How Many Hours Do You Have to Work to Feel Productive?August 21st, 2008 · 20 comments
The Academic Productivity blog recently asked the following question: What are your one or two biggest wastes of time? The question was aimed at graduate students and professors — a group who loves to obssess over these issues. The initial responses were what you might expect:
- Blog reading
The commenters’ suggestions for solving these problems centered on tools like RescueTime — a fancy timer for figuring out how you spend your time — and LeechBlock — a Firefox plug-in that prevents you from visiting time-wasting web sites.
An important assumption, however, lurks behind this self-flaggelation: you should be working most of the day, so anything that eats up a significant amount of time without producing useful results is therefore a “waste.”
But is this true?
Tipped by the excellent Casting Out Nines blog, I recently explored the web site of UCLA professor Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner and arguably the world’s most talented mathematician. Terrence recently wrote an article about his time management habits. Here’s what caught my attention:
Another thing is that my ability to do any serious mathematics fluctuates greatly from day to day; sometimes I can think hard on a problem for an hour, other times I feel ready to type up the full details of a sketch that I or my coauthors already wrote, and other times I only feel qualified to respond to email and do errands, or just to take a walk or even a nap.
Terrence’s view on being productive differs from the junior academics responding on Academic Productivity. Terrence is happy if some days he gets in an hour or two of hard thinking, or, as he specifies later, a few hours working on a paper write-up. He also expects that some days he’ll do nothing.
And he has a freaking Fields Medal…
Last week, writer Matt Wood addressed this same topic in a guest post on 43 Folders. Matt recalled how recently “[I] stripped my daily routine down to the bare bones. I wasn’t happy with my word count, and I blamed it on the internet. ”
Here’s the rub: after a week or two, Matt’s ideas ran out.
He finally concluded:
My creative beast is restless and hungry, and I’ve learned that if I starve it by arbitrarily limiting its routine, it’s not happy.
In other words, for Matt, being a good writer did not mean working in monastic silence for 8 hours a day. “Wasting” a few hours surfing blogs was a key part of his routine. This is similar to Terrence Tao and his need to do his math his short, intense blasts, seperated by hours, if not days, of what we might call goofing off.
Did I mention that he won a Fields Medal?
Now let’s reconsider the responses on Academic Productivy in light of these two anecdotes. The responders to the AP post were upset by the time they spent not “working.” They were willing to resort to elaborate software that would force them to work. But this all rests on the assumption that a productive person is one who works for many hours every day.
Certainly this is required in some situations — such as a grad student running an experiment. But is it always true? As demonstrated by Matt and Terrence, there is no reason to expect this to be so. Perhaps an hour or two of focused work on some days — ignoring, for now, the normal administrative sludge — would prove sufficient. Perhaps not. But the key is that the answer is not obvious.
Everyone’s situation is quite different. But I guess the conclusion I’m stumbling toward here is the following: before trying to improve your productivity, first ask yourself how many hours of work do you need to spend to be good at what you do? When we avoid seriously contemplating this question, we end up acting as if the answer is: “every hour that’s available.” This can lead to self-loathing and frustation.
So ask yourself this question. Think very carefully about the answer. Then the next time you feel guilty about spending a morning blog surfing, imagine Terrence Tao, lounging lazily in his chair, closing his eyes for a nap, a relaxed smile on his face and a Fields Medal glowing brightly in the background.