First of all, yesterday was a better day, except for the part where Petunia peed on Pumpkin's bedroom floor, and Pumpkin melted down before our library trip, and then the library had some jazz-like music performance going on in the children's area so we were limited to picking books from the "new" shelf... and I was so wiped out by the time Petunia finally went to sleep that I went straight to bed.
So maybe I should say that yesterday was a better day at work. I made really good progress on one of my projects, and I killed off TWO meetings. When I kill a meeting, it is a sign that the project is progressing well enough that we don't need a full hour each week to check in, discuss, and keep things on track- it means that my other project management techniques are working. So hooray me.
Plus, I had a bit of an epiphany on the whole "what should I do with my life" question. I realized that I actually know how to make this decision. Clarifying options and identifying the information needed to choose among them is one of the things I do at work- and frankly, it is one of the aspects of my job I am best at. (This is an anonymous blog. If I can't brag here, where can I brag?)
Once I realized this, I quickly enumerated the options I have, and I'm ready to start the process of figuring out what I need to know to make this decision. I know how to do this!
This decision is important to me not because I think I can completely plan out my life, but because I have a little bit of time and energy to start a new project right now, and I'd like to put that time and energy towards something that is likely to fit into my long term goals. Otherwise, I don't know how I'm going to decide what project to tackle. Should I take a class relevant to my current career? Work on refreshing my coding skills? Write another book? I'm not really sure. They all sound fun.
I'd also like to clarify one thing: I absolutely believe that I am capable of doing big and important things using only "regular" work hours. Or at least I can do things that are big enough and important enough for me. I've been doing a lot of time tracking over the past 6 months or so, and I can definitively say that I tend to work ~40 hours/week, of which, 35-38 are productive by a basic measure of "I'm actually trying to do some work, not sitting at my desk surfing the internet or what not." I also put in 1 to 5 hours of work on my non-work projects (e.g., writing and publicizing books) and maybe another 1 to 5 hours on my blog. Even though the book writing has made me take my blog a little more seriously (I know... you'd never notice!) I still consider it a hobby, and do not think I could take all of those hours for work without going a little crazy.
So I have roughly 45 hours per week in which I can be productive- whether that is on my work/career or on one of my side projects. Looking back over my career, I can't think of any time in which I worked many more hours than that and been productive in them, and was able to sustain that for more than a few weeks. 45 hours per week is probably a good estimate of my true work limit.
Maybe the real "superstars" can work insane hours and stay productive- but if that is true, then I have never worked with a superstar. In all of my years managing projects, I have met many people who thought they could work really long hours effectively week after week, but I have never met one who really could. Some people might top out at 50 hours rather than 45, but I've literally never met someone who worked 60 or more hours per week and was actually productive during all of those hours. Of course, I've worked with people who spend 60 hours per week in the office- but not a single one of them has actually been working during all of those hours. There was one guy who really seemed to... but I got curious and checked the network logs (I ran IT there so could legitimately do this). He was streaming TV shows to his desk. We did not work in a media company. There was no conceivable way that was work.
However, just because I know I can do great things in a 40-45 hour work week, that doesn't mean that the world will let me. Basically, our corporate work world is largely set up to expect and reward people who take a macho approach to hours worked, and put in long hours whether or not they are all productive.
As far as I can tell, there are two ways to deal with this: (1) pretend that the corporate world is sane and judges on productivity rather than hours, be productive in sensible hours, and just trust/hope that it will all work out. (2) Opt out and go out on your own as a contractor, or start your own business. Of course, if you go with option #2, you will still have to ignore the false signals around you that tell you that the only way to succeed is to put in super long hours- but your actual success seems to be more tightly coupled to real rather than perceived productivity. Or maybe that is just my wishful thinking.
So far, I've gone with option #1, and I've done reasonably well. I think this is at least partially because my internal drive towards always feeling like I'm learning new things has pushed me to spend more time on what Cal Newport calls "deep work" than strictly necessary to do my job, but I'm not 100% sure about that, and I know there's been a healthy dose of luck in the mix, too.
Anyway, there is nothing pushing me to change options: my current boss is more than happy with my work, and I feel like my career is reasonably "on track." I'm learning new things and growing my skills, and when I get to focus on the core of my job, I really enjoy the work. There is more non-core corporate BS than I'd like, but that is hard to avoid as you move up the corporate food chain.
|Should I try to climb up there?|
When I was first out of graduate school, my work was mostly core things. I've seen several estimates of the amount of core work a knowledge worker can produce, and the consensus seems to be roughly 6 hours per day, tops. In my early years after graduate school, it was no problem at all to get those 30 hours of "good" work in a 40 hour work week. Now, I'm lucky if I get 20 hours of core work in an average work week, plus another 5 or so hours of non-core things that feel really useful. The rest is BS. Of course, there is still the need to produce the core work, there are just more BS things crowding it out. So far, I've been able to use my productivity tricks to produce sufficient core work in the hours left after I've done the BS work I can't avoid. This, plus my relatively high BS tolerance has kept all well in my career.
But here's the fear that has me considering switching to option #2: as I go up the corporate ladder, the BS work keeps going up, and it gets harder and harder to do a good job on my core work in a normal work week- not because the core work can't get done in the time, but because the corporate BS grows. Some of this is inescapable- but I swear some of it is just because other people don't want to do their core jobs and so invent BS meetings for the rest of us to go to and BS work for the rest of us to do, so we can all be busy without doing anything actually challenging and meaningful.
The growth in corporate BS alone is probably manageable, but it also seems that the macho posturing about work hours goes up and up as I go up the corporate ladder. Maybe managers feel like they need to justify their higher pay and generally cushier jobs by complaining all the time about how overworked they are? Of course, they aren't really working 70 hours per week (check out this excerpt from Laura Vanderkam's new book for a review of the evidence on that)- but if they can fool their underlings into thinking they are working that many hours, maybe the underlings won't feel bad about being underlings. I don't know- that's just a guess.
Again, none of this means that I have to work long hours to succeed, it just adds to the noise that I have to ignore in order to do my job and live my life the way I want to. I could just keep pretending that I will be judged solely on the quality of my work, and keep trusting that I'll be able to keep the BS work to a manageable level, and maybe I would in fact keep advancing up the corporate ladder. I have seen nothing so far to indicate that I won't. It just feels like my chances for continuing advancement aren't what they could be. I don't know if that is actually true.
All of this is bouncing around in my head along with a summary I read this week of some research on "overwork" and the fact that mothers in male-dominated fields are more likely to leave their jobs. (I did a bad job of summarizing that link- sorry. But it is a short read, just go read it.) If this particular mother leaves her particular male-dominated career, despite her equitable split on the home front, it won't be the actual need to overwork that drives her out. It will be a combination of corporate BS and silly macho cultural things that make her decide it is time for a change.
It is worth noting, though, that what I'm thinking of changing to is entrepreneurship. It is not that I don't think I can do the work. It is that I am increasingly less certain that it is worth putting up with the background noise to keep doing the work I do now. But there are lots of things I like about my current career, and a lot of unknowns about other possible careers- so the decision is not an easy one. But at least now I know how to go about making that decision! And I know that I won't be switching to 60 hour work weeks, no matter what I do. I see no real benefit in that, and my BS tolerance doesn't extend that far.
What's the core work to BS work ratio like in your job? Have you noticed a change over the course of your career? I'd be particularly interested to hear from my academic readers- from the outside, it seems that one of the problems in an academic career is that the core work required to advance your career and the things in your job description are only partially overlapping- is that true? And if so, do you have any thoughts on how that plays into the work hours issue?