Cloud, who blogs at Wandering Scientist, has a new eBook Taming the Work Week: Work Smarter Not Longer, published under the name M. R. Nelson. (Full disclosure: she asked if I would be willing to write a review and provided me with a draft pdf.) Cloud draws on her experiences as a contractor and a manager at a biotech company, and some of the themes she discusses in the book have been touched upon in her blog writing, but the book offers much more and is very focused.
There are many things I like about Cloud's blog, and two in particular are pertinent to the book. First, Cloud's writing is fluid and clean, without excessive verbiage. The book is written in the same manner and is very easy to read. The second aspect that I have always admired about her posts is that she comes across as someone with strong convictions, but appears neither judgmental nor condescending; more than anything, she comes across as very thoughtful. This is a book where I imagine many authors would preach from a high horse to us disorganized masses. Cloud does not do that; she offers examples of what did and didn't work for her, and gives some suggestions as to how one may proceed, but ultimately she leaves it up to you and wins you over with a strong, clear conviction that yes, we all have work limits, and no, we should not feel guilty about aspiring to have work-life balance.
Cloud argues that the culture of bragging about how long we work is completely insane (this attitude permeates academia too, as I can vouch). She posits that everyone has a work limit, which for most people is somewhere around 45 hours per week, during which one can work at peak productivity, and supports it with research data. One can occasionally push oneself past the personal work limit, but not by much and not for a very long time, because then productivity actually suffers as mistakes accumulate. The workaholic culture we live in is counterproductive and, as an experienced manager, she emphasizes that good management entails making sure no one has to work past their work limit, or at least not very often. She offers five steps to reduce your work hours without destroying your career. Step 1: Figure Out Where Your Hours Are Going (time tracking), Step 2: Know Your Work Style (more about it below), Step 3: Get More Efficient (make lists, prioritize, partition large tasks into manageable steps), Step 4: Get Even More Efficient (reduce busy work, utilize small pockets of time, pace yourself to avoid pre-deadline panic), and Step 5: Don’t Undermine Yourself (don't feel guilty, set boundaries to after-hours work). Trust me, the list of topics does not do full justice to the content, as it is full of awesome, concrete suggestions. For instance, she really does a good job of advocating for making lists and employing project management techniques such as kanban; the organization tips will be useful to industrial employees and academics alike.
I have to say that my favorite step is Step 2: Know Your Work Style. It was a complete surprise as, instead of offering advice, Cloud simply says (I am paraphrasing) "You will have to figure this one on your own, and here are four things that people often suggest but that totally do NOT work for me". Of those, three don't work for me either, and the one that works only does so because I am an academic.
* Scheduling uninterrupted time on my calendar. I can do this one; for several years now I have had one day a week where I don't exist at all, I don't schedule anything, no matter what. I used to not come into work on that day, but now I do and still nobody bothers me because they don't expect me to be available.
*Turning off my email. I have research students, students in my classes, colleagues who need stuff, program officers from agencies that give me money... I have to be accessible.
*Just leaving work when I’m not feeling productive. This is a big one, and I would replace productive with creative. Being in academia, I could in principle leave whenever I want to, but the work has to be done sooner or later and I never have a surplus of time, so all the time I do have is precious. Usually there is a lot of busy work, so I can feel useful and productive even when I don't feel creative. I can file trip receipts or grade homework or reformat figures or work on a presentation. Sometimes, just doing stuff gets the creative juices flowing. I have recently set up an email folder called "BS Work"; the light profanity cheers me up every time I access the folder, I think it has had a net positive effect on my productivity.
* Putting hard limits between work and home. I can't do that either, but I am getting better at separating them somewhat. I have been trying to save work that doesn't require brain power for nights after the kids are asleep.
Finally, Cloud addresses the question that I have been itching to ask all the way through the book -- sure, you may want to work fewer hours, but what if your hands are tied? What if reduced hours make you seem like a slacker, how do you survive in the culture that expects physical presence and long hours at the office? Cloud offers some excellent, practical suggestions (sorry, no spoilers!).
Having worked long hours in the past couple of weeks on account of a deadline, I have witnessed first hand how long my colleagues work -- not nearly as long as they all boast, at least not in the office. So, next time when someone asks about how much I work or talks about their own very long hours, I will simply lie. In academia, we have very concrete productivity markers -- publications, grants, invited talks, awards. Productivity speaks for itself, everything else is smoke and mirrors.
Overall, Cloud's book is a really quick and enjoyable read, written without pretense by someone who is very productive in a fast-paced, volatile industry, while working very sane hours and achieving a satisfying work-life balance. Highly recommended.