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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Rat race of productivity

At the start of the semester, I wanted to do everything. and be everything — an A+ grad student, a kick-ass instructor, a student group leader, a superstar columnist, a standout part-time receptionist, an exemplary community volunteer and a jiu-jitsu and weightlifting phenom — all while still having the time and energy to kick it weekend nights.

To achieve my goals, I would grind Sunday through Monday, seven days a week. No days off because days off were for the weak. Daily meditation, cold showers and rigorous organization would keep me on the right path. To every email in my inbox, I would respond the same day. I’d meet my professors at least once a month and have a couple of prestigious fellowships and grants under my belt by year’s end. Maybe I’d even pick up one of those instructor of the year awards along the way.

Well, August rolled along. Then September. By October, I still couldn’t shake the night sweats and partial insomnia. Bags formed under my eyes. A few more gray hairs peaked out from the side of my head. I was sluggish, unmotivated, cranky and miserable. Real miserable. Fantasies-of-dumping-academia-and-moving-to-Chicago miserable.

But then, in late October, the sun broke through the clouds — fall break was here. And for the first time since the semester began, I took a full day off. Three, actually. Gone was the stress. And it felt good. Real good. I was a human being again.

By the end of the break, an idea struck: What if I took a day off every week? No work, no thinking about work, no thinking about thinking about work. I mean, if I was a full-time office worker or service employee instead of an underpaid, overly-educated grad student in my late 20s, that’s exactly what I would be doing. So why should Ph.D. life be any different?

I came up with a new plan. Saturdays would be my day off, and I’d step back from my least important commitments. Sure, it was scary at first. But lo and behold, it wasn’t long before my partial insomnia went away and things got better. On the days I did work, I felt more focused and capable. On my free days, I felt happy as I spent hours watching YouTube, flipping through magazines and stuffing my face with all the junk food forbidden during the week. Saturdays weren’t “productive” at all, and it was amazing.

This isn’t just my usual crazy talk. There’s a plethora of studies to suggest a lot of us are doing this work-life balance thing wrong. In August, Microsoft tested out a four-day work week in its Japan offices without docking pay. The result was that employees were not only happier after getting Fridays off but more productive — 40% more, in fact. When it comes to sheer number of hours, a Stanford University study debunks the belief that longer hours necessarily means you’ll get more done. According to economics professor John Pencavel, productivity declines sharply after working more than 50 hours a week. People who work 70 hours a week get the same amount of work done as those who work 55 hours. Other studies also support the idea that pushing ourselves to the brink doesn’t pay dividends and instead makes us more prone to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

This is especially relevant to an elite university like Notre Dame. As The Observer’s Editorial Board wrote last month, it’s vital for students to take time for themselves in this “anxiety-inducing environment” and realize that we are all on “different paths and timelines.” Understanding this might serve to reduce the high levels of anxiety among Domers and college students in general. A 2018 survey by the American College Health Association found that 63% of college students felt overwhelming anxiety during the past year, a figure that appears to have risen in recent years. First year students are especially susceptible given the sometimes rocky transition from high school to college. When it comes to grad students like myself, we’re actually three times more likely than the average American to experience mental health disorders and depression. Finding that work-life balance is crucial, even life-saving, in some cases.

To be honest, I’m still fine-tuning my own system. Some Sundays, what are supposed to be six to eight hour workdays land more in the three hour range. I still procrastinate more than I should during my “work hours.” But I have the confidence I can make it work. If in the end, I don’t, then maybe academia isn’t for me. And that’s fine, too. I’d rather be relatively healthy and happy than a walking wreck with a bevy of diplomas and publications to my name.


Oliver Ortega is a Ph.D. student specializing in Latinx literature and politics. Originally from Queens, New York, he has called the Midwest home for almost a decade. Through boundless cynicism he keeps trying. Reach him at or @ByOliverOrtega on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.