Day in the Life of an Academic #8: fragmented vs focused work days

While I was reading the book ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport, about the value and challenges of doing focused work, I started paying more attention to the instances of deep vs shallow work in my life and, in particular, how it impacted on how I felt. I kept a diary for a couple of weeks. noting the type of work I was doing, what I was producing and how I felt at the end of the day.


Here are two examples from that diary. Two very typical but also very different work days: one characterised by lots of different types of requests on my time, the other by bigger chunks of work.


The first day. A Tuesday.

6 am: The alarm goes off. I hit the snooze button. Then, I get up, do 100 crunches, and check Twitter while I am making coffee: Caitlin Moran is reminiscing about the good old days of Twitter.

6h15m: I am at my desk and do some work on the theoretical section of a paper that I am working on (about beacons and contextual marketing).

7am: The alarm goes off again. I get the kids out of bed and ready for school.

7h50m: Husband leaves home with kids. I load the dishwasher and get it going. I also load the washing machine, and add a reminder to my calendar to start it when I am back home in the evening. Get ready for work. Try to call my father, as it is Fathers’ day in Portugal, but he is not picking the phone.


8h10m: Leave for work. Listen to podcasts on the way.

9h10m: Arrive at Brunel car park. Walk to my office, and make myself an espresso.


9h25m: At my desk, deal with e-mails and go through my schedule for the day. I start working on my beacons paper, but I realise that the file on iCloud is not the one that I need (i.e., the updated version, including the progress made this morning). So, I decide to park this paper and look, instead, at the reviews that I received for another paper. I create a table with the reviewers’ comments, and add some early thoughts about how to tackle them.

10h50m: Send the reviews table to my co-author.

11h00m: Meeting with tech start-up and NHS to discuss possible joint research project. Exciting!

12h00m: Office hours.

13h00m: Dash off to the other side of campus to grab some lunch. Before leaving home, this morning, I entertained the idea of packing some lunch. However, last time that I did that, it leaked and caused a mess. So, I decided against it. As our café only has sandwiches and toasts, I decided to hop to the other side of campus to get something to eat. I tell myself that I should come to this side of the campus more often, as I need the fresh air and because some days, like today, there’s a famers’ market with various food stalls.


On the way back to my office, I spot 3 colleagues at the café, and stop for a quick chat regarding marking loads.

13h35m: I skim through a PhD application. Then, walk to the lecture centre for my class.

14h00: Teaching.


15h00: Finish class, and decide to grab an espresso. I have a quick chat with a colleague on the waiting line. Then, I run to another meeting – this time, with the Associate Head of Teaching and with the other Divisional Leads.


17h00: Meeting finishes. I still have some work to do, but I am tired and I want to avoid peak traffic, So, I decide to leave.


18h15: I arrive home, get the washing machine going and empty the dishwasher while talking with child 2. Then, pick up child 1. Come home and make dinner.

20h00: Dinner. Chat with family. Tidy up kitchen. Get kids to bed. Then, before going to bed, I spend around 30 minutes preparing for the next day’s meeting. Usually, I avoid working in the evenings. However, the option today was staying longer in the office, pushing through my tiredness, probably taking more than 30 minutes to do this task (because I was tired), and risking a longer journey home because traffic picked up in the meantime vs. spending a bit of time doing this task, at home, in the evening. And, in my view, the last option is a really good trade-off.


22h15m: Knackered. Go to sleep.

Overall: I spent 7+ hours engaged in work stuff (not including chats with colleagues), over a 16-hours window. I felt like I was jumping from task to task and, more importantly, from role to role. At the end of the day, I felt exhausted.

About 3 weeks later, I had a very different kind of day. It was a Monday.

7 am: Wake up and get ready for work. Send some e-mails while I am having breakfast, and spend some time planning the week ahead. I usually do this planning on Sundays but, as kids are now on school holidays, I lost track of the days of the week.

8 am: Leave for work. More podcast listening.


9 am: Arrive at work. This morning, I am doing a presentation about a research project. It starts at 9h30m, and I spend some time preparing for that.

9h30m: Presentation session starts. I am the first one and get some really good questions and comments. I had planned to sneak out of the session mid-morning, and get some writing done. However, I ended up staying much longer than that… until after lunch time. Ouch.

2 pm: Back in my office. I had made some handwritten notes for my paper, yesterday. So, I start my writing session by transferring those notes to the word document.

2h45m pm: Finished the first round of copy-pasting of notes. Then, print the paper and go through the current draft with a pen. I am finding it difficult to stay focused… though I can’t really blame anyone. Its my mind that keeps wandering off, and telling me that there is something else ‘important / urgent’ that I should be doing, instead.


3h15m: Leave the office. There is lots of traffic on the motorway and, at one point, traffic is completely stationary. Though, luckily, it clears quickly.

4h30m: Arrive home. Quick chat with child 2. At my desk by 4h30m.


On the way home, I had been thinking about the empirical part of the paper I had worked on, earlier today. So, I quickly type the ideas that I had, then continue doing a bit more writing.

5h25m: Leave to go to the gym.

6 pm: HIIT class. In the end, I felt like I was dying. While I was walking out, I overheard someone saying: “I feel so powerful after this class. I tell myself that if I can survive this, I can do anything”. #GlassHalfFull, I suppose 😩


Quick shower, drive home and, then, go out for dinner.

When we returned home, we watched some TV.

11 pm: Bed.

Overall: I spent just under 7 hours engaged in work stuff (not including lunch, etc), over a 10-hours window. So, I ended up spending about the same time engaged in work on both days. The big difference vs the other day is that my attention was spread through fewer tasks, and through fewer types of tasks. I also did not have to juggle so many work and home things; and my work day finished much earlier. So, at the end of the day, I was a lot (!) less tired than usual.

However, writing wise, I can’t really say that I have achieved a lot more on this focused day than I did on the other, fragment one. In the end, I only managed to add 125 new words to my paper, which was really disappointing. Though, they were ‘good’ words – I mean, I did not just go back and delete them, afterwards. Plus, I made some progress in terms of planning other sections. I should have been more strict about leaving the morning session earlier!


Do you track your time? What have you found?




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