Work at the times that work for you

A couple of nights ago, I checked the weather forecast for the next day, in part to see how cold it would be for my morning run. I was surprised to see that the forecast was for 3-6 inches of snow overnight. (I hadn’t realized a storm was coming!) I had no interest in trying to slog through a run in 3-6 inches of wet, unshoveled snow in the dark, so decided I would work when I first got up in the morning (in that wonderfully quiet time when I’m the only one in the house who is awake) and go to the gym at the end of my work day. And that’s what I did. I got up, made myself some tea, sat down to check twitter, and then started working, which included replying to some emails that had been hanging around in my inbox.

That was when I remembered a conversation I’d recently had about whether it’s okay to send work emails outside of “typical” work hours. This is a topic that comes up on twitter sometimes, too, as well as on facebook. The concern is that, if you’re sending emails early in the day or in the evening or on weekends: 1) you have an unhealthy work/life balance and/or 2) you are sending a message to others that they should be working at those times, too. I fully, completely support having interests outside of work, and think that working long hours is unhealthy and unproductive. But I don’t think the way to achieve healthy work habits is to be proscriptive about when people work, or to shame others for working outside the hours that we deem acceptable.

To explain more, I’ll come back to the example I started with. I don’t see why it would be okay for me to go for a run first thing in the morning and then to stay in my office working until 5PM, but not okay for me to work for an hour in the early morning, and then to spend 4-5PM at the gym.

And that’s just one example. There are all sorts of reasons why people might choose to do non-work things during “typical” work hours (which I’ll define as M-F, 9-5). Maybe someone wants to see a friend, but Wednesday at 10AM is the only time that works for both of them. Maybe someone takes an hour a week to see a therapist, and it takes 30 minutes to get to and from the appointment (meaning 2 hours out of their workday each week). Maybe they want to leave work early to help out with their daughter’s Girls on the Run group or Science Olympiad or whatever. Maybe the weather looks bad for the weekend so they’re going to go for a long bike ride on Friday morning instead. Maybe they just like that the grocery store is really quiet on a weekday morning and prefer that to the chaos of Saturday afternoon shopping. Or maybe they needed to bring their sheep to the butcher and 2PM on Monday was the best time for that.

I could go on, but hopefully my point is clear: there are a whole lot of non-work things that someone might reasonably choose to do during normal work hours, and it’s reasonable that they might want to squeeze in a bit more work time outside typical work hours to make up for this.

With folks working in my lab, it’s not uncommon for the topic of when and where they work to come up early in their time in the lab. This tends to come up pretty early on in conversations when new postdocs join the lab, and at some point a bit later with grad students (since classes and teaching are often dominant drivers of their work in their first year or two). But, in all cases, my feeling is that, if they are making progress (and our mentoring plans and weekly meetings mean that we discuss their progress regularly), it doesn’t matter to me when or where they work.

As for whether someone’s email habits indicate overwork: Yes, if someone always replies to emails within 5 minutes, that might indicate unhealthy work habits (or, at least, very inefficient ones). Similarly, if someone is sending emails at every hour of the day, that might also indicate overwork. But I know a lot of people who email outside typical hours because they did one or more of the examples I gave above during the work week.

So, I hope that when I send an email on the weekend, others aren’t taking that as a sign that I expect them to reply right away or think less of them because they aren’t emailing then. Instead, I am doing what works for me, and I trust that they will do what works for them. Work-life balance is hard, but it isn’t going to get easier if we are proscriptive about when others work or judge them for doing what works for them.

Jeremy adds:

This post was prompted by an email from me to Meg, so I figured I should pull my weight and add my two cents. 🙂

First, what Meg said. Like Meg, I believe very strongly that it’s important for each of us to pursue a healthy mix of work and non-work, that you should work in whatever way works best for you, and that you’re rarely in a position to judge anybody else’s work habits. That’s why I have a conversation with each of my grad students early on about the importance of having interests outside of work, and to make clear I don’t expect them to be in the lab all the time.

Regarding the specific example of sending work-related emails outside of normal working hours: like Meg, I too sometimes send work-related emails outside of normal working hours. That’s just me doing what works for me. Indeed, I’m going to try to start doing it more often, because I’m working on a book and so I’m trying to reserve large blocks of time during normal working hours to focus without distractions. I’m going to try to deal with most of my emails by grabbing bits of time outside of normal work hours, such as when I’m commuting home on the train at the end of the work day. Please don’t take this as a sign that I expect a reply immediately, or that I think you too should do work-related email outside of normal working hours, or that I think anyone who doesn’t work long hours is a slacker who doesn’t love their work enough. Because I don’t.

