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Academics are terrible at setting boundaries for ourselves. We are all driven, motivated, hardworking individuals and presumably got into our fields and disciplines to make a difference in some capacity. Most of us have a difficult time saying no, and a lot of us want to help in every way possible. This task is made even more difficult by the fact that many of us are working safely from home most or all of the time these days, blurring the lines between our jobs and the rest of our lives.

We all have stories of situations when we worked exorbitant amounts of time finishing projects or writing grants or completing papers. This is not strange to us, myself included. But it should not be the norm.

Burnout in academe is all too common, and we as academics barrel toward it, full steam ahead. Yet taking breaks is healthy and needed. Plenty of information and research shows that regularly limiting our time at work to a reasonable amount actually makes us more productive than pushing ourselves past the point of exhaustion.

You are always going to have more courses to take, more experiments to do, more papers to write, more data to analyze, more grants to write -- the work never stops. But meanwhile, our lives are continuing on around us, no matter what is going on in our careers. Kids grow, people age and life moves on, whether we want it to or not. Ignoring what is happening around us because we are constantly working does not make it stop.

It is never too early, or too late, to begin setting boundaries for yourself. You can start small by only working until a certain time or not checking your email in the evenings or on weekends. Take your work email off your phone, especially if you tend to check it whenever you sit down and relax. Put a realistic limit on how many committees you allow yourself to serve on.

Additionally, you should check in with yourself to see how you feel mentally and emotionally to make sure you are being realistic about your boundaries. This is particularly important today, as a global pandemic, a historic civil rights movement and a financial crisis with astronomic unemployment rates all occur at the same time. It is a highly stressful time, and you are more likely to have a lower capacity to start new things or add additional ones to your to-do list. And that is absolutely OK. It is OK to say no. Learn how to say no.

Questions to Ask Yourself

But how do you decide what new things you can or should take on versus what you shouldn’t? Here are some starter questions to consider when contemplating adding more on to your ever-growing to-do list.

  • Is this something you are required to do?
  • Are you agreeing to the new project because you think you have to?
  • Is it something you are genuinely passionate about?
  • Is this helpful to you or others?
  • Do you have the emotional or mental capacity for this new project, committee or activity -- especially right now? What kind of time commitment is required for it?
  • Is this a volunteer activity you need in order to gain experience in an area you are interested in for a career?

Those are all points to consider when thinking about whether or not you should add additional work items to your agenda.

At certain times, you will have clear deadlines and will have to grind those hours away. You will have times when you have to be on another committee or work through that project or complete that grant. But by setting boundaries and taking breaks regularly, those times will be less difficult and exhausting. If you know you have upcoming busy times, try to plan for a break afterward, even if it is a short one. Take vacation time and holidays off. If you haven’t taken breaks or set boundaries before, start slow. Even baby steps are still progress forward.

Something else to consider is that working from home, especially during the stressful current events, also tends to upset your work/life balance. Lots of people tend to “just answer one more email” or “analyze one more set of experiments,” working well into the night or weekend. But if it is not something that has to be taken care of immediately, it can be put down and saved for tomorrow. Set yourself a timer and log off. Shut your computer, put down your phone and find something you enjoy -- even if it is something as simple as reading a favorite book, coloring or bingeing on a favorite TV series.

I know this is easier said than done, but like anything, with some effort and practice, it can become a routine. I know, because I have done it. I went from constantly checking my work email and working way too much as a postdoc to mostly checking my email within work hours and setting limits for myself to work.

Besides setting boundaries, it is good to have interests outside your career. Friends and family can be important for your mental health and as a support system. Academics are incredibly creative and can also find hobbies like cooking, baking, crafting and art -- they will vary from person to person -- incredibly rewarding. Outlets like sports and exercise can be helpful, as well. Although they may be more complicated to start during a pandemic, solo activities like skating and bike riding can still be done.

You can easily learn new things with a slew of tutorials easily found online, and a lot of hobbies have fairly inexpensive kits to start with if you look hard enough. In my downtime, I love to bake, skate, read, craft and play roller derby when we are not in a pandemic. All of these things make me not only a more well-rounded individual but, in fact, also help me be more productive at my job.

You only have one life and one self. You have to take care of yourself first. As a friend recently reminded me, “Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others with theirs.” That means you cannot really help others if you yourself are overworked and emotionally drained. You can only get so much accomplished when you are burned out. By setting boundaries and taking care of yourself, you can actually do and accomplish much more.

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