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Arguing for the 40-Hour Work Week by Ginny Catania

Dr. Ginny Catania is a professor at the University of Texas, Austin. She is a glaciologist with her research focusing on what makes large ice sheets move and how that motion varies in time and space. She graduated from the University of Washington with her PhD in Geophysics in 2004. She previously earned her MS degree in Geology from the University of Minnesota and BSc in Geography from the University of Western Ontario.

Q & A with the Author:

After completing your degree, how did you make the decision to pursue this career path?

To be honest, I gave myself 5 years after my PhD to figure out if I could do it and wanted to do it. I thought it was nice to have an easy out at some distant point in the future – because it delayed the stress of having to think about long-term career/life issues on a day-to-day basis. That year came and went and I really never looked back. In part, I felt really well-supported by my home institution and that helped a lot. But, I was also just having a lot of fun with the work I was doing, so it made sense to simply continue.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your current position?

I really enjoy enabling others to be the best scientists that they can be. It is, by far, the most rewarding aspect of the job.

What challenges, if any, do you face with maintaining a healthy work/life balance?

My challenges are mostly internal. I worry that I am not doing enough either at work or at home all of the time. Finding that healthy balance is a life-long challenge. I also feel financially strapped at times. I have a special needs child, and so my costs now are just as high as when my kids were in day care. I am frustrated that many universities have the funds to fly visitors out for seminar series but will not reimburse for child-care expenses incurred as part of that travel. Same for travel to meetings using federal funds. My goal is to create a fund here in my home department that can be used to cover these kinds of costs for parents.

What challenges did/do you face in starting a family while pursuing your career?

Again – most of my challenges were internal. I wasn’t sure I wanted kids and so delayed that decision for a long time. I’m glad that I had them and I would argue that they have

helped my career at times because they put a hard-stop on my day that gives me renewed perspective. Adjusting to the new time-management challenges (and sleep deprivation) were probably some of the hardest times.

What would you say to other early career women to encourage them to pursue this path?

I have long felt that I have only done what I simply wanted to do. I wanted to travel to Antarctica and run field camps in the middle of the ice sheet. It was exhilarating. That it was unusual for a woman to do so hardly crossed my mind. So, do what you want to do and focus on yourself – less on what others are thinking about you. Also, the best advice I ever got was to “put my head down and do good work”. This is really, really true. More encouraging news I think is that the academic career path is an incredibly flexible one. Not only can you adjust what you work on on a day-to-day or yearly basis, but the hours are also very flexible.

What skills did you develop in school, or early in your career, that have been important in succeeding at work? What do you wish you someone had told you?

What skills were important: continuum mechanics, networking, speaking, how to solder, collaboration skills.

What I wish I had learned sooner: How to admit when I didn’t know something, conflict resolution, writing well and often (still need help with that one), the subtle art of not giving a *bleep*, who I was as a scientist.

Arguing for the 40-Hour Work Week by Ginny Catania

Photo by Dafne Cholet, CC BY-2.0 license.

At the University of Texas I teach a graduate-level course called Preparing Future Faculty for geoscience students that is loosely based on a workshop of the same title offered through Earth Educators Rendezvous. Because I use an entire semester to cover the material, I have expanded to include topics related to managing a group, networking, and time management. This is to say that, I am an armchair expert on these topics and enjoy reading about the fantastic ways that we can life-hack our way to perfection!

Let’s face it – academic life is demanding on your schedule. The work never gets done and the more senior you get, the greater number of different directions you get pulled in. Add having a family (and a life) outside all of that and it makes sense that a lot of people choose not to stay. In addition, busy-ness has become a status symbol in American

culture that implicitly tells others how valuable we are. But, it turns out that we are lying to ourselves! A recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that people who think they work slightly over 40 hours per week, actually work closer to 35. And people who think they work over 60 hours a week are typically exaggerating this by 10 or more hours! So, if you think you’re working a lot, you may be, but not as much as you think you are.

In addition, if you’re working more than 40 hours per week you may just be wasting your time. During the Industrial Revolution, factories pushed their workers to produce more by logging additional hours, but they found that once workers began to exceed about 48 hours per week, productivity leveled out. And it did not matter if you spread those hours over more days than our typical 5-day work week. More recently, research shows that when workers were pushed to 60-70 hours of work per week for a few weeks they were able to see short-term productivity gains in order to meet a deadline, but those gains were quickly lost in the following weeks when workers recovered after the deadline had passed. In fact, productivity over the entire period covering overtime and recovery was the same as if workers had maintained a simple 40-hr work week. Further, if you’re a knowledge worker (e.g. someone who needs an active and creative brain to excel), it actually pays to work even less than 40 hours because mental work is more fatiguing. For you, just 6 hours of work per day on mentally challenging activities is an upper limit in order to give your brain a break.

So, given that 40 hours puts a limit on how much you can effectively accomplish each week, how are you supposed to get enough done while at work? Here are my top three recommendations:

Get over yourself. I spent a few weeks using a time tracking app on my phone during a ‘typical semester’ and found that I work about 45 hours a week. Not only did this exercise allow me to understand where I spend (and waste) time, but it also made me realize that I was working enough. To be sure, I don’t get everything done during the workday that I would like, but I’m ok with that. Things are never really done. But I have accepted that uneasy feeling of an unfinished to-do list as part of my life. Any parent will tell you that having kids will quickly help you to get over yourself because your needs and desires are always trumped by theirs. By 6pm I need to get home to them no matter what has happened during the day. This has forced me to maximize the efficient use of my time during the workday. This does NOT mean you have to have kids to become more efficient! Instead, prioritize the other activities that fill up your life outside of work and commit to leaving work in order to get to those things. You have 168 hours to spend weekly. If work takes up 40 hours and sleep takes another 56, you are still left with 72 unscheduled hours where you are awake and not working. That’s nearly twice as many hours as you spend at work. What are you going to do with all of that time?

Take a proactive role in managing your time in your calendar. I have a lot of meetings that are scheduled ahead of time. When I get an email asking for something from me (like a paper to review), right then I will allocate an appropriate amount of time in my calendar to complete that task on a date a few days before it’s due. As a result, the task appears on my calendar just like a meeting and my calendar eventually fills with all of the meetings and tasks that I need to accomplish. On Friday afternoon I spend 30 minutes scheduling my “free” time around all of these deadlines and meetings. If I’m working on a few projects I’ll estimate how much time I’d like to devote to each one and fill up my day with these tasks. In doing this I am aligning my time with my priorities and not allowing myself to get waylaid by distraction, like email. I find on weeks when I forget

to schedule my time that I feel more frazzled - as if I am constantly playing a game of ‘catch up’.

Outsource as much as possible. I have the privilege of making a decent salary that affords me the ability to outsource a lot of the things that I don’t like to do. I have a housecleaner to handle the deep cleaning around my house, a guy to mow my lawn, and a cadre of sitters who not only watch my kids, but do my laundry, prep meals ahead of time, and run errands. I also make use of delivery services (for groceries, meals, shopping) to reduce my time spent doing things that I don’t enjoy. This may not work for everyone, but recent research suggests that people who spend money to save time report overall more life satisfaction. So, find the job you like the least and figure out how you can afford to not do it. You will be happier, I promise.



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