Pacing: work smarter, not harder. And then work harder.

A quick follow up to my previous post. Some people have remarked on the issue of pacing. I have a few things to say about this.

Grad school is a marathon not a sprint, and one of the big reasons people burn out in grad school is that they apply 20-something strategies of brute-force, all-nighter, ‘I have infinite amounts of energy so why work smarter when you could work harder’, burning the candle at both ends strategies for work. In fact, it is the slow but steady, 30-something tactics that get you through grad school (and most of life, as far as I can tell. When I hit 40 I’m sure you’ll hear about it!). Developing a daily routine is the best way to be productive, and also the best way to enjoy grad school, since you are here because you enjoy the work, right? It’s that daily sense of planfulness, tinkering, and gradual progress that the ‘article a day’ strategy is all about.

When I was preparing to teach a ‘professionalization’ class I did a fair bit of research on productivity, work habits, writing, and so forth. I was struck by the fact that the latest popular ‘how neuroscience will make your Internet startup a success’ book had exactly the same recommendations as a manual for Jesuit scholars printed in France in the 1920s. Both said, in essence, that you are at your most productive after you wake up, and that you’ve basically got about 4-5 hours of genuine, hard-core concentration in you per day — what I call ‘being on the bottom of things’: the ability to ignore the world and just drill down to super-concentration level. When that’s done, it’s done.

That’s why you spend the rest of the day keeping ‘on top’ of things — browsing, scanning, surfing, paying the bills, spell-checking, going to lectures, and otherwise getting ready to dive down back to the bottom. In fact, you can get a lot of serious work done this way — I think most productive writers and readers tend to string out their ‘bottom’ work, often in brief 15-20 minutes sessions throughout the day, rather than burning through the tank in a single 4 hour dive.

So it is important not to burn out, but I also think people underestimate their capacity for work. Every spare ounce of your life can be configured to have some relationship to your intellectual life — the more tightly the two are connected, the more rewarding the life of the mind is.

That said, as Richard Light says in Making The Most Out of College, you get more out of your education when you combine it with something else. For graduate students, that something else should really be something embodied and active. Cooking is great, for instance, because it gets you into your body and out of your head, and is also much cheaper than not cooking. I spent a lot of graduate school dancing and singing because of my background in the performing arts — an interest in skilled performance that eventually found its way into my ethnographic research on raiding in World of Warcraft. I guess other people play sports. It’s good to do these things to realize how narrow definitions of knowledge, learning and cultivation are that are tied solely to books — which is a very anthropological realization to have. Also, as Light points out, having a second group of people to fall back on definitely helps keep you sane.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

7 thoughts on “Pacing: work smarter, not harder. And then work harder.

  1. Lovely, Rex. And in my view spot on. Brings to mind what may be an entirely apocryphal memory, reading somewhere that Max Weber achieved his enormous output working, on average, two hours a day.

  2. The whole post resonated strongly with me. One of the bits of advice I received upon learning I was accepted into grad school was “Make friends outside the department,” which touches upon two the points in this post: have outside interests and a fallback group of cohorts. I did not follow this advice to my regret. As a result got caught up in departmental backstabbery and my entire social circle in this strange new town, based solely on fellow anthropologists, exploded.

    That was years ago. Now I have groups of friends in different circles around town, including back in the department (different people!). I’ve picked up a few new engaging hobbies. I’m working on my dissertation a little bit each day and I really have no complaints.

    As my yoga instructor said, “you’re not building a house, you’re stacking bricks.”

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