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How Much Work should You Do?

In 1971 the National Board for Prices and Incomes felt itself obliged to research how much work university employees did. Lord Redcliffe-Maud, the Master of University College, Oxford, but also the person most associated with the reform of local government as he had chaired the recent Royal Commission on the subject, offered a simple piece of arithmetic by way of response: number of hours in the week (168) minus the number of hours asleep (7 x 8 = 56) making a total of 112 hours per week. So let’s call this the 112 model and it assumes that all one’s waking hours are involved in thinking about such things as the running of a college and the reform of local government. In my own case, with some claim to be a philosopher as well as a supposed expertise on sport (“He calls it research . . . “) I would have some claim to approach the 112 model. Yes, I’m gardening or cycling, but that’s how I get my best ideas!

So let’s acknowledge before any other considerations that his lordship and myself belonged to the fortunate minority who don’t see the force of a work/non-work distinction. For us, the “Work-life balance” is a pathetic irrelevance. For most people work is very simple and it’s a place you have to turn up and do what’s required and it’s generally unsatisfying where not downright unpleasant. The World Economic Forum quotes a US survey from 2012 which shows half the population who thought their work contributed nothing to society and a UK survey loosely analogous from 2016 which gives a figure of 37%. There’s also a survey of 142 countries which shows that only 13% of people enjoy their jobs. In passing I would have to remark that in the second half of my period of salaried academic employment (1969-2004) the experience became more like that of the normal unfortunates of the earth. The reasons for this were greater bureaucratisation and multiple forms of performance assessment; they were, of course, connected.

The concept of “work” is complex (of which more later) and in some circumstances the work/not-work distinction can’t be made. But most people in academic life and a number of similar activities live in the space well between the 112 model and mere wage slavery so they are faced with the dilemma of how much work to do. It starts at the very beginning when you arrive at university. In my case the fascinations of drink and other people were on an unprecedented scale and these jostled with ambitions in acting and rugby to leave academic work right off the agenda. Yes, I attended (some of) the things I should have attended, but I neither read nor wrote for three weeks. By the Monday of the fourth week I was aware there was a problem. I did some work and then went off to rugby practice. When I returned my room-mate and some of my new friends were laughing at my efforts. I had succeeded only in writing down the name of the author I was supposed to be reading and then, successively, the titles of the book, the first chapter and the first section. I had then copied out the first two sentences. Work? I nearly did.

The dilemma never goes away. The day before writing this article I had a conversation with a distinguished friend in his late seventies who was wondering whether to do any more work. He had resolved not to, but I was not convinced that he would stick to his decision. What makes the dilemma more complicated is that not only might the work you choose to do have no value and/or a high opportunity cost, but it may have a negative value. To illustrate this let us consider Beatrix Potter’s little known story, The Tale of Two Vice-Chancellors. V-C A turns up at his new appointment to discover that everything is going swimmingly: the staff are good and the system is working. So he lets them get on with it and smiles in an avuncular and slightly ironic way when his “leadership” is credited. V-C B turns up at a similar institution and immediately involves himself in what might politely be called “micro-management”, but, more diagnostically, “obsessive-compulsive disorder”. He becomes known for telephoning heads of department at 11pm in the evening to ask whether their colleague’s article will be ready in time for submission in the current round. His name is rarely mentioned except accompanied by mutterings about numbered sections of the Mental Health Act.

Complex questions can have simple answers. When I was nineteen I asked Sir Peter Strawson, my philosophical logic tutor, how much work I should be doing and the answer is one I have generally observed and passed on throughout my life. He said twenty five hours a week arguing that if you were going to achieve things that was sufficient time to do it in, that beyond that you would be missing out on other aspects of life and that it was a realistic target that you can embrace rather than baulk at. The target came with massive qualifications which generates a paradox. The hours do not include giving or attending lectures, seminars or meetings. In essence they must contain only reading, writing and thinking. The paradox, of course, is that for many academics it is the elements that don’t count that feel most like work.

But the real meaning of this advice cannot be understood without a proper conceptual analysis of the concept of work. It is normally said to contain a process/product ambiguity like “education”. We do work and we produce work and these are are not the same thing and not even necessarily connected. I would not bother to make this tedious point except that I think that misunderstanding the nature of work is responsible for a great deal of waste and sadness. The further complication is that “work” is also a place. There are plenty of circumstances when being in the place constitutes doing the work, some in theory and others just in practice. But that isn’t true of any intellectual activity. I had an undergraduate contemporary who was much better at rugby than I was who gave up the game to “get a good degree”. He sat in the library, drank a lot of coffee, got quite fat, but didn’t get a good degree. The same mistake was made at one remove by the nice girls who used to complain to me that though their degree classification was entirely fair, that of Tom, their contemporary, was obviously wrong because he “was the hardest worker of all of them”. But might that not mean simply that he had sat in the library longer? Who knows what happened mentally? At the aggregate level Keith Waterhouse’s satirical novel Office Life (1978) is a picture of a vast organisation going through all kinds of motions without anybody realising that there was no end product.

It is possible to make all kinds of important mistakes about work. These include doing too little, doing too much and confusing the meanings of the word. All of these mistakes are commonly made, but the frequency of the latter two seems to have grown markedly in my lifetime in universities at least as much as in the rest of the world. There used to be a culture of gentlemanliness which meant that one pretended to do rather less work than one actually did; this was true of both students and employed staff. Then, in the second half of my career, it became the norm to look busy, to leave one’s office door open and to be seen in front of the screen. When one left the office it was to scurry around drawing in breath sharply as if to say the the stress was great and mounting. The behaviour of academics began to remind me of the army advice of a previous generation: “If you want to stay out of trouble and avoid being nabbed for any purpose, grab a clipboard and march around the base looking serious”. For a long time the office next to mine had a quotation on the door which said, “Men of genius are best employed in idleness”. I can’t locate the precise quotation, but Carlyle, Nietzsche and Russell all said something similar. They didn’t take much notice of it and he obviously didn’t consider himself a genius because nobody exhibited the symptoms of “work” more than he did.

A common mistake about work was what I will call sad perfectionism. There were colleagues and friends who were fine scholars, intelligent people with interesting things to say, but who published much less than they might have done and often very little. I remember one such obsessing about the opening line of an article. The thing was on his desk and every time I went into his office the first line had been crossed out and replaced. One felt like saying, “For heaven’s sake – five people are going to read it. Toss a coin, send it off and do something else.” Then there was the historian who was offered a whopping contract for a book that had to appear before a particular anniversary. But it wasn’t “ready”; the publisher did eventually put it out, but made no effort and the attention and the sales were a fraction of what they might have been. If a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing (slightly) badly! (This is a phrase I mostly associate with cricket, often said by the bowler of a bad ball that’s taken a wicket. Do bad balls take wickets in academic life?) It is the extreme of irrationality to put 100% more effort in for a 10% return, particularly if it stymies what might have been the successor project completely. Proper writing is positive: you want to say something. Academic writing is often negative, its criterion being the avoidance of error.

For a couple of centuries technology seems to have put an age of leisure somewhere ahead on the time horizon, but we seem to will ourselves to work harder than ever. But at least in retirement you can treat work as a default position. That is, you don’t work when there’s something more urgent or attractive to do, but you can when nothing else is on. It works out to about twenty five hours a week.

Lincoln Allison

(I negotiated a couple of versions of this essay with Times Higher Education, but I/they/we eventually considered that it would not appeal to contemporary stressed, overworked academic and administrative staff and it was forgotten.)