The Academic FitBit

First a trigger warning: this post discusses suicide and self harm. If you need to reach out, Lifeline in Australia provides a 24 hour crisis line on 131114. Sorry I can’t list services in every country this is likely to be read, but you can find information on mental health for PhD students on the Useful Resources Page.

If academic overwork had a Facebook status it would be ‘it’s complicated’.

Academics work hard, in part, because we have to, in part because we love it, and partly because of dedication to our students. But the endemic overwork problem must be addressed. The pressure to work long hours translates through the academic eco-system to PhD students, who are often tasked with impossible workloads too. When unrealistic expectations are a feature of PhD study; stress, overwork and mental health issues are the inevitable result.

Stopping the vicious cycle is a systemic AND a personal battle. I battle over-work by being a proud and active Union member. I battle the problem personally too, by trying not to over-work myself. I don’t always win.

To be clear, ANU were not foisting an unrealistic workload on me. My overwork problem was at least partly a problem of my own making. At the start of the year, I told you I was working 60 hour weeks, so I set myself the task of trying to do ‘Less’ again in 2018. It’s halfway through the year (yes, already!) so I thought I would report in. Am I doing Less? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’ – but I have only achieved this with the help of some software that my friend Dr Jason Downs put me onto, called ‘Timing‘.

Timing is like a FitBit or Apple Watch, but for work. Before you ask, Timing is a Mac product, but RescueTime is a cloud-based product with similar functionality. Basically Timing lurks in the background and watches how you use your computer. Once you’ve spent a bit of time training it, Timing automagically categorises your work. You can quickly add in non-computer based tasks in the timeline view to make sure you capture all your efforts. It doesn’t take much to keep the record accurate, and the effort is worth it because Timing allows you to access a range of neat dashboard views. For instance, here is a visual summary of my whole year so far:

If I divide my hours worked by the available work days I have been running Timing, the average is 42 hours of work a week. ANU only pays me for 35 hours a week, but I work for myself too. I cut a deal when I started in 2013 that I own the Thesiswhisperer. ANU does not pay for me to blog, but nor can they profit from it. If I take out my social media activities (my new YouTube channel and outside paid work) I get down to 38 hours a week for ANU.

So, I’m donating about 3 hours a week to my employer. I can live with that – for now.

If I am going to donate to my employer, at least I know the size of my donation. Timing gives me the comforting illusion that I am in charge of my time by enabling me to assign a productivity ‘score’ to each kind of task. Tasks you consider a bit of time waste, like email, can be ‘tuned down’ while productive work, like writing or teaching, can be ‘tuned up’. A glance at the productivity score lets me know how my week is tracking. If it’s high I am getting a lot of good, useful work done; if it’s low, I am in too many meetings or noodling around on expense claims or social media.

One thing I learned from my productivity score, is the weeks I work more hours, the less productive I am. Here’s a comparison of two weeks, one at nearly 55 hours (what used to be a typical week for me):

And one at almost exactly the ANU enterprise bargain agreement of 37:

Even though I work the odd stupid hour week, I am feeling much better. I don’t want to give the impression that this semblance of work/life ‘balance’ was easy to achieve. I partly created the problem, but in doing so, I had set cetain service delivery expectations. Now I had to wind them back – this was hard. I had to give a lot of pushback at work, which did lead to conflict as well as feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and anger. Coming back from the brink of burn-out is also just intense, bodily work. For the first couple of months, I cried in my office nearly every day. I leaned on a lot of people: friends, colleagues, sympathetic mentors. I saw a therapist – more than once. I acknowledge that even being able to push back is a form of privilege that’s not available to everyone.

It shouldn’t be.

A couple of weeks ago, there was sad news out of Cardiff University about a lecturer who took his own life, apparently due to stress and over-work brought on by marking season. My academic social media network lit up with the story. Everyone was horrified because the situation was just so… relatable. On Facebook, one colleague shared a story about how she had to take medical leave because her eyes ACTUALLY STARTED BLEEDING during an essay marking marathon. No one should have to work this much just to meet expectations. Reflecting on the parallels between that Cardiff lecturer’s experience and my own, pushing back before I hit crisis point may well have saved my life.