More broadly: it can be hard to find your own healthy mix of work and non-work, and conversely very easy to get anxious that you’re not working enough. So, how do you settle on a mix that works for you, and avoid anxiety that you’re not working enough or not working in The Right Way? I don’t have any easy answers, and probably no single answer will work for everyone. Here are some suggestions that might help:

  • Consciously seek out examples of how others mix work and non-work. Try out some of the ones that sound promising to you. The web and social media are something of a double-edged sword for this. On the one hand, they make it much easier for you to discover and follow the example of faraway people. And once you have an established network of people with whom you interact on social media, you can ask them for suggestions on ways of working. But on the other hand, blogs and social media have their own biases. It takes a bit of effort to avoid ending up in a “filter bubble” of people who act and think as you do already. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that “everyone” works, or should work, in the same way as the people you read online. Just to pick the most obvious example: hanging around online might give you the mistaken impression that blogging or tweeting is something that everyone does, or should do!
  • On the other hand, you might find that, for you, seeking out examples of how others work too easily shades into consciously comparing yourself to others. Which might make you anxious about whether you’re Doing It Right, or upset that others are Doing It Wrong. If so, maybe consciously avoid thinking about how others work. Just do what you do and try not to sweat it. Maybe even ease off on social media, if you find that it tends to make you anxious or upset about how or how much to work.
  • When following the example of others, keep in mind that somebody who does some things that would work for you may also do other things that wouldn’t work for you. You don’t have to follow the example of anyone else in every respect.
  • Don’t be unduly swayed by the most noticeable behavior of others. For instance, if you see a prof working late every night in your building, it’s easy to focus on that and start feeling anxious that you’re not doing the same. Forgetting that what you’re not seeing is all the profs who went home at 5, or who didn’t come in at all because they decided to work from home for a bit and then go for a bike ride or whatever.
  • Sort of following on from the previous point: the world is more diverse in its ways of working (and in pretty much every other way!) than you probably think. Try not to get anxious just because everyone you know does X but you don’t, or doesn’t do Y but you do (easier said than done sometimes, I know…). If what works for you is different than what works for everyone you know, well, that probably just means you happen not yet to have met any of the many people who work in the same way you do. For instance, when I started blogging, I only knew of a couple of other ecologists who blogged, and I didn’t know them well. And I had no clue how much time they allocated to blogging or how they decided what to blog about. I didn’t let that stop me. Instead I just tried out blogging, and adjusted as needed as I went along.
  • Seeing others as implicitly or unwittingly putting pressure on you sometimes is an unhealthy manifestation of other stresses in your life, or of you putting pressure on yourself. I’m speaking from personal experience here. Back when I was in high school, there were times when I thought that my folks were subtly putting pressure on me to get perfect grades. That perceived pressure upset me sometimes. Looking back, I realize that that perceived pressure was mostly just a manifestation of me putting pressure on myself. Putting pressure on myself made me very quick to see others as putting pressure on me too.
  • How to deal with a supervisor who tells you (or seems to be hinting to you) to work long hours, or to work in a way that wouldn’t work for you, is a tough one. I really sympathize if you find yourself in a lab where your supervisor has unreasonable expectations of you regarding work hours or work habits. Having never been in that situation myself, I can only imagine how much it would suck. Or maybe you’re just not sure what your supervisor expects of you in terms of working hours or work habits. One possible answer is sitting down with your supervisor and developing a mentoring plan, so that your mutual expectations of one another are explicit and mutually-agreed. And if that sort of plan hasn’t seemed necessary in the past, but now it does for whatever reason, well, consider meeting with your supervisor to set one up. Especially if you know that your work hours or habits are going to need to change for some reason, for instance because you or your partner is pregnant. Margaret Kosmala has some good advice on talking to your supervisor about needing to change your work hours or habits because you’re pregnant or your partner is, some of which applies more broadly.
  • Related: overcoming imposter syndrome, Meg on life as an anxious scientist, and life as an anxious grad student. Lots of good concrete advice in those links.

18 thoughts on “Work at the times that work for you

  1. Agree completely, Meg (and Jeremy). It’s great to promote work-life balance; but it’s a bad idea for me to pretend what a good work-life balance looks like for you (and vice versa). So as you say, don’t shame people who sometimes work at 5 a.m. or at 9 p.m. or on a weekend – they may be reaching their own balance, or even just indulging a passion.

