Why “Treating It Like a Job” Is a Bad Idea


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The return to higher education can be brutal. So much reading and writing, so much unstructured time to manage. It’s quite unlike the structured, spreadsheeted world of work.

A common solution to the student life is to “treat it like a job:” that is, come to campus at 8, put butt in seat, and study until 5.

Bad idea.

This is an arbitrary schedule

The 9-to-5 schedule is an arbitrary eight-hour allotment of time meant to split the 24-hour factory day into three shifts. It presupposes that you must be on-site for eight hours to work a machine. 

There’s nothing magical about eight hours a work a day. If you don’t have to use it as your workday benchmark — don’t! 

“That 2:30 feeling” is your body trying to tell you something

The eight-hour workday might be a decent length for physical or machine labor. But creative work is much more messy, coming in spurts and stalls. 

Pushing your brain to eight straight hours of mental labor just doesn’t work. Ever feel incapable of looking at the monitor at 3p? It’s not your imagination. Stop! 

What to do instead?

Perhaps the nicest thing about graduate school is having my schedule back. I pine for the day when the work world transitions to a “creative timecard” model rather than one based on factory runtime. 

With the freelance economy on the rise, this will happen. So “treating it like a job” will also become obsolete. A few things to keep in mind as you find your best work schedule:

  • Block your mornings.  Research indicates that we are at peak mental capacity around two to five hours after waking up. So make your mornings count. Save your grocery shopping until the afternoon (Maybe you’ll get a half-price doughnut, you destitute student!) So, here’s your chance to keep a routine.
  • Find a “mindless side hustle.”  For me, it’s selling stuff on eBay: I spend a few minutes photographing items, listing them, going to the post office, etc. It clears my mind and it’s income generating. Do you have a skill to post on Upwork?
  • Take public transit.  No, seriously. I’ve started taking the train to school and treasure my commute. It’s especially good as a graduate student to go on off-hours — again, breaking up that “treating it as a job.” Take a seat, open a book, look at the window, whatever. It’s time away to zone out of work. 
  • Move. Pretty obvious, but some motion can jolt your brain. I walk through campus or take a bike ride if I’m home. (You can do this one at an office, too.)

Other tips for crafting a more manageable workday? Fire away? Workday cohort: I’d love your inter-office work break tactics, too. 

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