People usually screw their faces up when I tell them about Timing; I guess because it sounds like yet more neo-liberal performance management bullshit that has got us in all into this situation in the first place. But I would argue that monitoring your own work is profoundly different than being monitored because the power of the data is in your hands. For example, the data from my Academic FitBit came in very handy when I was negotiating a reduced workload with my manager. She wanted me to do a 50% teaching load, which I initially resisted. But she was right: Timing showed me that I do, in fact, spend 50% of my ANU time on teaching. My performance measures may as well reflect that fact.

Timing has enabled me to finally (FINALLY) crack the academic project management problem: a long-term goal of mine. I used to work in architecture offices where time really was money. I learned the power of breaking a project up into different tasks and using these calculations to tell a client when you would deliver and how much it would cost. I’ve  tried for many years to apply architecture project management techniques to academia, without much success. Architects are mostly bad at doing time estimates (which is why just about every building takes longer and costs more than thought), but they are still miles better at it than academics.

Making and managing a time budget is a critically important skill to learn when you are a student, but one that is rarely, if ever, taught. The most common reason people go over time on their PhD is because no one anticipated – or even asked the student to estimate – how long tasks might take. Up to now, I have been no better than most supervisors. I do have some rules of thumb which I share with my students. For instance, I tell them that every hour of interview time is about six hours of analysis, but I don’t know if that’s true! I just heard it somewhere. I just know it’s a good supervision tactic to do a back of the envelope calculation in front of a student to show them the project plan to interview 500 people is unrealistic. I know my students are likely to be slower than me, but if I know how long something takes me I can use the ‘multiply’ function on my calculater to give them some kind of estimate.

Now, with Timing, Architect Inger is back in charge. I can tell you how long it takes me to write and edit an academic paper: 26 hours (not including analysis time). Editing a whole book in Grammarly? 49 hours. Putting together material to run a workshop? Between 3 hours (lecture) and 37 hours (new half-day workshop). How long do I spend blogging? 2 hours a week, on average. Crucially, every single project I commit to represents at least a 30% ‘overhead’ of ‘enabling work’ -email, paperwork, meeting, phone calls, etc. This work is unavoidable, as my friend Dr Ben Kraal says: ‘It’s the work you do in order to do the work you do’.

Going back to the sad story of the lecturer at Cardiff, in the fight against the perverse effects of neo-liberal management, is collecting our own data is a weapon? Or, maybe, I am only handing my employer a loaded gun…? What do you think? Are you already succumbing to the overwork scourge? Have you tried to push back on unrealistic time expectations? Have any other tactics to share?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I’ll be doing a walk through of Timing this week on my Youtube channel.

Related posts

Less is more?

An excellent analysis of the Cardiff situation by Liz Morrish on the Academic Irregularities blog).

Another excellent (and ranty) post from Jodie Lee Trembath on The Familiar Strange Blog

The tyranny of tiny tasks

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23 thoughts on “The Academic FitBit

  1. Samiul Hossain says:

    Great post! I have been using RescueTimer. it was humbling to see how many hours I spent on social media. I activated RT on my smartphone, tab, and personal MacBook. As I use the free version, the data ran out every 3 months. Thus, I kept a spreadsheet to count hours. I can make cool graphs out of it, of course. It tells me the never-dying mantra “being busy and being productive arent the same thing”. Why? Because I manually track my time as well. Not all the tasks I did can be tracked by RT. For example, I am teaching or experimenting. I use Toggl for that purpose. I have found that the highest I can work in a week is 27-30 hours. Before you roll your eyes in disbelief, (“How come a PhD student dares to work less than 50 hours?”), let me specify. I only count works that are directly related to my PhD. Things like, email, teaching, professional chitchat, lunch break go to different projects.
    In academia, there is strong encouragement to work 50 to 60 hours a week. I was encouraged by others to do the same as well. Especially at the ECR stage, you do not have any chance to progress if you work less than 60 hours. After hours of time tracking and analysing, I wonder is that really humanly possible?

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Thanks for telling me about your system! I worked 50-60 hour weeks for about 12 years before I finally broke. I think it’s possible, but the human cost is high and I deeply question whether the benefits are really there. I find working smarter (using omni-focus etc) means I can produce more in less time – because I am more rested and creative.

