Competitive Busy-ness

I am flying home to stay with my family.

Naturally, it coincides with a conference (that’s the life of an academic). I have decided to stay with my family from the end of the conference (late- November) until after Christmas. It was kind of annoying the way the dates worked out but I figured that I couldn’t pass off the opportunity to go home, and I will have lots of writing up to be doing, so being away from the lab shouldn’t affect my progress.

When I tell people I am going home for two months, in short: they don’t make me feel great about myself.

“Haha, alright for some!”

“How do you get away with it?”

“I didn’t take a holiday for 4 years when I was doing my PhD!”

They make me feel guilty. Which is ridiculous…I will still be working for the majority of time when I am at home. I know I will be OK. My supervisor knows I will be OK. I guess one thing I need to get over is giving a crap about what people think (unless of course those people are people whose opinions ACTUALLY matter).

But another thing this made me think about was the concept of competitive busy-ness. Exaggerating how hard we work or how little time we take off, or even how stressed out we are, and playing these things against each other. It’s a game we play with our…

…partners: “Today was insane, I haven’t stopped to think…” / “YOUR day was insane, you should have been at my office!”

…friends: “Sorry, I’ve just been so flat out with X and Y, I haven’t had the opportunity to call and catch up in so long!” / “Oh no, I’m just as bad, I’ve been crazy busy, I feel terrible.”

…and our colleagues: “I can’t wait to finish with this bloody X.” / “Oh tell me about it, I have piles of Y to do and it’s going to take up so much time.”

All this roughly translates as: “I AM JUSTIFYING MY EXISTENCE BY ACCENTUATING MY RESPONSIBILITIES AND THINGS I HAVE TO DO.” It’s a really unhealthy and depressing habit to get stuck into. It’s also a pretty dangerous game to play with yourself.

It’s quite easy to get stuck into though, and I found myself doing it this week. I have lots of data to gather for an upcoming deadline so I was coming into the lab early and leaving late. Towards the end of the day, my brain was frazzled and I took twice as long to do things as I had to keep fixing up my mistakes. I would go home, tired and grumpy, but come in and do the same thing the next day, because on some weird level, it felt good to be run-down and flustered. It meant I had got the most out of my day. I must have done, right? A 10 hour day HAS to be productive…?

In reality, I know that just coming in and having a thoroughly productive and focused 9-5 work day is 100% more effective and better for my well-being than working a scattered, depressing, 8-6 day. But at this stage in my research, it’s easier to count hours than it is to count productivity, and thus count those hours as “justification tokens”, just so I can feel good about myself. It’s an addictive cycle.

I hope that I can learn to accept that the quality and quantity of work I can achieve in a “normal” work day is definitely acceptable, and I shouldn’t try and out-compete myself if it only results in (and feeds) anxiety.




5 thoughts on “Competitive Busy-ness

  1. I just discovered your blog via #phdchat. I promise not to comment on everything.

    Just wanted to say that I HATE (***HATE***) this game. I have a friend who tries to out-busy me all the time, positing me as one side in a competition I didn’t know I was a part of. I’ll mention I’m busy; she mentions the fact that she works full time AND studies and is DEFINITELY the busiest person ever…

    To which I’m like, “hah, no”. She works in retail and is studying one unit (out of a possible 4) this semester. I’m in my final weeks of PhD, work as an RA, tutor four classes, and have a casual admin job too. Even *thinking* that makes me feel terrible for getting caught up in her game of one-upsman-ship!

    I feel like it’s a technique friends/family/colleagues use to either a) make you feel guilty about your unavailability, as being a PhD student sucks up all of your time (well, at this point mine does, anyway), and b) to justify their own existence, as you say. I also believe that people think they’re much busier than they really are, so poop to them if they feel like they need to compete with you re: being busy.

    Finally (!!), enjoy your time at home with your family, and don’t let anyone bring you down. In my time as a PhD student I’ve spent three weeks in Europe, four weeks in South America, six weeks in Asia, and a couple of months interstate, and it’s done nothing but good for my mental state and productivity.

    • I find it soo hard to nit participate in these games. I get very self conscious that I’m really not working hard enough that when people start to brag and compare, it really does make me feel weak, or stupid. I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s just a way for people to feel good about themselves…and most of the time they probably have no idea it’s having a negative affect on those around them. Poop to them indeed.

      Yeh travel (as well as getting to do something we love, learn and see stuff no-one has ever known or seen before, work with inspiring people…) is really one of the only “perks” of academia, so I definitely intend to make the most out of it. It sound like you have!!
      Thanks, I’m really looking forward to seeing my family (and exploring Philadelphia and New York while I’m in the states for the conference too). Woohoo!!!

      • Ahh rad! I’m actually moving to New York in December – scary! But definitely looking forward to seeing a new place 🙂 Enjoy your trip!

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