Sitting is the New Smoking…


So apparently, sitting is the new smoking…and therefore, I am probably going to die.  Not really (I hope), but there has been a whole lot of attention to the “sitting epidemic” recently, highlighting how much time most of us spend sitting during a regular work day.  (Clearly, they have not spent any time with a staff nurse lately!).  The solution? A standing desk, of course.  Or a treadmill desk. Or taking frequent breaks. Making sure that you have an ergonomically designed work station….

On perhaps, we need to start asking different questions about how our work is designed. For example, in academe, we do spend a lot of time sitting at our computer working on all kinds of things from research grants to articles, powerpoints, data analysis, etc.  Some of this work is unavoidable I think but I also wonder if some of this time could be used more effectively. For example, do we really need to write 20 research articles using one dataset?  Do we really need another book chapter on such and such that a handful of people will read?  What if we publish one really strong paper and then talk to people about our ideas instead?  How much more fun (and time effective) is it to interview people, record a podcast, or share a conference presentation on YouTube?  Obviously, none of these things completely eliminates computer time but I am guessing that the impact of one really great Ted Talk is much broader and valuable than a research article buried in an academic journal that mostly only other researchers are going to read.  Unless of course, more research articles = more tenure points.

Sometimes collecting tenure points feels a bit like being Mario trying to get all the gold coins within reach (and apparently research activities that require copious sitting are as likely to kill you as sitting on your butt playing too many video games).

mario coins.jpg

So let’s assume that you just have to accept that your job requires some sitting.  What can you do to make it less bad?

  1. Take care of your body. Exercise. Eat nutrition food. Go easy-ish on the coffee (mostly). Get enough sleep.
  2. Plan ahead for the ebbs and flows of the school year. Midterms? Exam period? Research grant deadlines?  These are busy times, but they are not unexpected!  Get a calendar and plan ahead. I like to make extra healthy meals and stick them in the freezer to reduce cooking time. Having some exercise equipment in the basement is also really awesome for saving time when I am busy.  There have also been times when I have had to hire my babysitter to give me an extra morning or afternoon to do work on the weekend. (Fingers crossed that being a professor is more awesome than being a grad student working full time!).  Do I always get to do a full workout? No. But sometimes 10 minutes of exercise is better than nothing 😉
  3. Be super organized. You can waste a lot of time trying to simply locate documents, references, and sort through different versions of things.  Having a logical way to organize files and name documents will save you a ton of time. I even get my students to name their documents in specific ways so that I don’t end up with 25 versions of “Assignment 1”.  Using a reference management software program is also a really great way to save time with citing and reference lists, especially when you need to use different referencing styles for different journals. No more wasted time seeking and downloading the same reference articles over and over!  Lastly, using tags and folders in your email inbox is another strategy that saves oodles of time. If you can use the same main categories as your main files on your computer, that is even better!  I like to use gmail and get all of my other emails forwarded to that one account.
  4. Be reasonable. Sometimes I struggle with this. (e.g. “Of course I can have a baby and do my PhD and publish and compete in powerlifting and work at the hospital and teach, etc. at the same time…).  I like to set big goals and have a tendency to say yes to everything but I have learned that this usually leads to burnout. A better strategy is to take on a few things that you can really focus on. Reading (and re-reading) the Power of Less  is a helpful place to start.  Academia seems to reward people who work hard and do a lot but I think another point to consider is that learning and teaching is exciting!  Research and teaching are (should be) both about learning new things and understanding more about the world around us, as well as sharing that knowledge and excitement about learning.  It is hard to say no when you are excited about learning and sharing ideas!   Is it reasonable to spend 20 hours a week preparing for a class you are teaching for the first time?  Maybe not if you are teaching 3 courses and have other things on your plate.
  5. Aim for excellence, rather than perfection. I don’t think there is such a thing as “perfect”. The pareto principle, or 80:20 rule comes in handy here too. It states that 80% of your outcomes/effects will come from 20% of your work. Do you really need to make 50 slides for a 10 minute presentation?  Or, would 10-12 slides, well-designed, be more captivating and effective in getting your point across?  How much time are you spending sitting, working on things that have little to no impact?  After all, sitting is the new smoking….

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