Friday, March 30, 2012

What’s the matter with a forty-hour work week for academics?

I am not sure why, but, many times, when I argue that professors should work 40 hours a week, I get push back. Perhaps this is because some people are happy working over 40 hours a week, and understand their flexible work schedules to mean that they are free to work night and day. That’s fine by me.

What is not fine by me is that young scholars are made to feel as if working 50, 60, and 70 hours a week is how things should be, and never even consider the possibility that an academic's job can be done in 40 hours. In my view, a 40 hour week is plenty. And, I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Just ask the folks who fought for the 8-hour work day.

Stakende arbeiders / Striking workers

If you feel as if a 40-hour work week cramps your style, that’s fine. This post is not for you. This post is for those academics who want their life back, who don’t want work to be their life, and who want to believe that it is possible to get their work done in 40 hours a week so that they can use the rest of the time to nourish their soul, feed their bodies, spend with their families, dance tango, or play video games.

Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but I just want to put it out there that I have been an academic since 1999, and have pretty much always taken evenings and weekends off from work. The exception is my first year of grad school. I began graduate study in August of 1999 and spent the first year reading and writing whenever I got the chance, aside from the five trips abroad I took that first year to Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. However, I came back to my second year of graduate school pregnant with twins, and, by force, spent a lot less time hitting the books. My husband spent the day taking care of our twin babies, so there was no way I was getting away with studying on the evenings and weekends.

When I got my first tenure-track job in 2005, my schedule stayed pretty much the same: I worked from 8am to 5pm, with a break for lunch. What has changed while on the tenure track is that I had to become much more efficient with my time to get it all done within the 40-hour work-week. And, I have had to stand my ground a few times when colleagues have suggested we have meetings on Saturdays.

So, how do I do it? On Tuesday, I actually kept track, as I do from time to time. The thing to note here is that I actually worked 8 hours, but did not do it neatly between 9am and 5pm. Instead, I worked from 6:30 to 7am, 8am to 11:30am and then from 1:30 to 2:30 and from 3pm to 5pm. Oops. That’s actually 7 hours. Unless you count the last half hour of social media, then it’s 7.5.

6am: woke up. had coffee. checked email.
6:30am: prepped my files to begin working for the day.
7am: got my three kids ready for school. had breakfast.
8am: Wrote for one pomodoro (25 minutes) on my book on deportees.
8:30am: Twitter, FB, planning.
9am: one pomodoro (25 minutes) responding to revisions on textbook.
9:30: social media stuff.
10am: one pomodoro revising textbook.
10:30am: another pomodoro applying for Human Subjects approval.
11:00am: another pomodoro finishing Human Subjects application. (5 pomodoros of writing!)
11:30: shower, get dressed, take a walk
12:30: have lunch with my husband.
1:30: read book for deportee project
2:30: walk to campus and get a new key for my office
3:00: check email, FB, Twitter.
3:30: more email. office cleaning.
4pm: Met with student to go over revisions to paper.
4:15pm: Reviewed book proposal for colleague.
4:30: Wrote a speaking proposal in response to an invitation to give a lecture.
4:50-5:05: some speed grading.
5:05: Social media
5:30: went for a walk
6:30: dinner, kids, more social media (not work-related).
8:30: kids to bed.
9-11pm: Read “Love and Capital” while kids were in bed reading as well.
11pm: Sleep

So, what did I do in that 7 hour work day?
- read a book
- responded to about 20 emails and processed another 50
- graded 15 short student essays
- met with a student
- wrote a speaking proposal
- responded to a colleague’s book proposal
- revised a chapter of a book-in-progress
- wrote and submitted a human subjects application
- pulled together data for a chapter of another book-in-progress.

For me, at the end of a productive day like that, I felt completely wiped out. There was no way I was going to be able to get in another 30 minutes, much less two to three hours of work. Thus, over the years, I have learned to stop working once I feel tired. That is why I stopped at 11:30am, took a long break, and then stopped again at 5pm. Admittedly, instead of reading Love and Capital at 9pm, I could have read something more directly related to my work. And, I do sometimes read for class at night. But, I at least try to stop working at 5pm.

Perhaps those people who work for 50, 60, or 70 hours a week have more stamina than I do. Perhaps I am more efficient and get done in 40 what others might do in 60. I really don’t know. But, I do want to put it out there that this system of working 8 hours a day (more or less) for five days a week works for this productive academic.

53 comments:

  1. What is speed grading? It sounds straightforward, but I feel like I'm missing something...

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    1. By "speed-grading," I meant that I had about 15 essays that just required a "Check" or "Check plus" so I did them quickly.

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    2. I should also say that I only do "speed-grading" for extra credit assignments - not for essays, etc. There are some assignments that do not require a close read. In this case, these were brief reports from students on an event they had attended for extra credit.

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  2. Your life sounds heavenly. Having the flexibility to take a long break for lunch, walk, enjoy your day, and work when you want to is the hallmark of an academic life. Those of us in other sectors do not have the flexibility to work when we want to and how we want to. You are extremely blessed to not be working in a traditional office setting or service industry where you have no choice but to work straight through 8 or more hours without any rest. I am jealous! You're very lucky.

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    1. You are right. I do consider myself lucky. My work does seep over into the rest of my life, but I try and maintain a balance to maintain my sanity. But, yes, I am lucky to have an awesome job.

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  3. Since the fight for the eight hour day began in the later part of the 19th century, labor both mental and physical has become more productive. By the time of WWII, the eight hour work day had become the standard in the US. Since then, the continued growth of productivity of labor has not resulted in a shorter work week. As a mater of fact, the labor time needed to support a family has been extended not shortened in the recent past. For academics, the internet has been a boom. Think how much easier it is to find a journal article now than in the past or to track down a need book from a library or a seller.

    If we translated this growth of productivity into a shorter workweek for all, think how much better our lives would be and how many more jobs it would create.

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    1. This is very true. One of the many tragedies of capitalism is mass unemployment. Especially if we think of this at the global level. Think how many people there are in the world who have nothing to do because no one will employ them. We could certainly harness all that potential for some good.

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  4. Hi Tanya - another great article! I would be interested to hear your thoughts (either here or in a future article) about how we can reduce the time devoted to lecture preparation and grading so to allow for more time for research and life. I do not mean to diminish the importance of teaching - I love teaching! However, I keep thinking there must be more efficient or effective ways to prepare lectures, organize class assignments and reduce the time spent on grading; I am not convinced that the time quantity of these non-classroom activities increases the quality of my teaching that much. Any thoughts you may have on this front would be most appreciated!

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    1. Great questions. One thing I do to reduce lecture prep is to come to class with lots of questions and have more class discussion and less lecture. Of course, this is not as easy in a very large class.

      In Robert Boice's book, he found that successful faculty don't spend more than 1 to 2 hours preparing for each class, and that their teaching does not suffer for this.

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    2. Thanks for your response! One follow up question: how do you structure assignments to reduce the time demands of grading?

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    3. I assign two five-page papers to my undergrad students that require them to answer very specific questions. Then, I design a rubric that I use to give them points for each aspect of the question they answer.

      For example, if I ask them to define neoliberalism, I give them 0 to 5 points based on their definition.

      If I ask them to describe a neoliberal reform and explain how it is related to the global economy, I might give them 20 points for that, and will divide up the rubric into 10 points for describing the neoliberal reform and 10 points for explaining how it is related to the global economy.

      For me, point systems make grading go faster.

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    4. In my institution we do not have the power to overhawl our assessment procedures. In fact, in the UK we've got less and less freedom and control. Looking at your shcedule I think, yes, that should work. However, with 25 students in a 'seminar' and all work over 50% having to be double marked, it's simply not working here. I think it's great you're defending the 40 hour week, but it requires a level of power that British academics no longer have.

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    5. Wow. Yes, I have (pretty much) complete autonomy over how I teach. We have to justify/explain our pedagogy, but so long as it's reasonable, no one complains.

      I work at a public R1. Things may be different at other universities. Also, some departments may make requirements such as upper-division seminars must have 20 page papers.

      When I studied in Britain in 1992/3 (at Bristol), the prof just lectured once a week and graded our papers/exams at the end of the semester.

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  5. Very inspiring news for us grad students that a 40-hour work week is attainable! I do my best to balance having a life outside of my work/self-care/spending time with my partner with classwork/grading/writing my thesis... but sometimes feel guilty that I'm not spending more time working. In all, though, I feel much happier and well-adjusted than I would if I was a total workaholic.