      • Ruth says:

        I’d say it’s possible for *some* people. I used to get a fatigue crash after working 45 hours for two consecutive weeks and the one time I tried to push through this for a longer period gave me a serious case of chronic fatigue that I’m still only 50% recovered from 3.5 years later. Then there are people who have responsibilities outside of work that demand significant chunks of their cognitive energy budget. So those ‘suggestions’ to work 50-60 hours aren’t just making the people who try to do it sick, they’re also excluding a bunch of people from academic study/careers.

  2. Grateful Asst. Prof. says:

    Great post! I started using the upgraded RescueTime years ago and have benefited from it through PhD and now into the TT. My research examines counterproductivity, so I first considered the organizational big brother perspective and then started seeing the potential for self-awareness. I’ve learned so much and I strongly encourage PhD students to use trackers. I’m convinced through my research and personal experience that most academics have no clue how much they work, and PhD students are perhaps the worst offenders. Starting to use software like this can almost serve as an intervention when we see how much time was spent on irrelevant or nonproductive tasks.

    However, one of the things I personally struggle with is discussing work hours with colleagues. (This might be worse here in the U.S. where TT expectations are often published as 50-60 hours per week.) Similar to you, I know how many productive hours I worked. Many of my colleagues might “work” 1.5x the hours to accomplish the same as me; therefore, I often don’t feel comfortable discussing work styles pre-tenure. Also, the more I shift my energy to high performance work—obtaining grants to reduce courseload and outsourcing coordination to focus on research—the fewer hours I am capable of working because that work is more cognitively depleting. All this to say, we have a large problem with both overwork and self-awareness in academia, and every conversation such as this helps. Thank you!

  3. Naomi Cogger says:

    Agree with so much in this post. It is time academics change the narrative that you need to work 50 to 60 hours to get ahead. It is not sustainable nor as you showed are we as productive. Now as a more senior academic I do my best to model the culture I want to see by being seen to work sensible hour. This includes sometimes using the delay send on emails if I am writing or responding after hours. I should add I am working then because I took time off during the day for a long lunch with a friend or child related event durning the day. I am far from perfect but we all need to try.

  4. Christy says:

    I’m looking forward to giving this app a go! As a person reasonably new to teaching I am in the time consuming period of developing most of my lecture material from scratch. Last summer I taught a summer school unit that was running for the first time. During the teaching period I developed an eye problem that caused quite a bit of pain. I was told to avoid screens for 10 days – the rest of my teaching time. I just had to laugh at the advice and keep going. I had no material from previous years and nobody I could hand final lecture preparation, marking and teaching to. Not an ideal situation at all, but I really didn’t feel there was another option. Fortunately, all is now good and I now try to factor in backup planning for possibilities like this.
    I find that I work best in the evening and so am often in the office late but benefit from the flexibility to generally keep my own hours to a large extend. A problem with this is that I do often underestimate how long some of my tasks take, leaving me staying later than anticipated. Thank you for the article!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Wow – that eye problem sounds like my friend who ended up with a severe inflammation… I ask you, what other profession would be so inflexible that you can’t take time off to recover from what is obviously a workplace injury? A builder with a broken leg wouldn’t be allowed on a building site!

  5. Scanty Lifestyle says:

    I also downloaded this app and have great plans now. Thanks for writing this. I also like the idea of donated time, but I also think sometimes that the University where we are is actually less about the job. I think we all basically work for ourselves and get some kind of fixed “paycheck” from whatever Uni we are at. Maybe thats less true after tenure.

  6. Sunshine says:

    I use Paymo for exactly this purpose. I did a contract during my PhD and got paid about $3 an hour because I so badly misjudged how many hours it would take, and from that point on I started monitoring how long it took me to complete tasks. Like you, I found that weeks in which I did a lot of hours were almost always less productive – the difference was just more email, admin and fluffing around. I found this kind of time tracking a really useful tool for evaluating my performance and becoming more efficient – working smarter instead of harder. Now that I have graduated, I work as a consultant 20 hours a week while my child is in daycare. Those are usually at least 15 concentrated hours of deep thinking and my three year record of tracking productivity shows me that that is about the most deep thinking I ever do in a week, and even if I did full-time hours, my productivity would be exactly the same.

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