Flexible Schedules vs. the 8-5

Many graduate students can find themselves in for a rude awakening when it comes to working full-time due to the work schedule. As busy as you are in grad school, you have a lot of freedom and flexibility when it comes to how you spend your day.  In and of itself, this can be a lot of the appeal of the grad school lifestyle. Even when you have a 9 am class after pulling an all-nighter, you can find time for an afternoon nap. Or if you’re exhausted, you can hit snooze and postpone your workout until, say 2 pm, in the middle of a workday.

But when you land a staff job, at least at my university, the expectation is that you work 8-5. That can be a culture shock. And even though we all know that the 8-5 is antiquated, that’s still the expectation.

It can be hard to understand why an arbitrary 5 day, 40-hour workweek policy is seen a key element of your commitment and productivity. Especially in a knowledge-based industry, like higher ed. Not to mention in an industry where academic scholars who have studied this conclude we need to stop equating number of hours worked to results. 

So why is 8-5 the norm? At its most basic, the thinking is that you’ll have an hour for lunch – which doesn’t count towards your work hours – and so you should expect to leave 9 hours after you start. But beyond just the bean counting of having you work 40 hours, there’s at least a couple other reasons the higher ed workday is still so inflexible.

Many functions are service-oriented. Our students, staff, and faculty expect those services to be available during the workday. Also, so much of our work requires cross-functional teams working together to produce results or solve problems. So all members of the various teams need some overlap in when they can come together. The bottom line is that while you’ll see articles every day telling us either the 8-5, 40 hour work week is a dinosaur, or that we could all be doing just fine with a 3 hour workday, remember that higher ed has never been an industry quick to adopt…well anything, nevermind workplace trends.

So while there are reasons that it works for our employers, there are equally important reasons the 8-5 needs to change. Most visibly: students and faculty do not operate on an 8-5. Classes take place well past 5 pm. Students who work their own 8-5 jobs and then go to class still need access to academic advising and all kinds of other campus services well past dark. Second, the unwavering 8-5 fails to take into account the different peaks and valleys of productivity among various individuals. Chaining a night owl to a desk from 8-11 or a morning person from 3-5 is a recipe for lower quality work. Third, it is unfriendly to work-life balance, which which makes it counterproductive to results. Imagine how much more measured a response a harried parent could give to an urgent 4 pm thorny request when they aren’t stressed about how to beat traffic to the kids’ school before the 5:30 close of after-school care. (But also as an industry that attracts really smart employees, some percentage of whom aimed for academic careers in part because they dreamed of the freedom of not working an 8-5 at a cubicle? I would think that higher ed would want to quickly adapt to successfully attract and retain really smart employees. But hey, I just work here :))

So while I’m waiting for it to change right alongside you, until it does, let’s assume you’re stuck in an 8-5. What do you do?

Well, I’ll start with what you should not do: work extra so you can do your best work. As academics, we hold ourselves to a high standard. We want to produce accurate, excellent, high-quality work. But in order to prioritize that end result, we often take on a bad habit of working longer hours, or furtively taking work home to tackle it when our brains finally click on at 10 pm or sneaking in on a Saturday so we can work undisturbed in a quiet environment conducive to getting stuff done. I myself am guilty of this. When I had to develop a huge all-new training curriculum, I snuck in at 6 am daily to be able to take advantage of my 5 hours of clearest deep thinking. And I get it, tacking on extra hours here and there can get you through short-term deadlines, but the danger is that you might start to establish a bad habit, one that is unsustainable long-term. Here are some ways to avoid that so you can make an inflexible work schedule work better for you.

Trim your to-do list

Look at your to-do list. Cross off at least 3 things. What can you get rid of, right now, to focus your 40 hours on the most important, highest-priority thing? And what can wait until that is done? Because by focusing in on getting that one thing done, you’ll get it done faster than dragging it out for weeks when it’s competing with loads of other things on your to-do list.

Start early

Once you have identified the biggest, most important thing that you want to do a great job at: start early. Yes, I know, it’s tempting to procrastinate, either because you’re afraid you already don’t have enough time or can’t do it or don’t have all the data or STOP IT. Just start on it. By starting on it now – anywhere – you will be able to break it down into more manageable chunks and rewards yourself for achieving milestones along the way.

Don’t go it alone

Talk over your pressing project with your manager and colleagues. They are there to help you troubleshoot, serve as a sounding board for your ideas, and suggest ways around obstacles. You don’t have to figure this out yourself. Maybe they have cool hacks that can help you get where you need faster.

Study how best you use your time

Figure out when you are most – and least – productive. Here’s one article that tells you how. For instance, I do my best deep thinking in the mornings and after about noon, my energy and mental capacity for deep thinking are done for the day.  But I’m still stuck at my desk. So then what?

Treat your most productive time like it is precious – because it is

I fiercely protect my mornings, as it is my best thinking time. I decline many meeting series that take place during my morning desk time. I do not open instant messenger during that time. I open my computer and do my work. Period. It’s not some top secret recipe. But what that does is treat this time like it is precious, because it is. Life happens. There are going to be the inevitable interruptions. Unexpected times you have to put your work aside to go get your sick kids or take your aging parent to a doctor’s appointment. But you don’t want to get behind on your most important stuff, so when you have that time, protect it and use it. Don’t fritter it away chatting socially over coffee or instant messaging because all that adds up (to less progress on your project!).

Plan (the rest of) your day’s work accordingly

For the afternoons, I reserve that for other tasks. Emails, phone calls, benchmarking research, networking, professional development articles, 1:1 meetings, and so on. The mechanistic activities that Cal Newport talks about here. I’m making forward progress on lower priority items on my to-do list even when it’s not my most brilliant thinking.

Try other tips

Lots of other folks are big fans of strictly limiting the amount of time you spend on any given task, working in 90 minute sprints, turning off notifications, batching tasks, and all manner of other strategies to help you get down to 40 hours a week and grow accustomed to working only during your 8-5 workday.  Try what feels right for you and do what works! 

Still not working for you?

If none of that is working for you, and the 8-5 just REALLY does not work for you, you need a transition strategy to find a job / role in a department that allows for more scheduling flexibility. Now you do not ask about this at your job interviews! But while you work your 8-5, here’s what you do.

Look for “Behind the Scenes” jobs

Academic advisors and library service roles really need to be available 8-5. But there are other departments and higher ed functions where there can be more flexibility. Accounts receivable, data analysis, research administration….there are areas of higher ed where the 8-5 is not necessarily a requirement. Remember that not all pastures are created equal. Ask around to find out which units (and managers!) look more favorably to alternative work schedules.

Gather information

Ask folks who work in those functions and departments. Ask folks you meet about exceptions to the 8-5 in their area. Gauge the temperature on your reading. Is it a resounding “Of course! Absolutely! I work 7-4 and so-and-so works four 10-hour days”? Or is it a hesitant, “Well….okay, so occasionally people ask and it’s generally frowned upon but I mean, nothing prohibits you from *asking* but it’s by no means approved…?” Proceed accordingly.

Once you identify departments and/or roles that seem like they could better fit your needs….start your job search!

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