A free template for keeping track of your pre-tenure achievements
I'm a certified coach and associate professor of philosophy at the
University of San Francisco
The ultimate guide to service for pre-tenure faculty
10 minute read
Faculty work a lot: about 60 hours per week on average. Few of us would bat an eye at this number. Indeed, many professors believe that working long hours, including evenings and weekends, is just part of the job. I’ve written elsewhere about how additional hours of work don’t necessarily produce productivity gains.
But overwork presents an even greater risk than diminishing marginal returns: working excessively can actually decrease the quantity and quality of one’s work, i.e., negative marginal returns. In other words, working too much doesn’t just lead to performance plateaus; it can lead to performance decrements. This means that long hours in the office or the lab may produce worse outcomes than calling it quits a few hours earlier; one step forward, two steps back.
That’s why it’s high time that academics started thinking differently about the relationship between work and rest. How should faculty be thinking instead? Like elite athletes (no exercise required).
Elite athletes know that excessive hours spent on the track, in the pool, or at the gym don’t provide a performance boost. To the contrary, training too hard can undermine their ability to perform at their highest level if they do not balance training with adequate rest. In other words, heavy training can be self destructive if athletes do not intentionally prioritize recovery. It’s why professional basketball player LeBron James aims to get 10 hours of sleep each night, and why Olympic runner Alexi Pappas describes her scheduled daily naps as “second practice.”
Whether you’re thinking hard or training hard, the same physiological principles apply. Whether it’s hours in front of the computer crunching data, or hours at the gym doing crunches, intense focus on a cognitively or physically demanding task is strenuous, and strain means that your body is under stress. Stress is hard on your body, which needs time to run maintenance before being ready to accumulate more strain. Instead of abstaining from rest in the name of productivity, faculty should start thinking about rest as crucial to doing their best work. Peak performance (cognitive or athletic) requires adequate recovery.
Stress is the body’s reaction to strain that results from adverse or demanding circumstances. Athletes might experience stress from a hard workout like hill repeats, whereas academics often find themselves in stressful situations that require rather less locomotion (like giving a job talk on Zoom). It doesn’t matter whether your body’s stress response is triggered by a natural predator, voluntary physical exertion, or many hours spent writing a high-stakes grant application, the effects on the body differ in degree and not in kind.
Recovery is anything that helps your body and brain repair itself from activities that cause stress. Sleep is the sine qua non of recovery. If you could do one thing to improve your ability to cope with stress, getting enough sleep (7+ hours per night) would be at the top of the list.
When under stress, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system is in charge. When the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated, it directs energy away from bodily functions like digestion and pumps out hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol so that your body is ready to respond to perceived threats.
Sleep is the sine qua non of recovery. If you could do one thing to improve your ability to cope with stress, getting enough sleep should be at the top of the list.
Stress need not be negative. In fact, the human body has a wide variety of evolved responses to stress that allow us to react to danger and aid in our survival. The fact that some stimuli (like seeing a lion) produce a stress response is what keeps us safe.
Moreover, your body’s stress response enables you to adapt to new situations. Post-stress, your body always asks: “What could I do better next time?” and then gets to work making improvements (e.g., the cardiovascular system gets more efficient). When supported by adequate recovery, stress is developmental: it helps you get better at stressful activities. Rest is how the body adapts to strain.
But when stress levels are too high, for too long, the body is unable to repair itself. In that case, stress is regressive: you end up getting worse at stressful and non-stressful activities.
Chronic stress wreaks havoc on the endocrine and nervous systems, and can negatively impact everything from digestion (heartburn, bloating, constipation), to sleep (insomina, fatigue), to sexual function (low libido, amenorrhea). This is because many of your body’s essential functions are controlled by the parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) branch of the autonomic nervous system.
If your nervous system is in the sympathetic (or “fight or flight”) mode too often, it impairs your body’s ability to accomplish important bodily processes that occur only when your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is in charge. That’s why people who spend too much time in a stressed-out state get sick more often: when your body thinks it is in immediate danger, it suppresses the immune system so that all available energy can be directed toward survival in the here and now.
Here’s why all of this matters for faculty: Your job as a faculty member is strenuous. The kind of intense mental activity required to teach, produce high-quality research, or give a research presentation is stressful, and many of the meetings we lead or attend during an average week trigger sympathetic activity akin to escaping from real physical danger.
Your body’s physiological response to non-life threatening situations is pretty much the same as when you’re actually in mortal peril. The problem is that a whole lot about modern life is stressful but not life-threatening. High-intensity exercise (when your heart-rate is above 75% of its maximum rate) activates the sympathetic nervous system. So does running late for a meeting, or waking up to an inbox full of “urgent” emails, or receiving harsh criticism of your work, or ruminating over whether you will be awarded tenure and promotion. Stress, stress, and more stress.
So what’s an ambitious, tenure-track faculty member like you to do? Think like a professional athlete.
Professional athletes use recovery techniques in an intentional and disciplined way to avoid injury and achieve peak performance. If you want to do your best work on the tenure track, and don’t want to end up in a state of chronic sympathetic activation, then you need to start thinking about recovering from hard efforts like a pro. That means reframing rest as essential to your success rather than as an impediment to it.
“I don’t have time to sleep if I want to get tenure!” becomes “If I want to get tenure, I need to get 8 hours of sleep each night.”
Recovery activities downregulate your nervous system and hand the physiological controls over to the parasympathetic branch. The systems that go offline when you’re in a sympathetic state are brought back online by the PSNS, which gets to work cleaning up after its rowdy sibling, putting things back in order, and repairing any damage caused by your time spent in fight-or-flight mode.
