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Guilt And Flexible Working Hours

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This may sound silly to some, but lately, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty. Guilty because I’ve not been a good lad and crunched those hours as well as I could have, according to the imposed numbers on my contract.

My current job allows for a very high degree of freedom. Anything that does not involve teaching—which is dictated by the academic calendar—is free for me to plan however I see fit. That does sound great, doesn’t it? It is! Or is it? Wait, is it? Now I’m confused.

My previous jobs as a software developer (consultant) allowed for very little freedom. Teamwork and pair programming involves being there at the agreed upon hour and working (at least) eight hours. Your lunch break is exactly half an hour. That’s thirty minutes, and not thirty-one. Peer pressure will make sure you won’t spent that extra minute sitting in the cafeteria. Perhaps a toilet break of 10 minutes with the smartphone is an escape, although I’d call being chained to your phone far from being free.

For 11 years, I’ve been doing exactly that. Needless to say, the work rhythm was/is pretty much burnt-in: it was usual to end your break at 13h: everybody did. When working on location for some clients, this was put even more to the extreme, with badging introduced. We were the external consultants and the client company wasn’t going to pay any extra minute of us loitering around. At the same time, their employees were waiting by the escalator every Friday at 15h55, badge at the ready. Five minutes later, a ritual mass-badging event took place (no occult candles burned though), and everyone hurried to catch their train home. Weird? Nobody there seemed to think so.

Now imagine making the switch from industry to academia. Suddenly, these things completely disappear:

  1. Colleagues; and therefore
  2. Peer pressure.
  3. An imposed rhythm; and therefore
  4. Expectations concerning the rhythm.

My current boss, my co-supervisor that co-teaches courses with me, has a lot on his mind and is used to this absence of structure: that way of working is exactly his burnt-in rhythm. He thankfully detests constantly checking up on me to make sure I’m still dutifully behind my desk typing away. Because that’s exactly what managers and the industry rhythm does to you. In case you don’t believe me, read Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber or check out some Dilbert comics.

I am not someone who likes doing nothing. I detest doing nothing. Especially during working hours. So I plod on. Wait, working hours? I don’t have any anymore! Well, technically, I still do, according to the contract, but the rhythm in academia compared to the one burnt-in is night and day. I think one of the reasons why I have so many papers published (and 2 books written within the same period) is me being used to the arguably higher work rhythm of industry.

Even though the expectations and the peer pressure is gone, it’s actually not: I’m peer-pressuring myself. And now we’re getting to the bottom of this: some days, like yesterday, I didn’t feel like doing anything. So I didn’t1. And after two hours, I felt really, really bad, because a little voice inside my head said I was supposed to do something. So I did. But the quality of the work was below what I’d call acceptable.

I discovered that I feel guilty if I don’t dutifully “do something productive” when “the clock is on”—while that clock was trashed when I made the jump to academia.

What makes this even more laughable? With my research, creativity in context of programming, I discovered that the industry clock is detrimental to spontaneous creativity. You need time off to tinker, think, play, walk, and do something entirely different. These moments allow for free thinking (or no thinking at all!) and inspiration to (1) appear and (2) get caught.

The Oliver Twins that created the famous Dizzy series on the ZX Spectrum, for example, regularly encountered roadblocks. When out of ideas, they deliberately took breaks by watching television shows, playing other games, experimenting in their sprite editor, and reading classic fables and tales. Count Duckula, Zork, Philosopher’s Quest, Jack And The Beanstalk, and Gauntlet all influenced various Dizzy games.

All these things are very hard to pull off with that manager eyeing on you or with ridiculous badge rules and a bureaucratic billing system—it just doesn’t allow for those moments of reflection. Can you imagine asking your boss if it would be okay to watch a few YouTube videos to get inspired to fix that urgent production issue? Right. In academia—and, I should add, in theory—sometimes you chase a lead with potential for a few weeks that turns out to be a dead end. You then shrug, retrace your steps, and try something else. In short: working hours don’t “work”.

And yet, here I am, feeling guilty if I take a moment of reflection or work less hours than prescribed.

The irony.

  1. I realize this might come across as arrogant: few people have wiggle room to even think about slowing down. But this happens to be the situation I’m in. Surely in academia most positions are loaded with (busy)work. As a PhD researcher, you’re thankfully not yet burdened with that crap. ↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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