Times of Higher Education:
You may worry that with the myriad demands of your work, if you try to constrain your workweek, including research, to 40 hours or less, you’ll never get anything done. There’s a book for you. In How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007), psychologist Paul J. Silvia offers evidence-based advice about how to be productive as an academic writer without giving up on leisure time.
His suggestions are simple: write and do your research daily in small blocks of time (schedule it in and don’t cheat on that schedule); keep track of what you do in that time; stay attentive to your writing goals and, ideally, get yourself a group that will help you keep to these goals. You might protest, what good are small blocks of time? But small, regular amounts of work build up to significant productivity. A few pages often make a big difference. If you were learning how to tap dance or play the French horn, you wouldn’t set aside one full day a week for practice or cram it into your Saturday afternoons; instead you’d practise for short periods, daily. Why should research and writing be any different?
I’m not making an argument about “work-life balance”; I hate that phrase, which juxtaposes the two and puts work before “life”. Rather I’m arguing that we of all people, people who believe in the value of research, should consider the evidence about good working habits, think critically about how we work and approach our own work from a base of solid research on productivity. But work is about more than productivity. It is in our best interest to not only be productive but satisfied with our work, because work is vital to our identity and self-definition. We need work not just to put bread on the table but to feel of use, to serve, to contribute, to make and to connect. But the long-hours culture and the cult of busyness saps meaning away, as we tick through never-ending “to do” lists, becoming chronically tired and working less efficiently with each overtime hour.
The authors of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013), Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, demonstrate that the chronically busy work less efficiently owing to a profound shortage of cognitive capacity, resulting in poor decision-making. Their research indicates that this shortage of cognitive capacity, caused by extreme lack of time (it can also be caused by extreme lack of money), measurably reduces an individual’s fluid intelligence, hampering performance. Without what they call the mental “slack” of time away from work and away from thinking about work, we will make poor decisions. We’re dumber when we don’t take a break, and it shows. Even on factory production lines, there has long been evidence that reducing working hours improves productivity. In 1930, during the Great Depression, the Kellogg company reduced working time to a six-hour day. Despite working two hours less per day, however, workers were 3 to 4 per cent more productive overall. One observer saw workers increasing the number of shredded wheat cases packed from 83 to 96 per hour.
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