On not working


On December 23rd I started my Winter vacation. Yesterday, to my massive relief, I had a meeting. Between the two of those days I did no work at all.* It was, not to put too fine a point on things, awful.

I am not, generally, a practitioner of the sort of performative overworking to which academics are prone. I work more-or-less bankers hours—starting at 9am, taking a generous 1.5 hour lunch, and wrapping things up around 5pm. I don’t work weekends, or evenings. If it can’t be done in those hours, it doesn’t get done. No doubt some readers will say this is why I am not a Full Professor. Like any other white collar professional I sometimes put in a evening or weekend day of work, but by sometimes here I mean once or twice a year at most.

One reason for keeping of bankers hours, more or less, is that it sets a good example—for faculty, especially junior faculty, for graduate students, especially mine, and for the administrative staff who are certainly not paid enough to work more than their designated weekly hours.

This is also a good reason—my reason, in fact—for taking my winter vacation as a vacation, and not doing any work, despite having as most of us do, a goodly amount of work that I could be doing. 2020 has been a rough year all round, with what work-life boundaries members of my department have being eroded by the omnipresence of remote work in our homes and the (welcome) presence of our lives—our children, pets, spouses, and unused exercise machines—in our work. When I tell my staff and students to take the break off, that the work will be here when we get back, I need to mean it. To be seen to mean it, I also need to do it.

None of this is in any way original as an observation of course. As a practice, in academia, it is … rare.

So it is with some trepidation that I acknowledge how much I hate vacation. The first two days, akin to a weekend, are more than fine. But by Sunday evening each week I am desperately ready to get back to my work, which I generally find compelling, rewarding, stimulating. And I don’t just mean the writing. Teaching of course is always rewarding.** But most of my time is spent as an academic administrator—which means, more or less, that I solve problems for people, since most of the real administrative work is done by those actually competent to do it. Philosophy, at least as I practice it, is largely about conceptualizing problems in ways that allow them to be solved, so my administrative work is basically applied philosophy.

You, dear reader, may think that this shows I need more hobbies. More non-work activities to engage me. But here’s the thing—like many other folks with ADHD, my life, and home, is a graveyard of hobbies. I am great at starting things with huge enthusiasm. I am great at investing a lot of money and all the fixed attention that only hyperfocus can bring into a new activity. And I am great at abandoning it when my attention inevitably shifts to the next thing. I have some reliable hobbies—I read a lot of novels, and play video games, and board games (this harder under semi-quarantine with one 11 year old and one adult who does not like board games), and I am an intermittent knitter. But there is only so much of these things I can do before ADHD restlessness takes over.

One of the brilliant things about philosophy and academia is that it has sustained my attention for thirty years, something nothing else has ever done.

Don’t get me wrong—my ADHD certainly manifests in my academic work in the form of missed deadlines, presentations prepared on planes (remember planes?), years of piles of overdue grading, and a publication record that could kindly be described as eclectic in its scope, as well as thin, because when you constantly shift into new subdisciplines you spend a lot of time learning the lay of the land.

But, and here is the key, my work does not bore me. Much else does.

To finally, laboriously, get to the point, it is okay to like your work better than your recreation. It’s okay to find long vacations a trial. It’s okay to view travel as a welcome opportunity to work somewhere else. That is not a wrong way to orient yourself towards your work—as long, of course, as you don’t expect everyone else to do the same thing.

Indeed, that is a good general principle for life: It’s okay to Y, as long as you don’t expect everyone else to Y. I wouldn’t be a logician if I didn’t sneak a variable in there somewhere.


*I’m Head of my Department, and so since student crises and other similar events are no respecters of vacation, I did glance at my email each day to make sure no one was in desperate need.

**Except the grading, which neither the grader nor the gradee get anything from, which is why I have given it up #ungrading.

"work" by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0