Facebook Chief Operating Officer (COO) Sheryl Sandberg leaves work at 5:30 every day. That doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m also familiar with the stigma the article mentions towards people who leave work early, which the article’s author defines as before 8:00 PM. The latter view exists because it’s common sense to assume, if two people are working in the same job, and person A leaves at 6:00 PM while person B leaves at 10:00 PM, that person B is more hard working and the better employee. And Person B should be getting the promotions … the recommendations … the list goes on. But does it really have to be this way?

During the past few years, I keep reminding myself of “intense focus.” I consider my studying good when it is productive. That is, I have a high rate of material retention and understanding per hour of my studying. I hate, hate spending hours reading, thinking, or writing, and feeling like I haven’t made progress in whatever task I’m doing. And in almost all of those “wasteful” scenarios, a lack of focus is the issue. Which is, therefore, why I am unsurprised and pleased about Sandberg’s announcement. My hypothesis is that, when faced with a time constraint, people will be increasingly pressed to be productive and efficient during their work.

I certainly share this experience. I didn’t have to think hard for an easy example. In my Real Analysis class last semester, we had three exams. The first was a 4-hour take home exam, and the other two were 24-hour take home exams. Surprisingly, the exam length of the three was roughly similar. The first exam had seven questions, and the other two had eight. And the problems were relatively even in terms of time needed to solve them. Many students preferred the longer exam, since it gave them more time to think about and revise their answers with less fear of a time constraint.

But I argue that a shorter time constraint is beneficial because it forces me to stay alert. Knowing I had plenty of time on the later two exams, I felt myself uncontrollably browsing ESPN, my email, and other websites in between solved questions. But on the first exam, I “marathon-ed” the questions, refusing to spend my time on such trivial tasks. I only took deliberate breaks. Those are the ones that I put on my schedule before taking the exam, to make sure I do not suffer from burnout. Even though I got As on all three exams, the feeling of fruitfulness I had while taking the first exam was vastly different than what I experienced during the other two. This is why I generally advocate for time constraints on work. It’s okay if they are self-imposed. What matters is being efficient and not using the “I have all the time in the world” excuse when you’re taking unnecessary breaks.

I particularly wonder about work habits in academia. What happens to those professors who tend to leave work early1 as compared to those who stay up past their students pulling all-nighters? I’d be interesting in collecting data and seeing if those who spend more time in their offices may actually be doing themselves a disservice. But the problem is that times can be wildly unpredictable. A professor could leave work at 5:00 PM one day, leave at 3:30 AM the next, and not show up to his or her office at all on the third day. And of course, people vary. Some can sustain a level of incredible focus for long periods of time, while others may require more frequent breaks. Finally, there may be certain deadlines that cause people to work longer.

But what about me? What can I do to ensure that I take advantage of intense focus? As I mentioned before, I am working at Bard College this summer. This past week was my first on the job, and I was in the lab (during weekdays) from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. The 6:00 PM departure is an excellent time; it allows me to comfortably work out in the weight room before the 8:00 PM closing time, and I can also eat dinner in the 7:00 to 9:00 PM range, which is when I start getting hungry. And my weekends look like they will be free, allowing me to pursue other hobbies such as programming and running (and blogging, of course).

The lazy days between the end of my sophomore year and the start of my research internship are past me. It’s time to set laziness aside and … focus!

  1. By early, I arbitrarily mean before 6:00 PM.