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The fallacy of the 90 hour work week

You might often hear senior academics say you need to work extreme hours to ‘make it’ in academia. Such comments often elicit considerable debate.

For instance, a recent survey found that academics at one university work an average of 60 hours per week.

Some commentors noted that such long work hours were a fact of life, and that you will need to work them too if you were to be competive for jobs.

Other commentors noted that statements about extreme work hours contribute to excluding under-represented groups (e.g. mothers) from acdemia.

There are several reasons I believe that this debate about how many work hours is enough is both unhelpful and counter-productive.

People exaggerate their work hours

Many people are inclined to exaggerate about their true work hours. I once heard an academic tell a group of early-career researchers that 90 hour work weeks were neccessary to make it. But various studies have shown that people tend to exaggerate their true work hours.

For instance, in a recent interview with Indra Nooyi (CEO of Pepsi co), she claimed to sleep just 4 hours a night and work 20 hour days 7 days a week. In the same interview she also talks about playing a daily match of tennis. So clearly she is exaggerating, even if slightly (I am sure she does work impossibly long hours by most people’s standards).

When speaking about our work hours we have a strong cultural incentive to exaggerate. Indra Nui probably doesn’t want her shareholders thinking she slacks off. And young academics may often be concerned about looking good to their seniors, for all important reference letters.

If you really want to know how many hours you’re working I would recommend keeping a detailed log of your time and where you spend it.

Is it even possible to work 90 hour weeks consistently?

I don’t actually think that such a work load would be sustainable from a health point of view.

Sure some weeks you might work 90 hours (I never have though). Years and years ago I was doing field work on seals and we probably worked 12 hour days for 7 days straight (=84 hours), to keep up with all the seal counts and tagging we had to do. However, this was an exception and that work load only lasted a few weeks during the busy period of seal breeding.

So I think it is fair to say you might need to do long weeks sometimes (especially if you are a field biologist), but those hours needn’t be the norm.

An implicit assumption

When a senior academic makes a statement about having to work long-hours, they are making an implicit assumption that they were successful because of the long hours they put in, therefore you need to put in long hours too.

I don’t think this is true. Academic success is defined by productivity, not work hours. And the hours in, productivity out correlation isn’t perfect, as I will explain below.

Efficiency versus productivity

Key determinants of academic productivity (e.g. papers written per year) are hours worked and your efficiency at work.

What I have observed is that many people are inefficient at work. So to compete with their peers, they need to work long hours.

I think most people need training to become more efficient. If our mentors think working long-hours is neccessary, that suggests they could also improve their efficiency. So you should seek alternative advice. A good place to start for acadmeics is the iThinkwell webpage and books.

I also found the book The 4 Hour Work Week helpful for thinking about how I could improve efficiency.

(A few tips, cut out those low-value time-consuming projects or collaborations, put email low on your priority list of things to do and delegate wherever possible and, do the hardest and most important task first thing in the day).

In fact a Swedish study that shorter work hours actually increased the productivity of their workforce, because people were happier and healthier and took less sick days.

To improve your efficiency it can be helpful to log your activities at work. For instance, I learned that one of my pubs required about 100 hours of work to reach the point of submission. Looking at my data, I realised that a large portion of the time was spent following up on interesting, but not useful, ideas about complicated new analyses. As a result I have now changed my work practices to put greater emphasis on pre-planning of analyses, to stop myself from following multiple false leads.

Remember too that there have been massive changes in technology since many of our mentors were trained. Technology can be a hinderance to productivity (email, social media!) but also a massive help (also email and social media!). You will need to do some experimentation to make technology work for your productivity.

What is work anyway?

My final point is that statements like “I worked 60 hours a week so therefore you have to too” are not realistic to how different people work or even define work.

The boundary between work and non-work is not clear to me. If I think about an analysis on the ride home, is that work? or is it commuting? Or if we invite some scientist friends around for dinner and talk about science, is that work? What about watching nature documentaries with my son?

If you followed the tax office’s definition of work related activities, you could even classify some holidays as ‘work hours’. For instance, if I go on a diving holiday I am eligible for some tax deductions, because that counts as maintaining my work skills (I’m marine biologist).

Or this webpage I maintain (its mostly a hobby I do outside of official work hours), should I count that towards work hours? Not everyone spends time maintaining their own webpage and blog rolls, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t successful in their careers.

Every one is different in how they work, so at the end of the day, it is not helpful to offer prescriptions about how many hours someone must work to be successful.

Contact: Chris Brown

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