    Your strategies have definitely helped me become more productive, especially the weekly planning and Pomodoro timer. I've also found it useful to (as you did in this post) list out what I did on a given day- makes me feel productive to see what I actually got done, as opposed to dwelling on the things that didn't get done.... because there will always be more to do, I'm finding :)

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  6. I agree. 40 hours is more than enough, especially if they are productive hours, and there's the rub. I think many continue to push themselves past that point of fatigue (I know I have), and I question the quality/productivity of their work thereafter. I myself work 7 days a week because once I have put in 5-6 hours in the morning (I am an early riser), I am pretty much a vegetable for the rest of the day. So I spread out my 40 hours over the entire week--this works for me. The bonus is that I am able to be home for when my kids come home from school and can participate in dinners, homework, and the like. Of course there are weeks that are longer than 40 hours and days that seem to go on endlessly, but mostly, I can get done what I need to in 40 hours. Now, are there people more productive than I am? Of course. I would venture to say at least half the people I know. But this is what I do, what I have to do, to feel both accomplished and sane.

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  7. I can do more than 40hrs/week during the school year when I'm teaching, but I can't when I'm on sabbatical or in the summer. I just don't have the brain power. The teaching stuff seems to stress a different skill-set so the variety is less fatiguing.

    Of course, when I'm not teaching I don't really *need* to do more than 40 hrs/week...

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    1. I do think it's true that some work is more mentally fatiguing than other work. I have a definite max for writing of 3 hours a day, but can read for longer, and could spend all day redesigning my blog ;-)

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  8. I'e never heard of anyone using the The Pomodoro Technique in academia, but you've given me new inspiration - definitely going to start implementing it into my daily schedule!

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  9. I once was a research assistant for a senior scholar who followed a similar schedule. Each day he came to the office and worked from 9-5 with a half-hour for lunch. During these 8 hours he did a lot of varied work - class prep, research, writing, etc. - but very little else. He didn't engage in water cooler talk, or surf the net, or even write emails longer than a line or two. At five, he left his office and went home and spent time with his family. With this schedule he is able to publish a book every couple of years. It's amazing what you can accomplish doing 8 hours of actual work a day.

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    1. It is! I also had role models who worked 8 hours a day, so that was helpful for me to see it was possible. I also had role models who (continue to) work non-stop, so you have to choose what works for you.

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  10. I started in academia as a junior lecturer and easily did 60 hours/week, especially when writing external studies course booklets that would last for several years. Then my position became tenurable and they kicked me out and employed a newbie who'd never written anything in her life! No way should academics work more than 40 hours!

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  11. The current job market required many of us tenure track folk to work at community colleges. I am on a dozen committees and my students barely know English. Your life sounds amazing, but I wonder how many people can relate to someone who apparently isn't doing committee work, and her correcting requires only a check or check plus. You live in a bubble.

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    1. You are right: I have no idea how things work at community colleges or teaching institutes more generally speaking.

      I dedicate about sixteen hours a week - 40% of my working time - to those two classes: grading, prep, class time, reading. At that rate, a community college professor who taught 5 classes would have to spend their entire 40 hours on teaching, and not have any left for writing or committee work.

      So, yes, I acknowledge that my life is one of a faculty member who works at a research institution. And, it is an open question as to whether or not faculty at other institutions can make a 40-hour week work for them.

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    2. I dont know how you count seven, i count three and a half. this is absurd.

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  12. I think it depends if you are in a research or a teaching institution.
    I would like to add that with the current crisis in the job market, it is impossible today for a young scholar not to push his/her time limits in order to publish and to find a position that will allow her/him to achieve his/her scholarship. And then also we should take into consideration if you teach large or small classes and if you are lucky enough to have TAs.
    In whatever situation you might be in, balance should be achievable (or at least it should be a nice objective) without sacrificing too much your own quality of life.

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  13. Honestly, I think you do a disservice by posting this misrepresentative nonsense. Sure you worked 7 hours and work 40 hours, but you have been in the academy since 1999 and it is 2012, that's 13 years, and you have done relatively little with it? Granted there is a difference between the minimalism you propose and being dead wood, but as there are assistant professors with better publishing records, well, i can't help that you are proposing people be like you, when that will no longer even get them tenure at most places. I strongly recommend any graduate student reading your post to take it with a serious grain of salt and realize that if you do this, you probably won't be competitive.

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    1. I do think my advice might not apply for people who are in the hard sciences or other fields that require long hours in the lab or many collaborative meetings. It is primarily directed at those whose work mostly involves writing and thinking, and relatively little supervision of graduate students.

