Do Scientists Work Too Hard?

Scientists are busy people. The eminent biologist E.O. Wilson wrote that budding research scientists need to work 80 hours per week. A slacker working 60 hours might end up with a respectable career, but never a truly groundbreaking one.

But is such advice really good for science?

Confession: I work a lot myself. It’s not as bad as it was during grad school, when I routinely blew off social invitations to stay late into the night on campus. But between work, family, and other obligations, unstructured downtime is still a precious commodity. Even when I’m not at my desk writing, I’m often thinking about work—which collaborators I have to email next, what reviews are overdue, when I’m going to finally analyze that dataset.

None of these thoughts are about the actual subject matter of my research. They’re about management of work—scheduling, to-do lists, task organization. But it’s hard to solve any tricky problems when your gears are constantly whirring at top speed. The human brain needs downtime, relaxation, and quiet to function well. Daydreaming and downtime are critical for the brain’s ability to digest and process information and mull options. According to The New York Times:

“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Recently, during a rare moment lying in a chair doing nothing, I experienced just such a flash of insight. It wasn’t about a research problem. It was about a cat.

What I learned from my cat

Any pet owner knows how crucial rituals are to animal communication. Over the years, my cat and I had developed a certain routine. When I came home, he would trot up to the door, greet me with a sociable meow, and then flop dramatically on the nearest rug. This was my cue to pet him and let him affectionately lick my nose.

But recently, he’d started acting strangely. Instead of greeting me, the cat would run away, hiding in the shadows beneath his chair—a ragged papasan he long ago colonized as his own. My wife and I couldn’t figure it out. He didn’t seem injured or ill.

I kept up my routines, rushing in and out of the apartment for work each day. But one morning, I was in the papasan, the cat purring on my chest. All my work forgotten for a few minutes, I was daydreaming, looking out the window. Suddenly, it came to me.

I’m invading the cat’s territory.

I’d never spent much time in the papasan before. I’d only recently started joining him in his chair for a few minutes every day, hoping to make up for some of the attention he was now losing to my work and marriage.

But I was breaking some important, inarticulable rule. Although the cat might purr in familiarity, I was unintentionally dominating him. Naturally, he was responding with submissive and avoidant behavior.

Of course, this flash of insight was only a suspicion. I didn’t know for sure. So over the following week, I started treating the papasan like sovereign turf again: I didn’t sit down in it when he was on it, didn’t invade his territory. I waited to see what would happen.

Sure enough, the cat started coming back out of his shell. Within a few days, he was greeting me at the door again. Without me barging into his sleeping nook every morning, he apparently felt safer, unchallenged.

I couldn’t pass peer review with this conclusion. But the data all seem to fit. I had changed a major aspect of my behavior toward the cat, and he had responded in kind. Our normal ritual routine then fell apart. And in a moment of undirected, idle daydreaming, my brain had somehow finally put all the pieces together.

So what does science lose when it forces young researchers to work 80-hour weeks, to always be “on?” It gains an army of career-focused foot soldiers to run analyses and samples. But it loses countless “Aha!” moments, those wild flashes that come when the human mind is free to take stock, to daydream, to idly gaze out a window and see the world as if in a new light.

Quietude and peace, time for reflection and insight, are spiritual goods. We hear them praised in sermons and the poetry of Wendell Berry, but doctoral training rarely mentions them. Yet science faces countless problems far more complex and fascinating than a disrupted ritual involving someone’s house cat. Maybe a unified field theory, or a decisive explanation for the origin of language, is waiting for someone to courageously ignore E.O. Wilson and take that long vacation.

Research Associate, Center for Mind and Culture