Must go faster… (but not later)

Last time I mentioned that we in the mathematical trade have an easier time than our colleagues in the lab-based sciences. There is no equivalent to a fume-cupboard-upgrade-delay in mathematics: we can work when we want, irrespective of external constraints. Even if our office is being recarpeted, or fumigated (since life finds a way) we can always take our pen and paper, and laptop, and whatever paper we’re working on, and keep the fires burning elsewhere. That is to say: we can work anywhere, anytime.

It’s the second aspect I should like to address in this post: the ability to work anytime. Oh, sure, we could work weekends, or work at home until 2am, or wake up in a cold sweat at 4am, where some deep thought in the recesses of our cerebellum (who knows: that could be correct!) has reminded us that our integrals don’t converge. In fact, an undergraduate student asked me recently what I do to get to sleep after proving theorems deep into the night. Bless that young fellow! I told him that the best way to avoid this is not to be proving theorems past 5pm: remember, the world ain’t going to stop spinning if you’re proof isn’t finished by sunset. I’m not going full-on Newman by saying that nobody cares — note the shaving cream put onto the dish of pie… classic! Rather, we’re not playing for sheep stations, and there’s no point to put physical and mental health at risk: both will go to pot with much more of this study-till-2am-malarkey.

Just because we can work at all hours does not mean that we should. There are thin ends of the wedge all over the traps! It starts with doing some refereeing at home (since you weren’t getting around to it at the office), and then doing all of your lecture preparation on weekends (since there is no time given committee work during the week), and before you know it, you’re working all the time, with no breaks, and with a fixation on time like the six-minute increments billed by the bloodsucking lawyers.

Many people will say that they have to work all of these hours, since there are just too many tasks to do in the day. Perhaps they could flip this around: define your working hours, and then spend as much time on tasks as will be allowed by these constraints. I’m in at the office from 9-5, and that dictates how much I can get done. Take, for example, this blog post… my own mind has just imploded with the meta-self-referential nature of this. I hope you’re handling it better than me. (Also, not Jurassic Park, to be sure, but surely we can ask what does meta mean?)

I have only a handful of minutes left before I clock off for the day. I surely won’t be staying on past quittin’ time on account of this, or anything else for that matter. What’s that? The committee report is due soon? Remember that no one ever reads these, ever! Just fill it with a few dot points, and you’ll be fine. I am yet to hear someone say “Dang, that committee report was the worst! So short, so easy to read… I feel cheated”.

One of the impediments to people working less, is the obsession that many senior people have on valuing work as an end in itself. Ah, too many Sir Humphrey quotes to put in for now! Suffice to say, that these people, who ought to know better are setting terrible examples. Next time I’ll try to outline some ways to push back against the idea of working longer = working better. Hopefully, if we do say the magic word it’ll be easier for the next lot.

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