If you search for “academic work-life balance” you will get a lot of contradictory results.
You may see some advice that says the main responsibilities of a graduate student are producing research (here and here). Then you will find more realistic advice which acknowledges that academics, including graduate students, are not only asked to do a lot but also to do a lot without getting paid for it (here, here, and here).
Why is their so much contradictory, often bad, advice about how to achieve work-life balance in academia?
Part of the answer is that their is often a misrecognition of what balance is. I can speak to this because for years I had a bad idea of what balance was. I thought balance was reaching a state where everything was easy and my time was equally dedicated to my academic self and my non-academic self. I thought this was a state I could, with enough work and planning, achieve and then never leave.
What I’m really describing there is perfection and stasis–two things that don’t exist in real life because of entropy and other people.
Because perfection and stasis don’t exist any conception of balance that relies on them is doomed to failure.
But that doesn’t mean balance doesn’t exist.
When I think of balance now I think of a tree. Specifically, I think of my first yoga class at a community college when a bunch of yoga newbies were struggling with tree pose. The teacher said, “Think of trees. Trees are almost always moving with the wind but they are balanced. Balance isn’t the ability to be still. It isn’t inactive. Balance is the constant movement you engage in to maintain your equilibrium.”
I have yet to encounter a better definition of balance.
This is the second key to why a lot of advice about how to achieve balance is not as helpful as one might wish: balance is inherently individual. Therefore, recommendations for balance from other people tend to be specific to them (and not helpful for you) or so general as to not be helpful at all.
Balance is all about understanding how to maintain your equilibrium and equilibrium, in turn, is about honoring your priorities.
For instance, my priorities looked very different the first year of my PhD then they do now. In the first year of my PhD program I was 27, single, healthy and intensely focused on creating an academic career for myself. Although it might not have looked balanced from the outside, I would routinely work in my office on campus until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. In this last year of my PhD I am 32, married, and have an autoimmune disorder. I now rarely work past 6:00 p.m.
Neither is better than the other. I simply had different priorities and abilities at the beginning of my PhD than I do now, honoring those priorities looked different so my equilibrium and, therefore, my balance, looked different.
The first step to any meaningful type of balance is to think about and honor your own priorities and allocate your time accordingly. Put very, very simply: put your energy mostly into the things that give you energy and don’t worry if it looks like “balance” from the outside.
This takes some trial and error, but you can do it. However, even when you’ve decided your priorities and allocated your time in a way that feels sustainable to you hiccups do happen.
Even if you’re really good at planning your day sh*t happens.
The very best way to deal with the everyday stuff that could derail you is to deal with it before it happens.
This is a tip I picked up from the book “High Performance Habits.” Brendan Burchard, the author of that book, recommends identifying your three biggest priorities for the day ahead and when you will address each of them. THEN make a contingency plan.
For me this often looks something like, “I will work on chapter edits during my office hour today. However, if my office hours are interrupted by students or talkative office mates then I will work on my chapter edits for an hour after I teach.”
This way, if something comes up that derails your carefully laid plans the balance of your day isn’t thrown off. You’ve already thought about what adjustments you can make to ensure that your three biggest priorities are met for the day.
Again, balance isn’t stasis or perfection–it is the constant motion we engage in to maintain our equilibrium.
Go forth and be great, my friends!
Soon we will have a Weekly Roundup of some of our favorite advice about balance in academia.