On Having Non-Work Time

I’m a believer in making sure you have non-work time. You really need a good range of activities to keep your mind and body fresh. Even if you love work, and what you do for money is never “work”. Or even if you love your PhD and it is never “difficult”. Diverse interests will make you more resistant to setbacks.

Think of it this way, if your life = PhD/Work what happens if you have a bad day at work?

That means your entire life = bad! Whereas, if you have other interests, a bad day at work means you had a bad day at work. You can still pick up an instrument, a brush, a pot, a pan, a ball, or a pen and do something else. Distract yourself or move onto something else. Sure, you’ll probably still reflect on the “bad” aspect of work that day, but it won’t be your life.

I’m also a believer in doing what works. So, that means understanding when and where you have time to do stuff. If the weekend is always full of work stuff, maybe you need to clear some days or hours midweek for your breaks? If you cannot get into your work in a 20 minute gap, think about other work activities. Or, at the very least think of it as an experiment – “What happens if…?” Your role is to be the researcher. You are not interested in predicting the outcome. You are interested in conducting the experiment. 

True experiments start with a null hypothesis. In the case of getting work done it might be “research must be done work on the weekend” or “research work cannot be done in 20 minutes” or “this needs to be done before Monday”. And, thus, you need to set about trying to disprove the null hypothesis. Under what conditions can weekend work be avoided? Under what conditions can research work be completed in 20 minutes? Under what conditions is it okay to do the work on or after Monday? 

Now, if you find yourself immediately arguing for the null hypothesis, then you are not playing the game. Put those thoughts aside. Challenge all aspects of what it means to “work” or to “research” or the deadlines you set yourself. 

For example, have you ever tried not working on the weekend? Just not. The answer is no. No way. No work. That’s the rule. Give it a few weekends. See how you go. Start with this weekend. Do it throughout the next month. See what happens.


Another example. What is research work? Can you read a paper? Can you take notes on a paper? Can you write ideas, a blog? Can you start a figure? What are your expectations about work in that 20 minutes? Challenge the expectations. If you start reading a paper/article, do you have to finish reading that paper/article in the same sitting? Why? Do you read a book in one sitting? Why is a journal article any different? Have you even written a research paper in one sitting? Why do you need to get a certain amount done in that time? Why can’t you just work for 20 minutes and be content that you did? Having a go (consistently) for 20 minutes will train you and your body on how to get your head into the research space for those 20 minutes. Like riding a bike. Or cooking. Or lifting weights. Practice makes you better. 

The example of getting it done by Monday. Does it need to be done before Monday? Really? Is someone waiting for it on Monday? Will the world stop if you don’t get it done by Monday? Okay, it does need to be done by Monday => what time Monday? Can you ask for an extension? Can you shift other deadlines or work? Can you change meetings? 

So, start challenging your expectations of work. 

And more importantly, start creating space for non-work time. 

You’ll thank yourself for it.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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