Why do academics work so much?



Recently a Forbes article claimed that being an academic was the least stressful job of 2013. However, a storm of protest on social media forced the author to add an addendum acknowledging that this probably wasn’t the case. In fact academics work a a lot and that work tends to intensify in the so called ‘down time’: January here in Australia and July in the North of the world. Freed somewhat from the distraction of emails and the responsibility of caring for students, us academics inevitably find ourselves facing the deep end of the ‘to do’ list.

My January experience is a bit different this year because I’m more than half way through a 6 week break between jobs. I left RMIT on the 12th of December and I’m not due to start at ANU until the 30th of January. I have no classes to prepare and no ongoing projects at work to think about. I’ve reached that delightful point of the holidays where it doesn’t seem to matter what day of the week it is. To add to the general awesomeness it’s summer here in Australia, so Mr Thesis Whisperer and Thesis Whisperer Jnr have both had time off too.

Friends and family have been regarding me and my time off with envy. “You must be very relaxed by now” said one, “just doing nothing must be wonderful,” sighed another. Well yes, it has been wonderful to have time off, but that doesn’t mean I have been doing nothing. Oh no – for that is not the academic way. Between bingeing on TV sci-fi series, catching up on all those Antiques Roadshow episodes on my TiVo (yes, I am an old person now), having meals with friends and general slacking off I have been getting through my to do list and landing some of my bigger planes.

‘Landing planes’ means finishing off projects which are in a nearly completed state. I’m indebted to Dr Tseen Khoo of the Research Whisperer blog for this term, which she learned during a workshop with Hugh Kearns of Thinkwell. By nature I am a 95%-er. I love thinking up new research projects and doing the initial work on them, but I hate the hard work of finishing.

That last 5% involves the boring things like polishing text, making revisions, tidying up footnotes and email correspondence with journal editors. I will do anything to avoid the last 5%, including cleaning the bathroom. Mostly though, when I can’t face the 5% I do nothing at all. It seems like I have two states of being: totally focussed on doing work or a completely switched off TV watching slob.

I probably should have slacked off more, considering that it’s going to be a busy year with a new job and all. But I can’t seem to stop working. Sometimes I think that doing a PhD turned on the ideas engine in my brain so that, even when I am on holiday, I never really stop thinking about my research. The long break has just given me more time to get to the 5% end of my research work than usual – mostly beacuse there are fewer demands coming from email. As I remarked on Facebook “It’s amazing how much work I am getting through without a job to get in the way!”

Many of my friends describe me as a ‘machine’. They say I turn out lots of academic stuff, including blog posts, but I think of myself as lazy. I see many people with longer publication lists than me and I envy them. I would be much more productive if I could bring the same focussed dedication to the last 5%, where the really hard work is. But, sadly, I avoid it that 5% like crazy unless it is the only work left to do. Other people I know love that 5%, but have the opposite problem and find it difficult to start. I know very few people who approach their work in which you might call a balanced way.

I used to think that this fundamental laziness meant that I couldn’t be addicted to my work, but now I’m not so sure. In his article “Addicts are Superhuman” Tom Matlack claims that being an addict and being lazy are not mutually exclusive. Matlack draws on research about addicts who manage not to kill themselves (what a cheerful topic) by Prof David Linden. Apparently addicts have problems with dopamine pathways which means, as Matlack puts it, they “want pleasure more, but like it less”. Matlack goes on to claim that “greatness doesn’t cause addiction, but addictive qualities actually cause greatness”.

Matlack’s argument rests on an attitude towards risk. Addicts are risk takers in pursuit of pleasure, but are less satisfied when they get it. If you have an addictive personality, and work is your pleasure, then your tendencies can be harnessed on the production of new ideas. I have to acknowledge that, for myself at least, this rings true. The ‘high’ that I get, for example, from publishing a blog post or getting a paper accepted in a journal, doesn’t last very long therefore I am always restless, looking for new ideas to get my next ‘hit’.

How does laziness figure in this formula? Matlack adds in a rider:

\”The obsessive character trait is often combined with an ADHD-like (or in fact, diagnosed ADHD) hyper focus followed by non-focus or, in fact, an inability to change focus or keep everyday things in perspective\”

Hyper focus followed by non-focus? This describes my long holiday experience perfectly! Since I read this article I’ve been wondering if all of us academics are wired a bit strangely. Hyper focus and risk taking are certainly traits I see a lot in my co-workers. Maybe this is part of the reason why we work so much?

I’m trying to make the hyper-focus work for me differently. Just like a pilot (hopefully!) employs intense concentration for a short window, I am trying to turn my hyper focus onto tasks like formatting a bibliographies rather than starting the next thing. So far this technique is working remarkably well, but I wonder how it will last into the new year when work starts again. My new job will give me plenty of scope for doing new things!

So I’m wondering about my fellow Australians – how have you spent the long break? Did you land a few planes or did you have engine trouble? For those of you in the rest of the world, where work is marching on, what gets your motor running to get through the deep end of the ‘to do’ list?