Getting enough sleep and taking time off are not lazy; anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or is in deep denial. You can’t avoid the physiological realities of being human by denying that there are any.
Adhering to dysfunctional academic productivity norms (being “on” 24-7) or giving into workaholic peer pressure on Twitter (I’m pretty sure–but not certain–that Tim Gill’s infamous Tweets about academic productivity are meant as parody) might yield short-term rewards (because academia praises excessive and compulsive working) but it is a bad long-term strategy for your health, your happiness, and your potential as a researcher.
“I don’t have time to sleep if I want to get tenure!” becomes “If I want to get tenure, I need to get 8 hours of sleep each night.”
In athletes, overtraining leads to performance decrements and injury. In academics, overworking leads to performance decrements and burnout. Instead of working yourself into the ground by performing academic “rituals of productivity,” be brave and do something different: rest.
The overarching lesson is that recovery matters for performance. It doesn’t matter whether performing at your best means consistently sinking three-point field goals, or calmly and confidently responding to objections to your research during a conference presentation.
The difference between high-performing athletes and most academics is that the former see rest as essential to their success, whereas the latter tend to see rest as a barrier to it (something that must be done eventually, but should be reduced or delayed whenever possible).
The athletes have got it right. Here are three ways that you can thrive on the tenure track by recovering like a professional athlete.
One of the most important recovery techniques (for athletes and professors) is sleep, yet few academics get nearly enough of it. According to the Mayo Clinic, adults need at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night. Even more, during periods of intensity.
It is difficult to understate the importance of sleep. It is while we are sleeping that our brains do some of their most important work. “When we fall asleep, our bodies shift into maintenance mode and devote themselves to storing energy, fixing or replacing damaged cells, and growing, while our brains clean out toxins, process the day’s experiences, and sometimes work on problems that have been occupying our waking mind” explains Alex Soojun-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. This is why professional athletes who are looking to optimize their performance make getting plenty of sleep a top priority.
Research shows that sleep deprivation significantly impairs cognitive functioning. For example, a study by Whoop and the consulting firm McKinsey found that for every 45 minutes of sleep debt a person accrued, they had a 5-10% decrease in mental control the following day. Conversely, every additional 30 minutes of deep sleep increases cognitive functioning by 5-10%.
Academics think for a living. That means your mind is your most precious resource. Take care of it by aiming for at least 7 hours of high-quality sleep each night this semester.
Thinking burns a lot of calories. Despite the fact that the brain comprises only two percent of your body’s weight, it consumes up to 20 percent of your body’s energy. Moreover, stress can increase your body’s calorie consumption even when stationary. Chess grandmasters can burn up to 6,000 calories a day during tournament play, largely due to elevated levels of stress. According to Stanford stress researcher Robert Sapolsky, “Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners.” Talk about high-intensity thinking!
The moral of the story is that you don’t need to be hitting tennis balls or practicing pirouettes to burn a lot of calories. Cognition is energy intensive at baseline, and stress increases the rate at which your body consumes fuel. Inadequate nutrition and dehydration compound stress, and more stress means that it will take longer for your brain and body to recover. That means you can improve your recovery time in advance by ensuring that you eat enough and stay well hydrated while working.
Just as elite athletes support training and competition by ensuring that their nutrition and hydration strategies are dialed in (consistently failing to eat enough in training can be devastating for athletes), faculty should ensure that they are eating well and drinking enough water to support their cognitive load, and buffer stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for initiating those physiological processes that allow your body and brain to recover from stress. By intentionally activating and strengthening your PSNS, you can enhance your ability to manage stress well. Here are some strategies touted by elite athletes.
Slow, deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system by communicating that you are safe (no one is breathing slowly and deeply while escaping from a predator). Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Feel your belly rise as you breathe in slowly through your nose. Exhale slowly through your mouth as if you are blowing through a straw. Repeat for 1-5 minutes.
Taking a cold shower or bath stimulates your vagus nerve, a major nerve of the PSNS. As your body adjusts to the chilly water, sympathetic activity decreases and parasympathetic activity decreases.
Specific stretching techniques can be used to stimulate the vagus nerve (which activates your PSNS). Some of these techniques are demonstrated here.
Regular, low-intensity aerobic exercise (like going for a walk) can increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and decrease sympathetic activity.
In academia, like in many burnout cultures, we tend to think that working excessively makes you a better researcher. Though it’s true that many very successful faculty (those who publish prolifically, secure huge grants, and climb the ranks to Associate and Full professor) work long hours, we should be careful not to assume that long hours is what causes success. (Let’s not forget about the whole “correlation is not causation” thing when it comes to our professional lives.)
Even when faculty are fantastically successful, we usually don’t see what that success costs them in terms of health and happiness. We also don’t see what more they could have achieved by working less and resting more. Like professional athletes who get stronger and faster by balancing training and recovery, I suspect that faculty would achieve even more by cutting back on work and prioritizing rest.
Whether you’re a professional runner or a professional thinker, working beyond your body’s ability to adequately recover is not performance enhancing. Not only is overworking unproductive (you’re not accomplishing much more with additional hours of work), it can be counterproductive: over the medium to long term, it undermines the quality of all of your working hours.
Instead of viewing rest as something that gets in the way of their success, faculty should take a cue from professional athletes who view high performance and rest as two sides of the same coin. They can do so by prioritizing adequate sleep, eating well, and deliberately practicing techniques that shift their nervous system from a sympathetic state (fight or flight) into a parasympathetic one (rest and digest).