Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Midnight Oil

I had been up late at night a lot, working.  Mostly finishing up a large project from my previous job, but also responding to email: some of it more crisis-oriented than others.  I expect students to be up then; that's the nature of college life.  (And ideally, I would shift my schedule so that I start my day at ten, like they do.)  But I've found that in this new universe, when I send email to colleagues at midnight, or one in the morning, or sometimes even later than that, I get instantaneous responses.  Though our offices on campus are dark, I imagine us as a bright pool of electrons in the university network, still humming away as if we've never left the place.  The other day, there was a crisis in our office, and most of my colleagues were actually in the office at midnight, with students; my only excuse was that I live an hour (or, at that time of night, 45 minutes) away.

Part of me has been grateful that I'm not the only one.

Part of me has been a little amazed.  How could I ever hope to compete with these people who work just as hard as, or even harder than, I do?  I was always the one at the edge, the one with the great ideas and the initiative to see them through to fruition, the one who got shit done.  Then again, what I'm experiencing is not unlike what students experience when they arrive here: suddenly, the ones who who left everyone in the dust back home were one in hundreds just like them, or better.

But honestly, no part of me felt at all like this was abnormal, or undesirable.

In the middle of one of these conversations the other night, I posted on my Facebook page, something along these lines, being grateful for colleagues who made me feel like I wasn't the only nut online that late, but baffled by the competition.  A lot of people "liked" the post, or commiserated, or said something equally self-congratulatory about their own dedication.

Shortly afterward, a friend of mine posted the following question: "Why do we make a virtue of working hours that don't allow us to get enough sleep, enough play or enough time with loved ones? What true value is there in working hours that break down our mental and physical health?"

She's right, of course.  While I don't do it every night, when I do, I'm right there waving the self-congratulatory flag with everyone else.  And my kids get me up at 5:30, so I'm not exactly sleeping in.  I don't get to run during the week any more, or do any other exercise.  If I'm up sending email at 1:30, then I'm often back up at 5:45 making breakfast, and I'm out the door at 7:15.  And I'm not taking naps during the day.

How many of us are there out there, burning the midnight oil?  Why do we do it?  Do you feel like there's a expectation in our workplace culture that we are online both late and early (and, for that matter, all the time)? Do you feel like it's abnormal, or something we take for granted?  How do you draw boundaries around your work, if you work outside the home?
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  1. I used to be the one burning the midnight oil, but I have stopped. At some point, you have to say "enough", and I'm there. I love my work (well, most of it), but I love my family more, and I really don't think I can give 100% to both. So, rather than tearing myself into pieces trying, I'm giving my family 90% and work 75%. That means that there are others who work much harder than me. They will undoubtedly win accolades that I could have won with more effort. Such is life. I wish that I could get everyone to take a deep breath and smell the roses and give 75% at work, to level the playing field, but I can't control others. Just myself.

  2. Your friend's question is right on.

    I started prioritizing sleep after my PhD qualifying exams, when I was so burned out that I literally couldn't read (migraine aura).

    I'll get a babysitter if I need to work extra hours but don't stay up, or get up early, anymore. Don't tell my colleagues...

  3. I got cured of burning the midnight oil in college, and have only fine it a few times since I started my career. There's just no time, and I need a lot of downtime. I'm recognizing now that I will never be at the pinnacle of my organization, because I only work as much as I need to get by. It's actually been a tough realization that I don't have the drive to get as far as I thought I would.

  4. I'm with Sara, Gwinne, and Geochick. I just don't do it anymore. My body cannot take it and I frankly don't have the motivation to "make myself" do it, anyways. I am NOT my best self when I'm physically tired, and that ultimately affects my family, my health, and my work. If I can't succeed professionally while being well-rested, than I'm willing to wither in mediocrity. If I've got a major deadline, I may take some time on the weekends, or leave home early to get more work done (I'm up anyways, but usually hanging with the kids) but I can't imagine anything that would have me staying up late to work!
    You certainly have more drive and ambition than I seem to, and that is awesome...just make sure you take care of yourself so you don't burn out.

  5. I consider my work/ life balance akin to the tides- an ebb and flow. Sometimes I will need to work late hours, tuck my kids in bed to then log on to my computer only to then wake up at 5:00 am to return to work early. You are new in your job and it makes sense that now is the time that you want to work extra hard to show your capabilities.

    But sometimes I will leave mid-day for a school event or get to work right at 9:00 so I can exercise and be with my family. I leave at 4:00 to get my hair refreshed on occasion and I think I am acting as a role model to my employees when I ignore my emails while on vacation. I KNOW that I am a better employee when I have some personal time to focus on the regeneration of my body and mind. And with this I am freakishly good at my work too.

    I don't try to look at the balance of this on any given day, but rather to step back and look at the balance of the last six months or year. Is my employer happy with my work? Are my children and husband feeling well cared for by me? If the answer is yes, then I'm probably doing ok and can therefor push worry away again for another few months. Well, that's what works for me anyway....


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