Two Years Of Time Logs as a Postdoc. and Assistant Prof.

In 2020, I deferred a tenure track job one year to start a postdoc. By Fall 2021, I had started the tenure track position (restructuring the postdoc as an external grant). In this post, I will report my time-logging data for all of 2020 and 2021, which includes my final 7 months of graduate school, about a year as a postdoc, and then a semester as an assistant professor (slash postdoc). I will also discuss how more remote work, less daylight, and a longer commute might have impacted my schedule and well-being (mostly for the worse).

2020 Time logs

In 2020, I averaged about 43.8 hours per week over all 52 weeks of the year. This is a slight improvement from the 47 hours per week I worked in 2019 when I was entering the job market and finishing up my Ph.D.—and a hell of a lot better than my first few years of graduate school which I let myself try to work every day of the week (only to realize that I could be as productive or even more productive by taking a break on nights and weekends).

Figure 1. A summary of work hours logged in 2020

The two largest components of my work time were research (e.g., discovering new research related to my own) and publishing (e.g., collecting new data, writing, submitting, and revising papers)—28% and 24% respectively. However, the third biggest component of my work time (14%) was bureaucracy (e.g., institutional review boards, mandatory trainings, funding paperwork, onboarding, etc.). Spoiler, the bureaucracy did not let up in 2021.

2021 Time logs

In 2021, my average number of hours worked per week was about the same as the prior year: 43.8 hours per week (again, including all 52 weeks of the year). I am glad to see that this did not increase. However, 2021 has felt like the worst year of my working life so far. Why? Well it turns out that analyzing only the number of hours worked leaves out some important details (e.g., what I am able to do when I am not working).

Figure 2. A summary of work hours logged in 2021

Working From Home

I actually enjoy working from home. I can get more work done in less time because I do not need to commute.

However, working from home may only be so beneficial when the home is a work-friendly environment, which is not always possible. Also, not being able to get away from home as much (for the same public health reasons that prompted remote work) may remove opportunities to recover from working. Worse, working from home can strengthen our association between work and home, making it difficult to avoid thoughts and feelings about work while trying to unwind at home during non-working hours. So working from home can easily involve as many psychological costs as benefits. Of course, exercise is one of the best medicines for this and many other forms of ill-being.

Exercise, Daylight, and Momentum

While I continue my daily habit of exercising outside for at least at least 30 minutes per day, I have found myself less able to abstain from working nights and weekends in 2021. I think the problem is (partly) that the sun goes down earlier in the Northern part of the US than in the Southern US (where I lived in prior years). So in order to exercise outside before the sun goes down (and drivers are less able to see me), I sometimes have to exercise in the middle of the day rather than the end (e..g, during late Fall, Winter, and early Spring). This not only means that I end up working later into the evening, it also means that I lose my momentum (from the mid-day task switching), making the hours that I do work a little less productive. In other words, decreases in daylight result in having to work longer to get the same amount of work done.

Prior to the pandemic, my ideal was to work (uninterrupted) about 8-9 hours in the office, and then exercise at the campus gym or else jog around campus before heading home. That uninterrupted deep work followed by exercise may have helped me maintain momentum all day, begin decompressing immediately afterward, and then arrive at home with the psychological energy and time to unwind before trying to fall asleep. These days I am often working until just an hour or two before bed, eating dinner, and then struggling to unwind enough to fall asleep on time.

Commuting In the NYC Metro Area

We’re all aware of how passive commuting via car, bus, or train detracts from our well-being compared to active commuting by foot, bike, etc. (e.g., Adam et al., 2018). So I have always prioritized living within two walkable miles of my workplace.

However, in 2021 I had to move to the New York City metro area where my family cannot afford to live within walking or biking distance of my office. This has added at least 5-10 hours a week of (mostly passive) commuting to my work week (with a maximum of just 20 minutes per commute to sit down and work). This means that even if I work for the same number of hours each day, work has to start earlier and end later (due to extended interruptions for commuting).

Summing Up

So, while my average weekly hours worked has steadily improved since grad. school, other factors could be making work feel worse: working from home is not necessarily beneficial, a longer commute can take time away from recovering from work, and outdoor exercise doesn’t help as much when daylight is short. So until I can afford to live closer to campus, to make the home more work-friendly, and/or find a job in a more affordable location, I may be less satisfied with work than I was when I was a grad. student—something to think about for grad. students on the job market.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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