Working on Weekends
August 2014 (perspective of an assistant professor)
(This article is adapted from Preparing for Junior Faculty Life.)
I've already accepted the reality that I'll be working on weekends. Very few junior faculty can avoid such a fate, unless they are super amazing. So given this reality, how can I come up with a sustainable weekend work regimen?
When I started my postdoc last year, I plowed through my weekends working as though they were weekdays. Then I would wake up on Monday morning feeling completely exhausted since I had grinded hard up until Sunday night. It was terrible. The weeks blurred into one another, and I felt like I never had a break.
I then came up with a better policy: I do only work that I want to do on weekends, not work that I need to do. In other words, I pick only tasks that I'm genuinely interested in doing, not those that I need to do out of professional obligation. As a result, sometimes I work a ton on weekends, and sometimes I barely work at all. But no matter what, I'm always doing what I want to do, not what I need to do.
One corollary is that if there is some work-related errand due on Monday, then I try my hardest to get it done by Friday night, so that I don't have to wake up on Saturday morning with a feeling of dread that I need to work on it over the weekend.
(The only times I've broken this rule were when there was a major impending deadline the following week.)
A related rule is no talking about work on weekends. This means no work-related emails or phone calls, except for quick clarifications or dire emergencies. Weekends are my time to rest and to possibly get some work done, not to talk about work-related errands. So I usually wait until Monday morning to respond to emails. Of course, I make exceptions, especially for senior colleagues or anyone who wants to give me funding ;)
As a result of these two rules, I often get my best work done on weekends because, unlike on weekdays, I have complete freedom to work on what I want without getting interrupted by tasks that other people put on my queue. At the same time, there is never any pressure to make real progress since, after all, it's my weekend! Any progress that I do make is a bonus.
The lack of immediate pressure enables me to try more unconventional approaches to my research on weekends. If whatever I attempt doesn't pan out, then that doesn't matter, because I was just playing around anyhow. If I'm in the mood, I skim through papers, browse technical websites, test new open-source software projects, draw concept sketches in my notebook, and do other vaguely research-related things for fun. The important thing is that my weekend work doesn't feel like work. I'm convinced that this sort of “playful quasi-work” is essential for making interesting creative leaps rather than just predictable incremental steps.
Addendum on 2014-08-14
One of the benefits of being in academia is a more flexible work schedule. Sometimes I won't feel like working much on a weekday for whatever reason; so at the end of that day, I just count it as a “faux-weekend.” When that happens, I make up for it by using a weekend day as though it were a weekday.
Another related thought: I think it's futile to talk about how many hours you work, or to compare hours worked. It's sort of like revealing and comparing your salary. Some people will think it's too high, others will think it's too low, and ultimately it doesn't do much to help anyone. Work time varies greatly depending on the kind and quality of work, and also on one's surrounding life situation. For some people, a 25-hour workweek is exhausting; for others, a 70-hour workweek is sustainable.