When we think of the hard-working scientist, we think about a scientist that enters that lab early in the morning. They work through the day using multiple cups of coffee to keep their energy up. Late at night, they can be seen writing on a whiteboard, making the prime discoveries in their field.
Scientists have come to romanticize workaholism. We believe that the person who works the longest hours and sacrifices the most for their work will be the most successful. This idea comes from "grind culture" or "hustle culture."
If we believe in the "grind culture," we believe a lie. The person who works the longest hours is really the person losing out on the enjoyable things in life.
Think about the last time you put in a long day. At the end of that day, did you think, "Oh, I just keep wanting to do this forever?" Probably not. Instead, you probably thought about how much you want to go home and how you do not want to come in tomorrow.
As scientists, we can truly love and enjoy our work, but too much of anything can be a bad thing. The grind culture leads scientists to burnout, neglect self-care, and actually become less productive.
When I started graduate school, I believed in this lie. I tried to devote nearly every waking hour to my work to be successful. After every week, I wouldn't get out of bed on Saturdays until the afternoon. Even if I woke up around 10 a.m., I would just lay there questioning what was wrong with me. Once my partner would finally convince me to get up, I would eat and then start doing more work.
Not only did I waste a large amount of my time, but I also dealt with very high anxiety and depression through this time. Any moment that I wasn't working, I felt guilty. At my core, I believed that not working was an expression that I wasn't serious about my work.
In reality, this idea is a fairly disturbing notion.
After seeking therapy, I realized that my long hours and constant work are not what made me successful. What made me successful was my determination, problem-solving skills, and ability to develop ideas. Yet, burnout decreases all of these abilities that lead to success.
How to Really be Successful
Therefore, instead of working more hours, you should focus on becoming more efficient in your work. We are all inefficient in our work. In fact, a recent study found that typical workers only work less than 3 hours in an 8-hour workday.
Think about your regular day. How much of your time did you truly spend working on things that move your science forward?
On a typical workday, I spend time socializing with my colleagues, checking out my social media, watching shows or YouTube, and staring at my screen, not wanting to do work. Yet, I would be at work for over 10 hours, saying I worked 10 hours that day.
If you give in to grind culture and think you should work all the time, then you lose your motivation to do work. If completing work doesn't allow you to leave work sooner, what motivation do you have to complete work?
There are two principles that can help you become more productive by working less: Pareto's principle and Parkinson's law.
Pareto's principle states that 80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort. Therefore, if you think about your typical workday, only about 20% of your time is creating 80% of your success in science.
Parkinson's law states that work will expand to fill the time that it is allotted, meaning that if you give yourself 10 hours in a day to complete a task, it will likely take all 10 hours, even if it only really requires 2 hours of work.
If you apply both of these principles to your approach to work, you can work less and accomplish more by becoming a more efficient worker.
While you may be on board about becoming an efficient worker, you may still wonder how to become more efficient. So let's go step-by-step through a system that I created for myself, which has proven to make me more productive while decreasing burnout.
Set Work Hours
The very first step of becoming efficient is to set your work hours. You should set your work hours based on your lifestyle and work requirements.
Do you want to work 8 hours and be off in time to make an exercise class? Then set your work hours to complete your workday in time for your class.
However, you also need to take into account the needs of your work. What times do you have meetings? When does your boss or supervisor expect you to be around?
The benefit of setting your work hours is that you are already combating Parkinson's law. You now have fewer overall hours that work can expand to fill. Additionally, you can regain motivation because you know that you need to finish your task by a specific time so that you can leave work accomplished.
Make To-Do and Not-To-Do Lists
Once you have your work hours, you need to concentrate your efforts on the things that are bringing you success in your science. The best way to focus is to create to-do lists and not-to-do lists.
First, think about all of the things that you genuinely need to do to make progress. If you think you need to do everything, ask yourself, "If I could only work 2 hours a day, what would I do?". Suddenly, your brain will flood with the most important things that need to be done for you to be productive in science. Write these things down to make your to-do list.
Now, make a list of at least three things that you do that waste your time, such as tasks that make you feel productive but don't result in actual progress. For many graduate students, I believe that reading scientific papers for the sake of reading them should be on your list. Reading papers should be done for a specific reason, not simply so that you can feel productive or say you read so many papers that week.
Personally, my not-to-do list includes checking my social media, checking my email, and watching shows during my day. Place your to-do and not-to-do lists somewhere where you can see them regularly.
Block Out Your Time
The third part of becoming more efficient is to block out your time. The essence of this idea is to prevent you from task switching multiple times and wasting time as you move from one task to another.
There are two ways that I like to block out my time. The first is to theme my days, and the second is to create time blocks.
If you have specific themes to your work, then it is nice to theme your days. For example, if you are a graduate student, you may have coursework, research, and teaching. On a day that you teach, make it a teaching day. Take the time during the day to grade assignments and plan for the next week's lesson. On a day that you attend multiple classes, take the free time you have to study and do homework. On days that you have research meetings or primarily free days, focus that time on research-related activities.
Themed days help you plan your day, keeping you focused and allowing you to make progress on one task all day long.
Time blocks allow you to work on a single task for 45-90 minutes. Maybe this task is a meeting, class, or writing a paper, but after your set work time, you have the margin to move from one task to another. The way I prefer to do this is 90 minutes of work with a 30-minute margin. However, depending on your schedule, a 45-minute block with a 15-minute margin may work better.
Overall, the idea that you need to work longer hours to be successful is not only a lie but counterproductive. Instead, by increasing your motivation and efficiency of your work, you can become more successful while maintaining your personal life. To become more efficient, I have a 3 step system that I employ: