Why Professors can’t relax (even if it will make us more productive)

This past weekend, as I was struggling to get some work done on a Sunday morning, I read Tony Schwartz’s opinion piece in the New York Times, titled “Relax! You’ll be more productive“.

I read it with curiosity and amusement.  I also discussed it with my wife, had a few discussions with people over twitter, and the more I thought about it, the more I decided it warranted a bit of a rant, and required placing Schwartz’s piece in the context of Academia.

Schwartz points out that “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously“, and we can be more productive (i.e., in the sense of doing work well) if we were able to find time to chill-out, relax, and maybe taking a nap would be a good idea.  This does make sense!  Being overtired can lead to mistakes, causes our the fuses to be short, and certainly can cause us to take longer at doing our jobs – even simple tasks can become difficult in the face of a life filled with too much of the ‘go go go’.    Why don’t Professors take mid-afternoon naps?  Heck, can’t tenured Professors relax and ‘do less’ whenever they want?

A nap?  Really?  BWAHAHAHA! This is priceless.  How abut a dose of reality.

I am a Professor, and this job is absolutely wonderful, but it does require (yes, REQUIRE) a busy schedule and a lot of time.   Time management is a big part of my job, and the days are full of teaching responsibilities, grant-writing, meetings with students, administrative responsibilities and writing manuscripts.  Contrary to what Forbes might lead you to believe, the life of an Academic is not stress-free and is not all tweed-jackets, and hobnobbing at the Faculty club.  A lot of the stress is positive stress, but there is stress, and finding time to relax during the workday is an impossibility given the current context of University.

I fully appreciate some of the ideas behind Schwartz’s piece: taking a mid-day stroll outside (like Darwin did each day!) , or a quick nap in the afternoon, would be good for me, and would probably help with productivity but the reality is that there is no time.  And I just can’t make the time appear.  It’s the ultimate limiting resource.  When I do have time that is freed up during the work day, it gets filled with tasks that are deemed important but not urgent.

How about the the #worklifebalance.  Many people with jobs also have families and commitments at home that compete with the resources of time and energy.

Is this familiar to you?

Time to get the kids to dance class and Music lessons.  Homework hell around the kitchen table?  Phew.  Dinner’s done. How about kitchen clean-up?  Who will fold the laundry?  ….finally, it’s time to fall exhausted on the couch at the end of the day.  Ahhhh sleep…glorious sleep.  6 AM!  Up we get, let’s get lunches ready!  Where’s that permission form?  The bus is coming, you’re late!  Shoot – I’m late too.  Gotta run… have a great day!

My wife pointed out that Schwartz’s argument really doesn’t apply to jobs in which it takes X amount of time to do a task, and if you are in a business that is dependent on consumers buying your product, if you sell Y more units of your product, it will take X x Y amount of time to get the product out the door.  There is not really a choice – you can’t relax and do less,  If you did less, you won’t have a sustainable business.  As some of the reader’s comments in Schwartz’s piece state: ‘relaxing’ is simply a luxury that most people can’t afford.

I like this quote from Schwartz’s piece: Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less

YES!  I do agree.  I buy into the ‘why‘ but I can’t see the ‘how‘: if less time is spent on one task, this frees up a bit of time, and it will get filled right away. (and never mind the fact that GUILT will come into play – I really would feel rather guilty if I shut my office door for a 20 minute shut-eye each afternoon…even if that chair is in the corner of my office is really, really comfortable).

A nice place for a nap.

A nice place for a nap.

Academic Institutions could be model systems for re-thinking the workplace and how to consider ways to help employees  find time to ‘relax’ on the job, and that will surely have many benefits.  This will, however, require a paradigm shift, and require a complete re-thinking of the ways the tenure-track system works, and the level of expectations put on Academics.  This could be a great discussion to have, and let’s have it.  But let’s not start this discussion with a goal that is untenable. I am quite sure that my colleagues would have a good chuckle if they were encouraged to ‘relax’ and have a little downtime during the workday.

Let’s start with some things that are a bit smaller and more realistic.

Let’s work our timetables so that lunch time can be free of classes; let’s find ways to encourage people to eat in a common area instead of in front of their computer.  Let’s make sure offices, labs and coffee machines are suitably arranged so that people move around, communicate, and find a bit of time to sit with colleagues and students over a cup of tea.  Let’s be sure that Chairs and Deans give tenure-track staff the right kind of mentorship so they can be productive on the right kind of tasks, and the flexibility and support so they can find the right balance between the various duties of academia.  Let’s recognize, up front, that negative stress, overwork, e-mail hell, and pressures on time are real problems that require real solutions.  If Academic institutions want to be places of higher learning, there must be support and a recognition that ‘down time’ to ponder, discuss and be curious is time well spent.

Well, with that, I’m going to go out for a walk – actually a run – a run to the lecture hall because I’m running late.


First, I sincerely hope this post does not come off as sounding like I’m whining or complaining. I’m not complaining – I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

Second, you might ask how I found time to write this blog post.  That is more difficult to address – sometimes the really fun things to do can be done quickly, and it seems relatively easy to find a few minutes to write something I am passionate about.  I also seem to get some very positive energy from this exercise.  Hmmm … maybe writing a blog post is my way to relax?


6 thoughts on “Why Professors can’t relax (even if it will make us more productive)

  1. I liked your post script on the possibility that blogging IS your relaxation. I see that you do what you enjoy with your life and love it enough to share it. Sharing was what got me, a non-professional dilettante, reading your blog and learning what I now know about your field. You don’t have to waste your afternoon saying OHHHMMM to be relaxed. You don’t have to relax at all if it doesn’t suit you.

  2. I know I’m part of a lucky minority with flex time, but nevertheless it took many years of steadfast refusal to give up my lunchtime bike ride before my colleagues eventually accepted that as part of “the package.” I’m gone an hour everyday, plus time to change, shower and change, and to make up for it I stay a little later than most. But I get everything done, make it home in time to have dinner with my kids, and then when they go to bed I step into the the “museum” and get even more done. Without my daily bike ride I would probably get fat and hate myself to death!

  3. My father, who cowboyed all his life, often said, “if you don’t use your head, you just make it hard on your ass.” I am a naturally lazy person, so I did a good bit of thinking about how to do things efficiently so I can have time to goof off. My drive, or bus ride, to the university was 11 miles. I used that time for planning or considering problems. Some of the solutions I came up with led to colleagues suggesting I should move closer to the University.

  4. Thanks everyone, for the comments. Clearly, ‘relax’ means different things to different people, and ‘down time’ is a very personal thing. Whether it is exercise, a nap, or time on a bus, the point is that being able to disconnect from the core tasks of the workday is quite important. I will strive to do better at this….

  5. Pingback: Slow Down | Arthropod Ecology

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