      That said, I have actually published quite a bit more than the norm for my field by writing two hours a day. I received my PhD in 2005 and just got tenure. I have three books, 11 articles, and 7 book chapters. In my field, most people would easily get tenure with one book and six articles.

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  14. When I decided to leave academia, one of my colleagues said to me: Well, not everyone is meant to get up at 5am to write . . .

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    1. hmmm.... I wonder if the idea that some people are "cut out" for this and others not is meant to justify something - like the exploitation of adjuncts, or to buttress the myths that academics are special.

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  15. Also relevant for this post:

    Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity
    One hundred fifty years of research proves that shorter work hours actually raise productivity and profits -- and overtime destroys them. So why do we still do this?

    http://www.alternet.org/visions/154518/why_we_have_to_go_back_to_a_40-hour_work_week_to_keep_our_sanity?page=entire

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  16. you barely worked three and a half hours. six and a half if you count reading.

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    1. Why wouldn't I count reading as work? Reading, writing, and answering email are clearly part of my job. Social media is even part of my job, as it is increasingly required in order for academics to establish a national reputation.

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    2. Thank you for this, thoroughly liberating to find someone who is making this work. I'm in the UK system as a PhD student, but am determined to have a family and life outside of work. Thanks, again.

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  17. not applicable to experimental sciences

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    1. I can imagine why that might be the case. Is it because of the long hours you have to spend in labs and group meetings? I reach my capacity for creative thinking after a few hours a day, but I can imagine one might be able to spend longer hours engaged in other sorts of activities.

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  18. Wonderful post - bravo Tanya!

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    1. Thanks! This post has generated a lot of conversation, and controversy, which is good!

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  19. You took some heat for this post, but I am so glad you wrote it. 40 hours may be difficult or near impossible for some, but I have also noticed that (in some cases) if you allow your "work time" to include nights and weekends you will fill that time with stuff to do. For example, you will say yes to do more things because you know you have nights and weekends to accomplish it. If you know you only have roughly 40-50 hours in a week to get everything done, I think you prioritize things differently and say no to more academic stuff or at least change the time commitment you put into these things. I'm certainly going to try to boundary my academic life so that I can enjoy my private life. I'll be listening to you as I go! If you teach doctoral students (as I will be doing) I'd love to see a post about how you grade for them and read/provide feedback on dissertations.

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    1. Thanks, Jackie. As for teaching/advising grad students, it is important to first serve on several committees before taking on any advisees of your own so you can see how things work in your dept.

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  20. I think your post is right on the money. I do all of my work (prep, reading, grading, writing) in my office. I get to work about 8:15 five days a week and leave by 5:00. I never bring work home. I'm a tenured philosopher at an average state school who teaches a 4-4. I have no grad students and do all my own grading, and I still keep up a robust research program. Good time management is the key.

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    1. I checked out your profile, and that is impressive. I do think philosophy is one of those disciplines where there are real limits on how many hours of the day you can use your brain. Resting each evening after 5pm likely gives you the mental stamina to pick it up again each day.

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  21. Ha! I'd like to know how many students are in everyone's 4/4 load. My load as a lectuerer was 250 students and the PhD has unfortunately lead to the unemployment line.

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  22. I like this post, like Tanya mentions, all those people who fought for a 40-hour week, we owe it to them to adhere to this. But what screws it up are those academics who are willing to forego a social life/family life and let work become their life, everyone else has to try and reach that benchmark of performance to get on but it is impossible unless we too succumb to the overwhelming pressures of teaching and publishing. Personally I have tried putting in 110% and I end up feeling burnt out and depressed, so what's the point? I think it is a better philosophy to adamantly work 40 hours/week, and if I/we publish a few less papers then so be it, and if we lose our jobs then perhaps it might be a blessing in disguise to try something else (but having known we did our best..). As Gandhi said, to over-indulge ourselves in anything, including intellectual stimulation, we are becoming unbalanced, and then what kind of role-model are we for students/our children then?

    I think the blog-writer's husband is the luckiest, to have an attractive wife and to be able to play music and make jewellery...

    Regards to all.

