intensity and recovery. Working in shorter, more intense segments, with recovery breaks, allows you to focus as well as recover from that intense work every hour, or more often, thereby keeping your mental energy high. You will be less likely to find yourself staring at the blank screen for hours, feeling bad because you ‘should be more productive’, while actually you are just tired. Shorter work sessions, regular short breaks, and not working past your natural limits will take care of that. Self-care isn’t at odds with productivity; they are mutually reinforcing. It is finding that right balance, which means being honest about the intensity of mental energy you can muster. Taking more breaks and stopping when we are tired (before is even better) may be uncomfortable, but it is more efficient than plodding along, putting the hours in past the point of diminishing returns. For me, when I started applying this model, it meant cutting my work days back from 8-ish hours to 4-5 hours a day. Much better idea.

Mental Energy – Recovery Matters in the Long Run

Feeling stressed? Academia is a high-risk environment when it comes to stress-related physical and mental health problems. In my opinion the culture of overwork contributes to these problems. And guess what stress-related health problems do: they diminish your ability to focus. They diminish your capacity for doing demanding intellectual work. They diminish your capacity to think. Cue even longer days, more guilt, and so the self-destructive cycle continues. A focus on recovery is essential to sustain a positive self-reinforcing cycle, in which focus, productivity and wellbeing coexist. From this perspective, advocating for ten-hour days is simply harmful. A few lucky individuals may have the energy to work endless days with no negative repercussions, but for most of us it is unrealistic… In fact, I witness even ‘limitless energy’ academics hit a wall at some point, though this is not much openly discussed. Instead, a focus on working more intensely some of the time; while appreciating the necessity of recovery and renewal, is a better way of approaching your workday and week. Being exhausted/ frazzled is a sign this balance is off.

Mental Creativity – Better Ideas

A relaxed mental space is essential for creativity. It is how new ideas form and pop up, unlike the process of analysis which is strictly logical. You need both: the focused attention of analytical thought, and the mind-wandering that is conducive to creativity and aha-moments. To foster innovative ideas time away from the intellectual problem you’re working on is essential. In other words: down-time is an essential part of your workday. It is the non-active, non-doing part of work. It is when you allow ideas to come to you. Cultivating this space is an investment in your quality of thought. (Feels good too.)

Think about this: what if intensity and depth can only be achieved with high mental energy, which makes taking care of yourself a priority? What if focus is only realised within limits and boundaries? What if relaxation is a requirement to make intellectual achievement (and emotional balance) sustainable over time? And what if mental relaxation is intrinsically valuable? What if you are not a machine??

We need to flip the script and start saying no to the story that tells us we should be ‘working always, everywhere’.

The HappyPhD course will show you exactly how to create an optimal (for you) and sustainable work schedule, combining intense work with recovery. I am currently updating the course: the updated course will be out some time this autumn. The price will go up, so now is a good time to sign up! You will get access to the old school course (ah, I am already feeling nostalgic!), and you will automatically be upgraded to the new course when it is launched! Best of both worlds, and a good way to start the academic year.