A reader recently pointed me toward a long and thoughtful reflection on academic life written by Stephen Stearns, the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. In a section titled “Learning Balance,” he talks about his work habits in the early 1970s, when his first son was born. “I was not around much to help, for during that time I was working seventy to eighty hours per week,” he writes.
This type of absentee fatherhood was common in this era, but fortunately for Stearns and his children, his wife wasn’t having it. As Stearns recalls, she sat him down, and gave him the following ultimatum:
“I want you to promise not to work nights or weekends: you need to be sharing the parenting, and your child needs a father. If you don’t agree, I will divorce you.”
Stearns listened. “For the next twenty years I did not work nights or weekends, and I spent thousands of delightful hours with our sons while they were growing up,” he recalls. “She was very wise, and I am grateful to her.”
What’s particularly interesting about this story is what didn’t end up happening. Even though Stearns was now working less than the norm among his peers, he continued to thrive professionally. Toiling within the constraints of a fixed schedule turned out to amplify his effectiveness. Here’s how he describes it:
“When I was at work, I worked. And when I was with my family, I concentrated on them. The change in focus cleared and refreshed my mind so that when I went to work, I was efficient…Five to eight hours per day of clear thinking and concentrated work five days per week produces more impressive results than the coffee, chit-chat, and various displacement activities that often fill the time of many of those who think they are working seventy or eighty hours a week.”
Stearns describes his approach as embracing professio sano in vitam sanam: a healthy profession in a healthy life. Here on this newsletter, of course, we’ve long used a different name for this same strategy: fixed-schedule productivity.
I’ve embraced this slow philosophy for most of my professional career. As with Stearns, I too have become a believer in how much can be accomplished in normal 40-hour weeks; if you’re willing to really work when you’re working, and then be done when you’re done. It’s nice, however, to see someone so much more eminent than me also find success with this fixed-schedule approach.
During the pandemic, I setup a modest deep work hideaway in some office space I lease on the main street of the town where I live in the outskirts of Washington, DC. This is where I record my podcast, Deep Questions, meet with other writers and professors, and, in general, escape when I need a change of scenery to focus my efforts. By popular demand, I’ve posted a video that includes a tour of the space. If you’ve been curious what my “Deep Work HQ” actually looks like, check it out.