Working Life

Clocking your work

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Science  01 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6490, pp. 542
DOI: 10.1126/science.368.6490.542

Four months into my second faculty job, I was shocked to discover that I had to record the hours I'd worked. I'd heard that others at the university were required to do that—but surely not faculty members, I thought. I was wrong. At the end of each month, I was expected to sign and submit a sheet that listed my start and end times each day. At first, I was annoyed that I had to waste my time on such a mundane task. But the practice of writing down my work hours was surprisingly illuminating, ultimately sending me down a path to better work-life balance.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“The data have completely altered my view of work-life balance.”

In my previous 16 years in academia, it had been up to me to judge whether I was working hard enough. Usually, I felt I needed to work harder.

During my Ph.D., I always believed I could make my dissertation better with extra effort. My research never felt finished, and I had no idea how many hours I was supposed to work. That made it easy to go down rabbit holes and work more hours than necessary.

After graduating, I continued to work long hours, even though my employment contracts spelled out shorter workweeks. During my postdoc years, I was supposed to work precisely 39.5 hours per week, according to the labor agreement for public servants in Germany. But nobody asked how long I actually spent in the office, and I probably exceeded that on a regular basis.

When I started my first faculty position, my contract stated that I work anywhere from 36 to 48 hours per week. At first, I appreciated the flexibility, hoping for the occasional guilt-free 36-hour workweek. But my teaching and administrative workloads were so high that I regularly reached the 48-hour mark.

I was conscious of my work hours. I kept track mentally and made a point of taking some time off when I felt as though I'd worked too hard. But there were stretches of time during my first faculty job when my children didn't see me enough, or when—between work and parental duties—I had no time to spend with my husband.

In my second faculty position, I expected that my work hours would again be my business. So when I was told to track them, I was surprised. My contract stated that I work 40 hours per week, and couldn't I be trusted to do so?

Grudgingly, I opened a spreadsheet and started to record my hours. It would have been easy to add standard start and end times for each day—for instance, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—and be done with it. But my scientific tendencies kicked in, and I decided to keep careful track of my hours, even noting breaks.

I'm glad I did, because the data have completely altered my view of work-life balance. Recording my hours showed that I was racking up much longer workweeks than I realized. During the first month I started to track, for instance, I worked 15 hours more than was required of me—nearly two full workdays. That's far less than the insane hours that some academics work. But it was eye-opening for me.

With my tracking, I've found that I generally accumulate 1 week of overtime every 2 to 3 months. So now, every time I reach that milestone, I take a few days or even a whole week off. I spend that time at home with my family. Or I use the days to take a longer vacation, or to spend more time with relatives who visit. The breaks have improved my overall happiness and job satisfaction.

The data also help alleviate any guilt that I may have otherwise felt taking time off. I still have deadlines, tenure requirements, and the pressure to publish papers. And I still work a lot, sometimes even on weekends. But I now know how much I work—and that I deserve the time off.

When I am tenured, I won't have to submit my hours to my university any longer. But I'm going to continue to track them to help keep my work in bounds. To some academics, it may seem like a waste of time. But for me, it's been anything but.

I'd recommend opening a spreadsheet and tracking the hours that you spend at work. Even if you only do it for 1 or 2 weeks, you might be surprised what you'll discover.

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