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How to Become a Productive Slacker

After the previous post on questioning the 9-to-5 (and more) mentality in academia – which has been shown not to be our most productive way to work- Amber Davis talks about how to put working in sprints into practice. For those of you who haven’t met Amber yet, let me introduce her to you:

Amber Davis is a political scientist and a PhD coach. She studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD candidates and created the HappyPhD Online Course to help you write your PhD (almost) effortlessly. On her blog, she is giving away the online course twice to celebrate the new academic year. Click here to enter the competition.

In my previous blog I talked about how to become a prolific scholar and improving your work-life balance by reducing, rather than increasing, the hours you work, and by introducing the notion of working in intervals, and taking relaxation seriously (the irony!). Although the ‘work and focus’ part of the interval presents a challenge for many people, the ‘relax’ part tends to encounter even more resistance. It is where many people get stuck. Letting your hair down a noble and honourable cause? That can’t be right. Or: it is so difficult in practice! Let’s go through some of the reasons:
1.      “Everybody else seems to work ‘office hours’ plus. I cannot leave work early and be perceived as a slacker by my colleagues, my supervisor, everybody!”
Yes, you can. You can leave work early, and you can ignore what other people think of it (or worse: what you think other people think). If you want to make this work you have to be somewhat non-conformist, and in most academic contexts it’s perfectly possible. Perform on output, not on hours put in. If you apply yourself 200% during your work sprints, you can leave the office guilt-free, while everyone else remains – procrastinating or slaving away. Listen to your inner rebel. It is the only wise thing to do! In the unlucky circumstance that your department or supervisor indeed expects you to work in a rigid, ‘office hours’ corporate manner, and you absolutely cannot leave without negative effects, at least make sure that you do not compromise on the sprint mentality. Make sure you get your most challenging, most creative work done in the first few work intervals of the day, and shift to a lower gear for the remainder of the day.
2.      “I cannot switch off because I feel guilty when I am not working, and I feel better about myself when I put longer hours in.” In essence this reason is the same as the first one – I cannot leave work early, because I don’t want to be perceived by a slacker…by myself.
The solution? 1) challenge your assumptions, and 2) experiment.
To start, seriously consider the idea that the combination of Taylorite, conveyor belt attitude to work and Calvinism is fatal: it is dangerous for your academic work, and it is absolutely lethal for your enjoyment of life! When that truly sinks in, you will find it easier to let go of work a little. You are not a factory worker. You are an academic hero, whose strong, lucid, unflinching analytical mind is celebrated and allowed to perform at unprecedented heights by regular brain breaks. Your wild-hearted free-flowing side will only help in doing so, if you allow for it. Take the risk. Unchain yourself. Step away from the conveyor belt. It will work out better than you can imagine.
3.      “But,” I hear you object, “I have so much more work to do! I cannot take a break right now. It’s too important!” Ah, but is it, really? Oh, the ways we trick ourselves into thinking the sky will fall when we close our laptops! Unfortunately, ‘feeling behind’ comes with the territory of academic work. There is no way around it. Ultimately, there is always more to do. It is never finished. If you cannot make peace with that idea, the academic road will be a torturous one to travel. There are things you can do to make life a little easier. Working in intervals, and the sprint mentality that goes with it, will help you gain a sense of control. The accomplishment and satisfaction of the all-or-nothing sprints will immediately help reduce feelings of guilt and you will be less likely to feel like ‘you haven’t gotten anything done’. Training yourself to prioritise also helps. Learn to see what is truly important and do that first; then let the other tasks and activities arrange themselves. Your most important work should be at the heart of your workday, not the pesky tasks and distractions. Also: draw a firm boundary around your breaks and time off. The bottom line: lightening up a bit is the best way to get your academic work done.

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