Skip to main content

A new meaning to the term "Brain Drain?"

By Stephanie Goodwin, Ph.D., AWC Writing Coach

Academic life may be sedentary, but new research suggests it is both mentally and physically fatiguing. Macora and colleagues (2013) randomly assigned adults to either watch documentaries or perform demanding mental tests. Ninety minutes later, both the film-watchers and test-takers were asked to hop on an exercise bike and peddle for long as they could. Despite the fact that both film-watching and test-taking were equally sedentary, the test-takers ran out of steam and stopped peddling long before their film-watching peers. Importantly, although test-takers reported feeling more tired, both film-watchers and test-takers chose the same level of resistance on their bikes. In other words, even though the test-takers knew they were feeling drained, they didn’t adjust their expectations to match their energy levels. Instead, they chose to work just as hard as folks who weren’t feeling tired.

So what does this research have to do with writing productivity?  First, these data underscore the physical fatigue that many academics report at the end of a long day of writing.  Although we may have “desk jobs” that doesn’t mean we aren’t working hard. The next time someone says “you academics have it so easy” remind them that cognitive labor is physically demanding too.

Second, these data suggest we could learn a thing or two from people who exercise for a living. Just as
competitive cyclists don’t ride at top speeds every time they train, academics shouldn’t expect to work at 100% of mental effort all of the time, every day.  Athletes vary their training over the day, the week and the month to maximize endurance and performance. For us “mentathletes,” balancing more demanding tasks (e.g., writing) with less effortful responsibilities is key to maintaining our productivity and stamina. The next time you’re planning your day, consider these data and try to alternate your high/low demanding tasks to maximize your productivity across the day.

Finally, these data should remind us of the importance of healthy self-care. Eating, sleeping, and exercise are not “luxuries” – they are required for healthy human function. In spite of our academic culture of heroic stamina, we are only human. If we want to be mentally productive we need to be physically healthy. And when we are feeling fatigued, we need to cut ourselves some slack. Rather than beating ourselves up emotionally, we should acknowledge the mental and physical effort we put into our days. Instead of pushing through and failing to meet our goals, we should reset the resistance on our proverbial bikes to a lower level to stay on the path to success.

Want to see the original study? Follow this link:


  1. Anonymous4:53 PM

    What a great way to think about mental activity. "mentathalete" should be added to the dictionary!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"ABD" -- what does it really mean?

I thought I knew what the definition of ABD was. It was exactly the same as defined here in Carnegie Mellon's University Doctoral Candidate Policies for All But Dissertation (ABD) : After the completion of all formal degree requirements other than the completion of and approval of the doctoral dissertation and the public final examination, doctoral candidates shall be regarded as All But Dissertation(ABD). I have, though, occasionally run into the term ABD being used as a somewhat disparaging designation for one who fulfills the formal degree requirements of the Ph.D. but never finishes the dissertation, and then quits the program. Most recently, I saw it in What They Didn' t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career , by Paul Gray and David E. Drew. Number 9 of their helpful hints is one that I strongly agree with: "Remember that a Ph.D. is primarily an indication of survivorship." They go on to say, "You stuck wi

Academic Exhaustion Syndrome: Four Recovery Strategies

The semester’s over. If you’re anything like the academics I coach, you feel like death warmed over.  Those last stacks of grading got done on sheer will, determination and fumes. And this is before considering your writing deadlines, committee responsibilities, and other demands.  You are suffering from Academic Exhaustion Syndrome.  Academic Exhaustion Syndrome (an advanced, more scholarly state of burn out) is a state of emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, ending with grading, over the course of the semester and academic year. As the stress continues, you begin to lose interest and motivation to work, you have fantasies of standing up and screaming in the middle of a meeting, and you wonder what temporary loss of reality testing made you decide to become an academic.  This dreaded Syndrome can: Reduce your productivity and saps your energy Make you irritable and have thoughts of strangling an undergraduate Make you feel like you have nothing more to g

The Second Holiday Writing Challenge for Academics

Here's a little boost for those who need a little kickstart to write over the holidays.  I first offered a Holiday Writing Challenge  back in 2005, so I'd say it's about time to do it again. Here's what you do: Post in the comment section: what you'd like to work on (if anything) over the holidays, and the maximum amount of time you'd like to spend on it daily . Please keep this time limit reasonable and low unless you're under huge deadline pressure -- in which case you don't need this challenge in order to get something done! Whether you're a professor or a grad student, make sure you get a copy of the Dissertation Toolkit.  These tools will give you more information and tips for productive and creative writing.  For those of you who have had trouble making yourself write, you may want to start with VERY short writing goals . Even 5 or 10 minutes will be enough to get you jumpstarted.  Don't go more than 25 or 30 minutes withou