In her welcome speech, the college principal apparently told freshers that there are twenty-four hours in every day: eight for sleeping, eight for work, and eight for other things (societies, socialising, and so on). My tutor, when she quoted this to us in our start of term meeting, added, “But I think six or seven hours of working is probably enough.”
I disagree with both of them. Strongly. The latter, marginally less strongly, but I still disagree.
This way of dividing up the day neglects the experiences of disabled and mentally ill students — those of us who might need, for whatever reason, to sleep for more than eight hours, as well as those of us who are not physically capable of working for eight hours, whether that’s because of pain or fatigue or brain fog or anything else. For me, it’s completely unattainable, as my hands and brain don’t work for that many hours per day.
But I also think it’s unnecessary.
I never used to count how many hours per day I worked because I didn’t think it was a helpful way of keeping track of things, but I started doing so last year in an attempt to motivate myself. For every hour I worked, I decided, I’d give myself a pound to spend on fun stuff, whether that was societies (e.g. ballet classes), books, Haribo, or whatever. Necessities, like clothes or books I needed for my course, wouldn’t count in this, but the extras would. Originally, I thought I might have to reduce the amount, but it turned out I didn’t do enough hours to ever go over budget, so I stuck with a pound.
What I discovered was that on a good day, I’d do about four hours of work. Sometimes five, if I was really productive or had a deadline coming up. On a bad day, I might only manage one. I included lectures and classes in this count, but since I only had those three days per week (because that just happened to be how my timetable worked out), there were days when I didn’t manage to earn myself anything.
There was one day last year when I did nine hours of work, and that was the day I discovered my dissertation was due nine days earlier than I’d originally thought. I spent that day frantically trying to get it finished, as well as doing all the slow, boring formatting and referencing that took a long time but wasn’t particularly difficult — which is partly why I was able to keep going so much longer than usual. (The rest was adrenalin and sheer terror.) Apart from that, I rarely came close to the suggested eight hours. Or even six hours. Perhaps the day before an exam I did, but that was definitely the exception rather than the rule.
I had weeks where I’d manage fourteen hours of work over the whole seven days, though my average usually hovered around twenty (so, a bit less than three hours of work each day).
And I not only passed the year, but got a really high 2:i.
Obviously, I’m an arts student, and don’t have a vast number of contact hours. Those who are in labs 9-5 are going to reach those eight hours a lot more easily. But for me, working eight hours per day was not only impossible because of health reasons, it also wasn’t necessary. I’m a fast reader and a fast typist, so I can get work done quickly, but I’m sure there are plenty of people at Cambridge who can manage that. Working for longer doesn’t necessarily mean being more productive; brains do have a saturation point, and you can only read so much before it stops going in.
No one expects advice about working hours or schedules to be universal, but I don’t like the idea that this is being told to freshers when they’ve just arrived at Cambridge and are desperate to get things right — many of whom won’t have the confidence to disregard advice that doesn’t work for them, but will instead try to squidge themselves into the approved mould. I’ve been here for three years already, and this piece of advice has still been harmful to me this week, even though I already know how I work and how much is an appropriate amount for me to do.
Yesterday, for example, I did four hours of work. One hour of that was a class; the rest was reading and taking notes for an essay. I got through a good proportion of a seriously substantial reading list, and also happened to watch two episodes of Lucifer. It was, for me, a productive day, especially considering that I was in a substantial amount of pain from teaching beginner Irish dance the previous day, compounded by cramps. (Great timing, body. Way to make everything hurt at once.)
And yet when I looked at my four tally marks on the whiteboard on my fridge, I felt inadequate. I felt like there should’ve been more of them, even though my brain and body were exhausted and I’d already been pushing myself to manage that much. Because after all, according to this advice I’d only done half of what I should have. Where had those other hours gone? Why had I wasted them?
I feel like this advice is not only ableist (since it ignores that many people have very real health problems preventing them from working this much) and misleading (you can definitely do a Cambridge degree working less than eight hours a day, as I’ve found), but also potentially harmful. I know better than to try and impose other people’s working methods and habits on my life, yet it still crept insidiously into my brain and made me feel stressed and inadequate.
It wasn’t a motivational kind of dissatisfaction in myself, the kind that says: I can be better than this, I’ll work harder and prove it. It was the kind that grinds you down: I’ll never be good enough. I’m failing. I might have done my best, but my best clearly isn’t enough.
For those who don’t have three years of Cambridge experience and who will probably be trying to take every piece of advice given to them this week (as I did as a fresher), it could easily lead to unhealthy working habits, anxiety, and a culture of pushing themselves way beyond their natural limits.
Yes, there are twenty-four hours in a day. But you get to choose how to divide them up according to what suits you, your body, and your brain.
And you probably don’t need to be doing eight hours of work.