    Now, since Jeremy can almost always drop a DE link in one of my posts (and keep doing so, Jeremy!): I made some related points about working on “vacation” here:

  2. Great post 🙂
    I like working in the lab, to the extent that I didn’t even install internet at home. The problem is that the university is sort of in the middle of nowhere (exactly between two cities), and it’s a 40 minutes to one-hour bus ride. The second problem is that there are few buses, and if I take the bus at the same time as most people there’s hardly any place to stand in it (sitting? Not even in my dreams). So I take an earlier bus, at 5:20 AM, and get to the lab at 6 AM. Most people would probably consider it non-regular working hours – but being able to sit in the bus seems like a good reason for getting to work a bit early!

  3. Yes agree, one of the things I tell my PhD students when they ask me about office hours, is that as far as I am concerned, I don’t really care how they partition their day/night, so long as a completed PhD arrives on schedule. It is definitely one of the major benefits of the academic life.

  4. One thing that advisors can do to help set up healthy work habit expectations is to talk about how they’re looking forward to doing non-work things. My advisor would often tell me about how he was looking forward to seeing his grandkids that evening — or going out to dinner with a friend. The point being that on a regular basis he was pointing out that he was leaving at 5pm and had a life outside of work and he was happy about it. It made me (as a new grad student without dependants) think about what I liked to do outside of grad school and how I wanted to fit those things into my life.

      • Hmm, my earlier comment appears not to have posted. I also agree with this, and try to do it both with my lab and on twitter.

      • Interesting point, Meg, about doing it on Twitter. I have kept my Twitter presence almost entirely science-y, because (I reasoned) I’m there for science, not because I think people care what I’m having for supper. (Perogies, thanks for asking). But I’ve been thinking lately that in doing so, maybe I’ve been undercutting one message I’ve tried to send in other ways: that scientists are just regular people like everybody else, and it’s important in many ways for everyone to understand that. (See here, for example: So I’ve been lightening up a bit, but I’m not sure where the optimum lies. Or whether I’m way, way overthinking it 🙂

    • I agree that this is a great approach. When I interviewed at what would become my PhD institution, my advisor said that he would need to leave before dinner so that he could attend his kid’s band concert. Also during my PhD years, during weekly lab meetings, he always began the meetings by asking member of our lab about how their hobbies were going (questions like: How was your cooking class; what did you make? How was your music concert last week? How is your significant other doing?). This communicated both an interest AND an expectation that we would be pursuing hobbies and passions outside of our work.

  5. I add my 2 cents.

    I think I was lucky that my very successful advisors encouraged me to go on vacation, work remotely if I wanted, have a flexible schedule apart from group meetings. As a PI I would do the same.

    From my perspective, it is interesting (although after having lived in the North America for years, I get it) that not working all the time, having a flexible schedule when it does not interfere with work or life of others, and having a life outside of work needs to be justified. It should be the natural, widely accepted way, as it is in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, it appears it is not.

  6. A note about “… if you see a prof working late every night in your building”: She quite possibly gets into the office at noon or takes a long break in the middle of the day.

    There are many reasons why some people prefer to work at night. (1) family members or collaborators in different time zones (2) enjoying the mid day sun (3) breaking up the day to improve efficiency (4) a quiet office or lab (5) not a morning person … plus many more

    For some reason people always seem to notice that I’m always around the office late, but don’t seem to notice that I’m not there early.

  7. The main problem is the idea of “time = productivity” is stuck in so many heads ( (One of my favourite articles on the blog).
    I guess most earlier career scientists are thinking that they can improve their working productivity (at least I do) and would be happy to work on that with their supervisor instead of getting told to work more. I think developing a productive working habit should be one of the main priorities as researcher and helping young researchers achieving this should be one of the main priorities of supervisors. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. I think a lot people could do the same work in focussed 40h they do in normal 60h.

  8. One way to ensure that your atypical work hours aren’t creating undue stress for your students/colleagues/staff is to include a signature line in e-mails sent during odd hours: “Note: I am sending this email at off hours because it is convenient for me; however, there is no urgency. Please feel free to read/respond when you would normally be working.”

  9. Great post. Agree completely. I am used to write during the night, or very early in the morning. I am much more creative and efficient, I get less distracted (less people around). At these hours I am a completely different person and can do a lot of work in less hours!! And I love morning light and sun, and taking time to have breakfast. When I respect my own schedule, I am better worker and happiest. Unfortunatelly there is a lot of prejudice around that.
    And I agree, is so usefull to write a note the emails when responding at odd hours advising that there is no urgency for answering.

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