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My current postdoc position requires that I work 41 hours per week during a 5-day work week. As my first post-graduate position, I decided to take this seriously and actually track my hours. (People at labs have to do this anyway, so I figured it could be a helpful habit.) I found that except for the weeks where I definitively over work, I often can't meet 41 full, productive hours. Accounting rigorously for breaks, I often fall short by a couple hours, and even then, I know that some hours I log as working, I'm usually struggling to focus. Most weeks I feel guilty and make up for the hours by staying late or working over the weekend, which is of course undesirable.

So I wonder: is anyone actually productive all hours of their work week? Is there any research on how to optimize one's mental energy during the work week?

Please refrain from answers like, "You're being too hard on yourself." I'm a freshly minted PhD, of course I'm being too hard on myself.

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    There's a great Q&A related to this over at Psychology.SE: What is the most effective maximum work duration per day? – Anyon May 5 at 20:59
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    When you wake up in the middle of the night with a good idea do you count your hours sleeping as ‘productive’? Does anyone actually be ‘productive’ every moment of their 40 hour week? – Jon Custer May 5 at 21:06
  • work != "productive" – Noah Snyder May 5 at 21:09
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    Shortly after I got married, my wife asked me to track how much time I worked in a week. I did so, accounting as well as I could for activities like thinking while showering. The result was 55 hours in that week. I have not repeated the experiment, so all I can give you is that one data point. – Andreas Blass May 5 at 22:22
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Full time is a misleading term. Postdocs, I suppose, normally have supervisors who set the conditions for work. Something like what you've experienced. You meet those expectations or you have problems. So yes, such people normally work full time by the supervisor's definition of it. It may include scheduled hours or not. Lab work often needs to be scheduled, but some lab work needs to go on day and night.

Professors, on the other hand, especially tenured professors, normally don't have supervisors in the same sense. They set their own conditions of work. They set a schedule and keep to it sufficiently well that they can be productive. But the schedule might be erratic.

I've known professors who are able to take off a couple of hours in the middle of the day to take a bike ride. But they may also work after supper or on week ends. I doubt that many of them keep a listing of total hours worked. I never did.

In fact, intellectual work is better driven by ideas than by a clock. If I'm building something important, the clock may completely abandon me and I'll work until I am exhausted or the idea flow stops. If I don't have any interesting ideas, then sitting at a desk or computer has no value whatever. I'm better off going off on a walk or something relaxing. That doesn't mean that my brain shuts off. I just stop trying to force it to work when it won't.

Time is a terrible measure of productivity for intellectual work. There is no assembly line for good research ideas, though proving it out can be a bit more methodical, even tedious. But that's why post docs work a fixed schedule.

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    “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” (attributed to Faulkner) – henning May 6 at 13:30
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    @henning and everyone, when I was an undergrad my (marvelous) writing teacher said that many writers had the regimen that they would write until they had advanced their current project by one page. Not that they only wrote one page, but that the "accepted" partial manuscript was one page longer. This produces a short story every 18 days or a novel every year. Of course, writing such things isn't linear, so the implication is that a lot of effort is needed to achieve this. – Buffy May 6 at 13:34

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