Saturday, January 5, 2013

Do you have an overwork problem?

Are you an academic who works more than 40 hours a week? Would you like to work fewer hours? If you answered “yes” to both of these questions, this post is for you.

kill me now

In this post, I am trying to be as practical as possible. I am also responding to the omnipresent myth that all academics work 80 hours a week. I am committed to working 40 hours myself and to helping those who wish to do the same be able to do so.

I understand that there are both individual and structural barriers to academics being able to lead healthy, balanced lives. In this post, I will focus on the individual barriers, because we need to work through those in order to get to the structural issues.

There are three possible reasons you are working more than 40 hours a week:

  1. You have too many tasks you need to complete each week and it is impossible to complete them within 40 hours.
  2. You spend more time than you need to on each task.
  3. You are less efficient than you could be with your work hours and spend too much time doing non-work related things during your work day, thus stretching out the time you think you are working.

It may be difficult for you to figure out which of these three reasons is your primary problem. But, a careful, non-judgmental evaluation might be helpful.

Let’s work backwards – starting with the third possibility: Are you inefficient with your work time? The best way to figure this out is to track your time for a week. Kerry Ann Rockquemore explains how to do this here. Track every waking hour that includes some work. If you begin your day by checking your email, start then. If you end your day grading papers, end then. Track your time in 15-minute increments. If, at the end of the week, you find that you only actually “worked” – responded to emails, graded papers, read manuscripts, wrote, ran experiments, attended meetings – for 40 hours, then you have found your answer. In this case, it may be helpful to work on improving your focus so that you can have conscious work and non-work time that will permit you to both work 40 hour and not feel overworked. (Here is one strategy you may find useful.)

If, however, you tracked every minute and are still coming in at over 40 hours, move on to the next question: Are you spending more time than you should on each task? How long do you spend reviewing articles for journals? How many hours do you spend preparing class? How long does it take you to grade papers? How much time do you spend reading each job application? There are no set-in-stone answers to these questions, but there are ways to figure it out. You can ask your colleagues how long they spend on each of these tasks and figure out what expectations are. You can post the question on Facebook. I asked people on Facebook how long they spend reviewing articles and the answers varied between 2 and 6 hours – you can decide if you want to be on the higher or lower end of the spectrum. And, Robert Boice recommends that you spend no more than 1 to 2 hours preparing per hour of class.

Once you do all of this, and you still realize that you are coming in at over 40 hours, then it is time to move on to the next step: What tasks are you going to cut? To figure out what to cut, you have to figure out what the norms are and whether you are in the low or high range compared to your colleagues. Do you have 55 advisees when all of your colleagues have 10 each? Are you reviewing 16 articles for journals a year when most people in your field review 6? Are you directing ten dissertations when your colleagues each have no more than five students? Are you on every single grant panel you have been asked to be on? Are there committee responsibilities you can let go of? Are you assigning five papers a semester in your class when all of your colleagues have multiple-choice exams?

I don’t know what would happen if all academics insisted on working only 40 hours a week. But, we can’t find out until academics make it a priority to try working reasonable hours instead of working hard to convince everyone that we actually work 80 hours a week and thus deserve our median salary of $62,000.

I am posting this article with a bit of trepidation because I am wary of blaming faculty woes on faculty. However, I am also aware of the fact that all academic jobs are not created equally. I am completely certain that some faculty are unable to accomplish everything expected of them in a 40-hour week. I am equally certain that there are many academics who could have healthy, balanced lives if they implemented a few of the strategies suggested by the myriad of academic productivity experts out there.