A Sustainable Pace Gets You to the Finish Line
One of the first things I tend to discuss with new members upon welcoming them to my research group is a brief plan for their first weeks. I always tell them variations of the following sentence:
Your goal in the first few weeks is to figure out what constitutes a sustainable way of working for you. If you ever find that your work imposes an unsustainable pace for you, I want you to tell me, so that we can figure out how to get you back on track. Place your long-term well-being first.
I am using deliberately vague language here—what is sustainable for one person might be hell for another. It is important that every person finds their own sustainable way and pace; for some, this might involve longer breaks during the day, for others, this might involve a very structured ‘9-to-5’ deal. Everyone is different, and I want to encourage some introspection here.
I was recently shocked to hear about several cases of burnout amidst my colleagues and friends, so I decided to make my musings on the topic of a sustainable pace public. The origin of my advice from above is that I saw a lot of unhealthy behaviour during my Ph.D.:1 for instance, I had colleagues that would regularly pull all-nighters to finish something in frenzied haste, just to be unable to work productively2 for a period of time afterwards. On average, I figured they put in as much time as all the others, but it was not doing them any good, both mentally and physically.
Now contrast this with a freshly-minted postdoc who who was roaming the floors.3 Always in a mood for a chat, their coffee cup in their hand, they were the definition of serenity to me. I once overheard professors joke about that person by stating that they ‘obviously must not be busy if they could walk around like this.’ I swallowed a barbed remark that was almost forcing itself out—let no one say that I do not have a modicum of self-preservation and diplomacy in me at times—and pondered the situation.
It then occurred to me that such remarks are just indicative of a stupid culture that rewards bragging about the hours one (pretends to) put in instead of the actual quality of the work that was delivered. If that person got their work done and could spare some time to walk around to brighten the day of others with intriguing conversation, what’s the big deal?
The running metaphor
As always, it took me some time to distil and synthesise these insights: years later, when I was already well into my ‘running is awesome’ phase, I overheard people that quit a race early because they had started out too fast. Since they had overexerted themselves early on, they did not have any breath left to finish. Finally, it clicked, and I had found a good metaphor: they quit early because they did not run at a sustainable pace.
A bogus culture of overwork
Now, I do not want to stretch this metaphor too thinly here, but I feel that finding one’s own sustainable pace is what it’s all about in life, academia, and all that jazz. Again, I am deliberately avoiding any discussion of ‘hours worked,’ etc., mostly because I believe that such discussions are largely bogus: they do not focus on the quality of the work delivered within that time but only about the time spent doing some work instead. Most of the time, in my experience, the people that brag about working long hours fill them with busywork of questionable value.4
Most of us have needs that cannot be satisfied by work, science, or papers alone. While I am the first one to acknowledge how much meaning I derive from my wild wanderings into the wonderful world of machine learning, I also derive a lot of meaning—another type of meaning, perhaps—by standing in a forest. YMMV. Just find out what works for you, what sparks joy in you, and what permits you to recharge. Be honest to yourself here, for it is the only way forward.
Do not read this post as advocating for laziness or not taking your work or your calling seriously. On the contrary: I want my students (and of course everyone else to boot) to ensure that they can do good work tomorrow by potentially taking a break today.
Science does not progress one burnout at a time, and you are not helping anyone by destroying yourself in an attempt to shine.
I hope you finish your personal race smiling, until next time!
Admittedly, sometimes I was the one doing the unhealthy behaviour, but in my defence, I did not have an older me that told me that I should look for sustainability. ↩︎
I do not want to get tangled up in precise definitions of academic productivity here; suffice it to say that not a lot of things got done during that time: no reading papers, no discussing their work, no writing. Just—by their own admission—slacking off a lot. ↩︎
This is not one of those stories where the person is actually the author in disguise. I hope I became that serene postdoc later on, but only time will tell. ↩︎
Or they become massive perfectionists, thus stifling their progress and creativity. If you have even more hours to finish a task, you may run the risk of obsessing about it until you are fully fatigued and cannot get anything done any more. ↩︎