Working Weekends

I’m a PhD student, and like most academics, a 40-hour work week is out of the question for me. The demands of an academic career cannot be satisfied in so few hours, at least not by mere mortals. At the same time, working all the time is really unhealthy. Even the most stoic smartypants will eventually buckle under the weight of that kind of workload.

When I first started my degree program, I worked every day. I ate all my meals at my computer. It was really pathetic. It made Ev unhappy, and I wasn’t all that happy with it either. Fortunately, I wised up pretty quickly. Now we always eat dinner together – in fact, any meal for which we are both in the house is eaten together and away from computers (though relatively often in front of the TV.)

But balancing my workload with his free weekends was harder to work out. I didn’t always feel like I had the time to take a day off. After awhile, though, I realized that taking a day off generally made me more efficient and effective the rest of the week. Just one day to relax and take care of the rest of life’s demands – it really isn’t too much to expect, is it? It took until I finished my coursework before I really made a consistent habit of taking a day off. Until that point, there was always just too much work to feel like I had the time to spare.

My current strategy is to pick one of the weekend days and plan ahead to do something with Ev. That usually means going out somewhere, whether for mundane errands like groceries and home improvement supplies, or going out to the Derby Hill Bird Observatory, like we did yesterday. It’s a good habit because making a plan means I’m more likely to follow through on taking the time off. It also makes Ev happy – he can tell that I’m putting a priority on spending time with him, and that’s important.

It usually works out better for me to take Sunday off, though I usually want to take Saturday off instead. That’s because if I work on Saturday, then I really feel no guilt about taking Sunday off, and I have usually met my work quota. Sometimes if I take Saturday off, I also slack on Sunday, and then by Monday I feel bad about being a slacker – and feeling guilty is counterproductive, too.

When I take a Saturday off, we usually…

  1. Start the day by sleeping in until around 8 or 8:30, and I make homemade waffles for breakfast. We always had waffles for Saturday morning breakfast when I was a kid, so to me, this is nearly essential.
  2. Go to the CNY Regional Farmers’ Market in the morning (year-round), followed by any other errands. Sometimes that takes well into the afternoon, which isn’t the most gratifying way to spend the day, but sometimes that’s what’s in order. If lots of errands are in the cards, we often have lunch out somewhere, and we try to make it somewhere different. We hit the market about every other weekend.
  3. Take the dog to a park, or go for a hike on one of the many nearby trails, such as any part of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference.
  4. Alternately, go to a NY State Park or down to Ithaca. If it’s snow season, then we might go snowshoeing at Beaver Lake Nature Center or Highland Forest, both part of the Onondaga County Park system. The dog does not come along for snowshoeing, because she does not have snowshoes and the snow depth is usually up to her furry little hips.
  5. If the weather is really terrible, we stay in. Sometimes that means the house gets cleaned a little. Sometimes it means I curl up with a non-academic book for awhile. Sometimes it’s a movie marathon. Often I play a little Wii Fit.
  6. Occasionally, we even go out for dinner! We like going to the Taj Indian Palace on Erie because they have a nice Indian buffet with lots of vegetarian options for Ev, and it’s quite affordable.
  7. Even more rarely, I invite people over for dinner. When this is the case, the whole day is spent on cleaning house and making a super-awesome dinner for guests. Part of what I like about doing this is that the house gets cleaned, and there’s no putting it off!

When I take a Sunday off, we usually…

  1. Take a day trip! The biggest drawback of being a PhD student is the tiny, tiny scope of my existence. We actively work against that by trying to explore the local area, whether it’s checking out hiking trails in a new town, driving the back roads to get to a destination like Women’s Rights National Historical Park, or checking out a birding hotspot that I keep seeing mentioned on a birding listserv.
  2. A similar agenda to Saturday, except no trip to the Market.
  3. I almost always cook a Sunday dinner, so I either start something in the morning or make sure we’re back in time to make something tasty.

Once in awhile I take the whole weekend off. This usually has less to do with my to-do list (which is always burgeoning) and more to do with the weather forecast or my general antsiness. My absolute favorite thing to do with an entire weekend off is a short backpacking trip in the Adirondacks. This is only an option from mid-April through mid-October, when it’s warm enough overnight to be tolerable. Usually Ev gets out of work early on Friday afternoons, since he only works 36 hours a week (and that counts as full-time!) so sometimes we can hit the trail on Friday afternoon. Usually, however, we just get prepped on Friday evening and then leave quite early on Saturday, because it usually takes 3 to 4 hours to reach our trailhead and we don’t like hiking after dark. Chili loves these trips! She’s a great trail dog and gets really excited the second we start loading our packs.

In general, though, my weekend work days aren’t as long as my weekday work days. Usually I’ll only work 4-6 hours instead of 9. That’s good, because no matter what my plans are, there are always some neglected household things to attend to, and not dealing with them eventually starts to bother me as much as not getting my “real” work done. And no matter what else I’ve got going on a weekend, we’re more likely to take the dog to a park or go find a nice trail to spend a little time outside, which we both really enjoy. It’s relaxing, gets me out of the house, and it’s good exercise.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect approach. It would be awesome if I could optimize the weekend time a bit better, maybe spend even less time working. But part of what’s relaxing about it is having a little less structure. I often wish I had better ideas for using the free time that I do take, but I figure this isn’t half bad. It’s certainly an improvement over where I started out!