Improve your work by planning to not work
You are able to do better at the work you have to do when you balance it with things you want to do
The world around us has glorified the hustle, the burning candles at both ends, and the idea of never slowing down and taking some time for yourself. All around us, there is also an obsession with monetizing everything about our lives. We are told how to make money from our hobbies, how to make money online by setting up a podcast or a YouTube channel, and how to create a resume and/or online presence that is supposed to help us get a job/make money. Somewhere in the last two decades, it seems to have become unfashionable to just exist, just be, without somehow making money/making your resume look good/making progress towards your career goals.
I like to think I am no less ambitious than the next person, and I have certainly, at least on a few occasions, made money from my hobbies and personal interests. Yet when I take a step back and consider this, this obsession seems not just unhealthy but also counterproductive. I have worked in universities and research labs for more than a decade now. I have also had a second job involving writing for most of that time. I think it would be fair to say that both my jobs call for substantial creative and intellectual effort. Mindful of this, I am usually always on the lookout for how to do a better job. I read pretty much everything I find on how to use one’s time better, be more productive, and how to do better quality work – the last item is particularly important. Often, we glorify the hours we spend at work, not ready to admit that for most of those long hours our attention was divided between 10 different things, and we did very shallow, low-intensity work. This is exactly where we can do better, and when we figure out how, we might find ourselves with more leisure time to spend on things we love and not always obsess about the hustle.
For me, the secret to getting more work, and higher quality work, done was to limit the number of hours I spend on it. Many of us can probably relate to the feeling. I noticed that when I sat down to write a paper and told myself I have 10 hours to do it, the work took me 10 hours and was not substantially better for it. What is worse is now I had just spent 10 hours on one paper, did not get a chance to start on any of the other items on my to-do list, and I can forget about downtime to read a good book or watch something fun or go out for a walk if the day is nice. When I began my graduate program, I was pretty sure this approach was not going to be sustainable and wanted to learn what had worked for other people. So, I set aside time in my daily schedule to do some reading and research on how to do better.
If you have ever tried reading about productivity and time management, you are aware there is a lot of fluff out there. Also, depending on how bad you currently are at getting things done (and I was bad), there is a lot of advice aiming for low-hanging fruit that you can benefit from right away. However, over time and as I got marginally better at managing the demands on my time, saturation set in and most of these surface level hacks no longer made enough of an improvement to my situation. This is when I found the people writing about deep work, drastically reducing your work hours, and using self-care to improve the quality of your work hours.
The premise is simple – so simple that one is allowed to harbour doubts about if this would even work. Anecdotally, from my own life, it does work. If I sit down to write a paper and give myself two hours to work on it, somehow at the end of two deeply focused hours what I have is not so much worse than what I used to crank out after a day of divided, half-hearted attempts at writing. And now, I had the remaining eight hours to do other things, or even just do something to relax. Of course, one catch is that we are now talking two very focused hours with your phone put away, and without multiple unrelated tabs open on your browser. However, I find this a more than acceptable compromise given that I have more open hours to devote to some of those things.
Some writers have compared this approach to that of taking the time to care for your tools instead of just working away with tools that are clearly not up to the job anymore. The most famous metaphor along these lines is of the man who is trying to chop down trees with a blunt saw, because he is too busy to sharpen the saw. While a little campy, I now see the value in this metaphor. How often do we keep pushing ourselves to get more done while our mind and body is drained and in no condition to keep producing? I know that now, so I often just wrap up for the day, eat something, take a nap, maybe watch a fun movie. Either late that evening or the next morning, I am once again able to create/analyze/do meaningful work.
I am still not a fan of the constant hustling, always trying to win a race or make a little more cash. However, I guess that is the world we find ourselves in, with little hopes of significant change anytime soon. For now, I know that I find it much easier to engage in self-care when I am aware that it can be a tool towards improving my working hours. Eating a balanced home-cooked meal, getting enough sleep, reading your favorite author, and occasionally just enjoying sitting in a park might can all be investments into being more effective during your working hours. As one author puts it, take all the downtime you need. The only rule is once you are working, do not let your downtime/leisure activities creep into your work hours in the guise of web surfing and scrolling your phone. I still struggle with it, but I also feel a lot less fragmented and guilty about taking care of myself.
For those wanting to read more about the concept of working fewer, more focused hours and investing the rest of one’s time in self-care and renewal, I recommend pretty much anything by Cal Newport, Professor of Computer Science in Georgetown University. A lot of his content is also available on his blog: https://www.calnewport.com/.