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  23. I think academia expects too much from people/ is too competitive in general... In part it is due to the fact there are too many PhDs around and too few jobs. Not out fault though but many Western governments thought in the 90s that by churning out PhDs (whether of Einstein-level or not), would continue to increase productivity (see the article on 'PhD factory' on the Nature website. In reality a teaching semester is pretty full on and to do a good job of the teaching is a 100% job in itself. Outside of semesters personally I am burnt out from the teaching and need to take some leave and the thought of writing makes me feel nauseous. In an ideal world a PhD should have the following responsibilities:
    1) Teach
    2) Write up papers from their own PhD
    3) Supervise one or two postgraduate research projects in their interest/expertise area. And help the student write up papers

    But for some reason this is not enough and we are expected to do all of this plus promoting ourselves, going to conferences etc etc, do more and more researhc from time we do not have, surely it should be the students that are doing the research and we act as mentors, otherwise it's like we are expected to do the work equivalent to two or three more PhDs ourselves when one is enough - we have proved ourselves already!! But as mentioned in the previous post there are too many people willing to make it their life, work all hours god sends thus raising the bar above what it states in the contract you get i.e. 40 hours per week.

    Would love to hear any responses to this although the blog posting itself is a bit old...thanks



    If somebody has already done a PhD,

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  24. Hi:

    I think your day seems straightfoward; congratulations if thats what you aspire to:

    I find it remrkable when your post states:

    "it is primarily directed at those whose work mostly involves writing and thinking," as if this provides seperation from what you call the "hard sciences." I am fortunate enough to be in the "hard" sciences in which thinking and writing form a foundation for what I achieve not a pinnacle. Your days surrounded by social media entertainment may be very rewarding; if this is part of your research in which you enjoy, congratulations. As most successful researchers, your engrossed by and enjoy your trade and dont groan about the hours outside of your passion.

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  25. I just found your blog (researching UC Merced - applying for my first t-t job!) and have spent most of the day reading it. I'm so inspired...I actually have a ton of questions for you that I may ask in person if I should make it to the interview. But for now - anonymously - where do you make time for surfing and reading blogs, networking with your colleagues, and other potential time-wasters?

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    1. Hi! I am enjoying UC Merced immensely. Good luck on the job market.

      I usually read blogs and respond to posts (as I am doing now) when I am taking a break from writing, reading, or grading.

      For networking on campus, I try and have lunch with colleagues every so often. That way, I get a break, some food, and some networking all at the same time.

      For networking around the country, I attend conferences, workshops, and give talks, and then have a different schedule during those days.

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  26. OK, I always said it was not the flexible schedule, it was the material, that attracted me to academia. However, if I could get the schedule I want, most afternoons would be off and some evenings would be on. It would be:

    Sunday through Friday mornings = 6 sessions
    Monday through Thursday, plus Saturday afternoon in a library OR evening writing = 5 sessions
    Sessions I conceive of as 2.5 hours so that is 27.5 hours so far.
    This is the time I want to work on research and preparation of classes, no face time. On the 40 hour plan I still owe 12.5 hours, which is perfect: 9 hours of class, 3 of office hours, and 30 minutes of meetings. Hm, I think I will work this up and see if I can do it. I will have to go slightly over some weeks, but perhaps not too much.

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  27. As a senior undergraduate student and aspiring academic this post was incredibly refreshing. I can't imagine pursuing another career path because I love what I study so much, but I have found myself becoming increasingly disheartened about my future life outside of academia. It's nice to know that balance IS possible. THANK YOU.

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  28. Hi Tanya,

    I'm a grad student of humanities and I've been following your blog for a while. This is my second time reading this post. While I really appreciate the tips you shared, I'm amazed - actually jealous - about your writing and reading efficiency. I noticed that on this example day you shared, you spent 30 minutes only writing on a book. It will take me 30 minutes to warm up only. And while you spent 1 hour reading a book, it actually took me 2 hours to read and annotate a chapter of a book, and another 35 minutes to type some quotes and my comments. I am one of those slow writers, both in my 1st and 2nd languages (I speak Chinese but read and write academically in English). Anyway, I'm experimenting ways that work for me. But your advice is inspiring. Thank you again!

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    1. I do feel exactly as you do, Jinjing! Tanya's post was really great and it gave me hope! but I am a "slow writer" and a "slow reader" - I've been reading about skimming techniques which also help, but still I do feel slow. (not being an english native speaker in a world dominated by english might have to do with the slowness, but I think it's more than that).

      thank you for blogging Tanya, and to show the "backstage" of academic work! it's really inspiring and helpful.

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  29. Just came across this, and wanted to say thanks! Very refreshing. And I also think you are more honest about the time you spend working than many other academics - it's easy to say you work 80 hours a week if you never really keep track!

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