There’s a meme going round academics at the moment about the professor (the American sort, where all lecturers are called professor; not the real sort, the rarified breed we find in Britain) who has told his students that surveys show that the average academic works 60 hours a week. The implication is that if students want to be successful, they need to work 60 hours a week too. By coincidence I had just read a description of the massively successful Harvard Business School which said that they expected their students to work 55.1 hours a week (a curiously precise figure). I am reminded that I always told my students who invariably demanded to be told a simple answer to “how hard should I work” that they should consider being a student like having a job, so that they should work 40 hours a week – although now I would revise that down to 35-36 hours. And don’t forget that Elon Musk famously once said that the secret of his success is that he works 100 hours a week.
Students were often surprised, frightened, shocked, and disbelieving when I told them that just 36 hours a week for four courses a term meant that they should be devoting 9 hours every week to each course. Take away 2 hours for a lecture, say, and that leaves 7 hours a course a week when they should be working on that course, reading, thinking, preparing for exams, and writing essays. Seven hours is a scary amount of time. Try it – and that’s just one out of four.
There is though some hope though. A few decades ago we were having the same argument about how hard you should work (this time without the means of the internet), and people were saying everyone should be doing 70 hours a week. So some reason has evidently set in as the expectation has dropped from 70 to only 60 hours a week.
What is a 60 hour work week like? Assuming you take Sundays off, that’s 10 hours a day. Say, from 8.30 a.m. – 7.00 p.m. if you allow yourself half an hour a day for lunch and other stuff.
I am sceptical. Can anyone really work 10 hours a day? I have spent three hours this morning writing, and I am knackered. And still I have had to get up a few times, make a cup of tea, go to the loo, and yet I am almost done for the day in terms of energy. Now I know I am depressed and depression saps energy and concentration, but I am doubtful that I am that lazy and pathetic. I suspect that people who say they work 10 hours a day really don’t work anywhere near that amount. They might be at work, but they’re not always doing work. They might get in, arrange their desk, check their email, glance at The Guardian (after all, it’s Education Tuesday, and that’s work isn’t it?), make a cup of coffee, go to the loo, chat to the person next door, go to the water cooler, go to the loo again, check the news, book their holiday online, check their email again triaging spam, move emails around folders, make more coffee, go to the loo again, chat to a couple of people they meet along the way, and suddenly it’s 7 pm. Of course people do have to and do do some work through the day, but I am very sceptical they really work all that time.
So I don’t believe that most people who say that they do, do really work 60 hours a week. These peopl don’t define work, and they don’t record what they do, and psychology tells us that most people tend to view their own activities through rose-tinted glasses.
I have often thought of carrying out a survey of academics, or even anyone who says they work hard, and writing a book about it. I have pared my life down to an essential minimum and I really struggle to write, read, and think anywhere near as much as I would like to. I outsource, I shop online, I do the minimum in everything non-academic, and yet … I’m time poor. Don’t other people have to brush their teeth (two minutes three times a day plus flossing), do washing, do some kind of exercise, sleep, have the occasional shower, install new software only to find nothing works any more, eat, stay hydrated, deal with burst pipes and lost keys, and so on?
I end up feeling most sorry for students, because they have these expectations laden upon them by people who don’t know what they themselves do, and often have to fit in a part-time job and take advantage of having a social life at what will later prove to be the best time of their lives. Their friends often do not help; some of them boasting, exaggerating, lying, or just deceiving themselves about how hard they work. Have you noticed that there are only two types of people – those who put a lot of work into the essay that they started three months ago, and those who left it to the last minute and spent hardly any time on it at all>
I am not advocating a culture of laziness. Psychology has taught us that if we want to become successful at something, we have to work very hard. Genius is indeed nearly all perspiration, and above a certain minimum level, how you succeed depends mainly on your attitude and how much effort you put in. There is no shortcut to success, I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean you have to put in 60 hours nonstop work a week. And instead of panicking, being insecure, and deceiving ourselves and others about how hard we work, let’s be honest and realistic, because overwork and stress lead to disaster. I know.