Study Hacks Blog

Professio sano in vitam sanam (on balancing work and life)

October 21st, 2022 · 12 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward a long and thoughtful reflection on academic life written by Stephen Stearns, the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. In a section titled “Learning Balance,” he talks about his work habits in the early 1970s, when his first son was born. “I was not around much to help, for during that time I was working seventy to eighty hours per week,” he writes.

This type of absentee fatherhood was common in this era, but fortunately for Stearns and his children, his wife wasn’t having it. As Stearns recalls, she sat him down, and gave him the following ultimatum:

“I want you to promise not to work nights or weekends: you need to be sharing the parenting, and your child needs a father.  If you don’t agree, I will divorce you.”

Stearns listened. “For the next twenty years I did not work nights or weekends, and I spent thousands of delightful hours with our sons while they were growing up,” he recalls.  “She was very wise, and I am grateful to her.”

What’s particularly interesting about this story is what didn’t end up happening. Even though Stearns was now working less than the norm among his peers, he continued to thrive professionally. Toiling within the constraints of a fixed schedule turned out to amplify his effectiveness. Here’s how he describes it:

“When I was at work, I worked.  And when I was with my family, I concentrated on them. The change in focus cleared and refreshed my mind so that when I went to work, I was efficient…Five to eight hours per day of clear thinking and concentrated work five days per week produces more impressive results than the coffee, chit-chat, and various displacement activities that often fill the time of many of those who think they are working seventy or eighty hours a week.”

Stearns describes his approach as embracing professio sano in vitam sanam: a healthy profession in a healthy life. Here on this newsletter, of course, we’ve long used a different name for this same strategy: fixed-schedule productivity

I’ve embraced this slow philosophy for most of my professional career. As with Stearns, I too have become a believer in how much can be accomplished in normal 40-hour weeks; if you’re willing to really work when you’re working, and then be done when you’re done. It’s nice, however, to see someone so much more eminent than me also find success with this fixed-schedule approach.

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During the pandemic, I setup a modest deep work hideaway in some office space I lease on the main street of the town where I live in the outskirts of Washington, DC. This is where I record my podcast, Deep Questions, meet with other writers and professors, and, in general, escape when I need a change of scenery to focus my efforts. By popular demand, I’ve posted a video that includes a tour of the space. If you’ve been curious what my “Deep Work HQ” actually looks like, check it out.

12 thoughts on “Professio sano in vitam sanam (on balancing work and life)

  1. Matt W says:

    Great post. There is more to life than just work, and work doesn’t have to suffer in consequence. NB: professio is a third declension feminine noun, ergo “professio sana in vitam sana”.

  2. Jorge says:

    I’m reminded of Coach Tony Holler who’s at the head of the spear in a sports-training movement to achieve greater gains (primarily in speed) by doing (much) less, with maximum intensity, and having lots of fun. Among sports figures now training by similar principles: Patrick Mahomes and Christian McCaffrey.

  3. Charles Quah says:

    Thanks for great sharing. Similar to De Bono’s 6 thinking hats, it’s important to know that your head can only wear one hat at a time – work or life. Brilliant solution. The ability to transit from one hat to another in different setting is a discipline.

  4. Fixed-schedule productivity has definitely helped my career, especially with young kids at home. The office space looks great and I wish I could have a similar setup. Thanks for finally showing off the Deep Work HQ Call Newport!

  5. Tomer says:

    This can work as academic but try as software engineer where you get paged by pagerduty at weekened

  6. njmatch3 says:

    I appreciate this piece but was surprised by the gloss on the Latin at the top. The gloss is much better at the at the end: Stearns’ example shows a healthy profession in a healthy life. Our life isn’t something we can put on one side of a scale and try to balance with other things that matter to us. Our life is the scale, and the trick is to work out how to fit and balance the things the matter.

  7. Gaurav says:

    I somehow keep coming back to Nassim Taleb’s skin in the game. All these notions are for elites/professors and people who have designed their life around academics or they are writers or somehow have control over their time and do not work for corporates. So if you are in that bubble the advise will come from there and will not work for 80 percent people because you are in the 20 percent. People who are on the clock and work intensely they do not have the luxury for part time job or summer, winter, fall, sabbatical, office hours and all kinds of breaks. The fixed schedule productivity for 80 % knowledge workers unromantically is either early hours of the morning or after work till midnight. Pick your poison..end of all productivity advice !

    1. Paul Yacobellis says:

      While I do agree that academics like Cal have a different set of time parameters to work with than those in the private sector, I don’t agree that all non-academics can’t integrate fixed-schedule productivity into their work lives. While not a 100% solution, its possible to have an honest conversation with a line-manager about time and productivity, and seek to agree on certain times a day/week/month for uninterrupted work time. We have all agreed on this as a team and respect the time of our colleagues. I know of many other teams and organizations that implement such practices.

      1. Gaurav says:

        Talk to your line manager while patient is dying in front of you ! One size does not fit all..I do think that devoting uninterrupted time or fixed schedule productivity idea is great ! As I mentioned the fixed schedule productivity for 80 % knowledge workers unromantically is either early hours of the morning or after work till midnight. Or maybe the weekend. It is unromantic and dry but it is true as most people do not have the luxury.. This whole notion of designing your life cramming as much as you can in the 9-5 box with 2-3 hrs of time for deep work and a shut down ritual at 5:30 pm is for elites or people who have designed their life to borrow the term from Bill Burnett !

  8. Haris Mir says:

    You write inspiring stuff. We do over work sometimes and then burnout in the process. A healthy professional and personal life balance is a must to stay sorted.

  9. Brad says:

    Thanks for sharing, Cal

  10. Isma says:

    Thanks Cal. This was brilliant

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