Even scientists can get tired -why it is normal and how to deal with it

All jobs come with a dose of stress and being a scientific researcher is not an exception. Briefly, a scientist's core job consists in finding questions that need to be answered and then figuring out ways to get those answers. As much as it sounds straight-forward, the reality is completely different. Behind any scientific product, there is a huge physical and mental investment.

The amount of work is not equal to the amount of results.

If a medical doctor works extra hours, more patients will be treated. If a chef works extra hours, more dishes will be served. And if a scientist works extra hours, more results will be obtained, except there is no guarantee that those results are exploitable or publishable. And whenever that is the case, the first reaction of any of us is to work more.

Scientific questions have no deadline

The amount of time required to build a hotel or a school can be projected. The amount of time needed to assemble a certain number of airplanes and cars can also be set. However, the amount of time required to answer a scientific question is less tangible. Because we often do not know what we will find, it is hard to tell when the answer we are looking for will be found. Moreover, in the process of answering that first question, we will find ten more questions to resolve. It is not a surprise that when famous scientists present their work in conferences, it consists of the data harvested by several PhD students and postdocs over several years, even decades. Again, most of us are aware of those two characteristics. Yet, we, PhD students and postdocs, feel the urgency to bring our projects to completion within the duration of our temporary contracts. So, we work more.

The line between passion and work overload is thin

Working in science is exciting! Let's face it! We have VIP access to witness discoveries and never-seen-before phenomena. We do not only thrive in first-hand fresh knowledge, but our job is also to generate more of it! It is not seldom that research institutes are open 24/7 allowing scientists to stay in day and night and even come during weekends and holidays. And although sometimes we do that because we need to, often we do it because we want to. We want to know the outcome of an experiment, we want to know if it worked out or not. And we want to know the answer now, not tomorrow or after the weekend because it is exciting!

So between trying to meet deadlines, working at high speed to answer as many questions as possible and actually feeling excited about it, do scientists ever feel tired? Yes. I have felt very tired sometimes. I have heard each one of my colleagues saying they feel tired. And although the logical thing to do would be to take a rest, we often work more!

The academic culture might be partly responsible for that vicious rhythm of work. But could it be that we also share part of the responsibility? In the research institutes where I have worked everyone is given vacation days. Yet, I know scientists that do not make complete use of them. I know many more that use them but keep working during days-off! Some research institutes are making real efforts to support work-life balance: in-site gyms and fitness classes, allowance for home-office, reading and relaxation areas, etc. But the number of people making use of these efforts remains low, at least in my opinion.

That behavior has a name: productivity guilt, which is "the overwhelming, anxious feeling of always wanting to accomplish more, or to see better results. Even if you are consistently accomplishing your goals and finishing chores, productivity guilt is that quiet voice in the back of your mind asking: what’s next?".

Unfortunately, the Anti-Work Overload Watch has not been created yet, and aside from some rare exceptions, Principal Investigators will not come after you for working too much or not taking any days-off. On the contrary, they may set you as an example of determination and passion, creating the perfect environment for your guilt to appear whenever you consider taking a break.

In previous blog articles, we pointed out how taking breaks and having fun while working can boost productivity and creativity. Nevertheless, we struggle to stop working because we feel (against all evidence) that we have not worked enough.

According to the Zeigarnik effect, the reason behind this is "that our brain retains the unfinished tasks that are constantly drawing the attention of our consciousness, and when we finish them, the brain eliminates them".

We have all experienced the Zeigarnik effect. I like writing to-do lists. By the time I cross-down one item I am already tackling the next one. By the end of the day, I have crossed-down all the items. Hence, I write a new to-do list.

Instead, according to writer Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, what follows should be "a deliberate decision to stop working" and leave the new to-do list for another day.

Several studies suggest that when we pause, our subconscious works in the background on how to better tackle the tasks we left for later without us even realizing it. The overall result is getting back to work with more energy, a boost of creativity and more resilience against stress.

Ironically, just when I was in the middle of writing this article and thinking about a strategy to include deliberate pauses in my agenda, a tiny virus forced me and more than half of the world's population to retreat home, and make a pause!

I once heard the story of an explorer that ventured into inhospitable lands of Africa. The explorer was accompanied by carriers that made a way through the thick vegetation. The aim was to keep going at any cost. If a river appeared, they would cross it in the shortest time possible. If there was a hill, they quickened their pace not to waste a minute.

But at one point the porters stopped.

“What's wrong?” asked the explorer.

“We cannot go any further today. We are going so quickly that we must wait here for our souls to catch up with us” replied the porters.

Before the pandemic, we were like the porters. Going at full speed, at any cost. We are still working from home. We have had now a couple of weeks to re-adjust to a new routine. But it is definitely slower for most of us.

So, let's take time to catch up with ourselves. Let's have that inner conversation where we remind ourselves everything that the Zeigarnik effect made us forget. Let's acknowledge ourselves for our accomplishments. Let's just be.

After all we are human beings and not human doings!

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