Work life balance: beware transitions

Two different people have recently made me very aware of the biological importance of transitions. One was Jeff Clune who gave an excellent talk at BEACON last month. One part was on the evolutionary origins of modularity. He finds considerable support for a really new approach: that modularity evolves when the costs of transitions, or connections are included. It is a bit different from our own behavior but I’ll apply it anyway. Beware transitions! They are costly!IMG_7540

Not entirely independent, because of the BEACON tie, was a very nice study by Heather Goldsby, Anna Dornhaus, Ben Kerr, and Charles Ofria from PNAS on the costs of task switching and their ability to explain divisions of labor. This is hardly news for social insect researchers, but still cool. So, what exactly can we say about our own task switching? First, collect the empirical data.

IMG_4871How many different things have you worked on in the last three hours? I began with commenting on versions of a quiz written by one of my wonderful teaching assistants. She then got it back to me fast enough that this was actually two rounds. I worked through my emails, putting most of them in the Random folder and a few into the To Do folder. I encouraged a few students, gave a quick read to a paper, and passed on the warning to check equipment after the university brownout a week ago. I sneaked over to Facebook, tweeted a couple things. Then I figured out what I would do in class later today, found the study questions and a talk I’ll also give (they’ve asked for some talks, go figure). It was about ten, so I made breakfast. Yes I’m working from home. I have a natural and very predictable low around 10:30, so I used it to deal with an annoying insurance company problem, on the phone with headphones.

Now it is nearly noon. Class is at 2:30. I still have to walk in to work and touch base with my team. After class is a seminar that looks interesting in anthropology. I’m guessing I’ll skip a nap today. I’m glad I already did the 3 mile dog walk with Zeus, first thing after I got up. At this point I have at most an hour and a half of productive research time left before dinner.

What is my point with all this drivel? The main point is that I have done a lot of different things. I have paid the price of transitions. I have dealt with what is most urgent, teaching today. I have not worked on my overdue paper, but I will. IMG_7642I have not worked on the four letters of promotion recommendation for colleagues across the land. I have not worked on my talk for Seville and the flight is on Friday. I have not gotten together with Suegene and planned our Korean feast. I’m starting to get nervous.

But actually, I’m a jumpy person. I need to flit from one thing to another. I sit on a ball or stand. That helps. I make lists of the things to work on in a day because without it I can get lost and then just go bother my team as they work in the lab. So I make transitions work for me by allowing them. Others need fewer transitions because once they get out of the zone, it is harder to get back in.

My teaching assistants are each writing 6 quizzes from the book. I have encouraged them to get them all done right away. That way they can get in the frame of quiz writing. They will be faster and more efficient and not forget the comments I give them on effective quiz writing. It will be done so the student that needs to take the quiz early will have it ready.

I plan to write several of the letters of recommendation all at once so I can also get in that frame of mind. Before I do it, I remind myself of the kinds of things that are important to go in such letters. Then it will stay fresh for all the letters, though of course each needs its special story.

Transitions have a cost. Recognize this cost and make it work for you. Work and live consciously, enjoy what you do, and give yourself permission to change. Some transitions will be between different kinds of work and others will intersperse life. Another kind of transition is the one that takes years or decades. I used my time differently when I had preschoolers. But that is something for another time.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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