It’s been a while since I last wrote but that’s not to say that I’m falling short of experiences to share. Rather, I’ve either had relaxing weekends void of any thoughtful process or just always procrastinated from writing here. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
This week, I’d like to talk about listening to the inner work efficiency voice ( IWEV). That’s the inner voice that gauges how suitable my state of mind is to work effectively at a certain task. There probably is a more endearing way to name this inner voice but right now IWEV is the best I can do.
My close colleagues at my research group often make fun of me for taking what they coined ‘Ruth Days’, on which I’d either leave the office at an early time or entirely not show up. Sometimes I do get annoyed at this joke that suggests I’m a lazy person, but I’ve come to accept two things. My reaction to being called lazy is dependent on whether or not I actually believe there is truth in the joke. If my results in the lab are poor, then I question my work ethic. If my results are promising, I’m a little less sensitive to these remarks. The other thing that I’ve realized is that the fun-poking might actually be a manifestation of their own stresses. Some people need to point out faults in others to make themselves feel superior, which eases their own judgement on themselves. So I am not ashamed of my Ruth Days because although I still think I can work harder sometimes, I am not lazy. Instead, I am self-aware enough to realize when my productivity level is not high, thereby signalling that I need a break or change in environment. That is where the IWEV comes into play.
For days on which I’m not feeling physically well, I usually do not push myself to go to the office. This does sound like common sense, but there are definitely examples cases of presenteeism out there, whereby people have an urge to show up at the office, regardless of their capacity to be productive there. I’m not like that and would much prefer a Ruth Day to stay at home, where I can at least do some work whilst comfortably sitting in my robes on the couch, sipping some hot tea and taking a mid-afternoon nap to recover.
A poor mental state also justifies taking a Ruth Day. For me to fully engage with my research task, be it experimental work or reading and writing academic pieces, my mind has to be clear. If it is muddled, I cannot satisfactorily complete my task. Sometimes I’d find myself reading an article but nothing is being absorbed. My brain is not focused on processing the information and making links with things I already know. Instead, I find myself in an autonomous reading state, where my eyes continue in their movements to skim the page but there is no actual engagement by my brain. To the outsider, I look busy accomplishing my academic goals but really I am just boondoggling, which by dictionary definition is ‘to do work of little or no practical value merely to keep or look busy’. Of course, I never boondoggle intentionally. I see this as lying to myself.
This is where the IWEV comes in and I assess my ability to focus on my work. If I cannot foresee my concentration improving within a time and there is no immediate activity that needs my attention at the office, I make the decision to return home. This change of environment will be reinvigorating for me and allows me to recharge my body and brain.
So taking a Ruth Day is not synonymous with laziness but rather a statement of self-awareness. It is also not just an excuse to leave the office. I think the use of time directly affects our sense of productivity. I can never get away with fooling myself into thinking I am being busy . This would make me sigh and feel guilty about wasting my day. Rather, I’d much prefer to recognize low productivity and act to return myself to a state of high productivity. Taking personal time and resting are my ways of healing. They are certainly not the only ways.
I think my point here is not to value being present as a success whilst belittling your own emotional, mental or physical state that says to take a break from the office. It is okay. I guess for the PhD life, this is likely more possible than other jobs that have set office times. But even if this is the case, I’d always be in favour of listening to the IWEV. Am I actually getting meaningful work done here? The answer is no? Get up, stretch, take a walk, have some tea, laugh a little.
Academics are not machines. In the competitive environment, laziness is not valued. But superficial productivity is not valuable to anyone, especially yourself. Taking a break to rejuvenate is undoubtedly beneficial and nothing to be embarrassed about.
Having said this, I think it’s also worth looking into techniques that improve focus when taking a break to go home is not much of an option. But to conclude, stay self-aware of your inner work efficiency voice and react to it. Be metacognitive. 🙂