Some tips for not working yourself into the ground

I’ve seen some other people’s tips and I didn’t agree with them – or at least, they don’t work for me – so I was inspired to write this gem for anyone who’s thinking about those 37.5 hours and laughing in a hollow fashion.

I don’t think I work crazy hours. If I try to, I generally get ill. I’m a bit ill now, maybe because I did some work at the weekend. Headache. Nothing to worry about, but it’s not helping me concentrate.

So here are some tips, for what they’re worth. I start off with things I actually do and then it becomes more aspirational.

1/ Less is more.

Write less, present less, but do it well. There’s no requirement to churn out article after article, or attend all the conferences. You’ll be less well known, perhaps, but proud of what you’ve done. A wise teacher once suggested you think what books you’d like to write before you die – and be realistic about how many. Then do those (or if not books, similar principle).

2/ People first.

A supportive, collegiate environment is less stressful, more efficient, better able to anticipate problems, better able to deploy the right person for the right thing, generative of massively good advice. Without the advice of my colleagues I’d spend half the time dithering, so because they are generous, I have time to give them too.

Cut corners on the stuff that doesn’t really matter. The paperwork that no one is going to read. The form that no one cares about. Do what needs to be done and skip the rest. Never cut corners when dealing with people and their dreams. This applies to teaching too. Important caveat: never ‘cut corners’ is not the same as having no boundaries.

3/ Never missing a deadline indicates a lack of priorities.

Deadlines are not all alike. Missing some deadlines is a massive pain. Other deadlines are pretty arbitrary, or designed to be broken anyway. Knowing which is which is perhaps a challenge. But sometimes other things are just more important than missing a deadline.

4/ ‘I would prefer not to’.

It was a revelation when I realised that I didn’t always have to do what I was told. Really sad, isn’t it, when you look at it like that? I’m afraid this is a problem lots of academics have, because we were mostly good at school. This isn’t school, and sometimes you just say, no, that’s not how it’s going to work. I would prefer not to, or, I would prefer to do it differently. I was surprised to find that often this wasn’t a problem for anyone. See the Melville short story for a more radical version.

5/ Don’t chase promotion (after probation).

It doesn’t matter, once you have enough to live on. What matters is your life. That doesn’t mean you don’t ask for promotion, but it means don’t make your life fit its demands. Getting your first job and through probation is another matter. But there are a lot of miserable professors and senior managers (I don’t have specific people in mind, just in general).

In terms of ambition of all colours, just hold any you have in your peripheral vision. Oblique strategies are the way forward (there’s those great cards of course, and also a less poetic, but still fun book called ‘Obliquity’).

6/ Everything feeds everything else.

I learned this when I was a student. Follow your interests outside work and you’ll soon find they feed into your work. You are a whole person, not divided into work and leisure elements. I like painting, gardening, running. Now I have a book contract for writing about ‘Performance and Gardens’. This is not a coincidence.

7/ Know your work rhythms

I get more done in the first hours of the day than in all the rest. Prioritise the times when you are energised for work that requires the most thoughtfulness.

8/ Have a support network

A few of us have been meeting for years. We say what research we’ve done since the last time and make a list of what we’ll do next. We support each other in the failures and successes, and we become more realistic about what we can take on. Plus we have pages and pages which list all the work we’ve done since we started this. Once a year we make a plan for the year and for five years. We have the occasional research break (well, we did this once). Do this with close friends and don’t make the group too big.

9/ Yesterbox

This is genius, but I can’t actually do it. You are supposed to collapse today’s inbox and only deal with yesterday’s. That way, it’s finite. Also a lot of problems disappear overnight, or at least the endless discussion has been had. Only I can’t resist looking.

10/ Be organised.

Oh hahahahaha. I can’t do this one either. I double book myself all the time, and also forget and lose things. But it would be better if I didn’t. In the ways in which I am organised, it is a good thing. This mainly comprises presenting things quite clearly and rationally, because otherwise I can’t hold them in my head anyway.

11/ Have a wife. I don’t. Nor is it likely. But in a purely practical sense, and assuming rather old-fashioned roles, I must say it would be brilliant.

12/ Play.

I just wasted some time writing this, but it was fun.