Balance Is a Myth

Stop blaming yourself for failing to achieve what is generally impossible to find on the tenure track, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.
February 1, 2010

Each week this semester, I am identifying some of the most common errors made by tenure-track faculty and suggesting strategies to either avoid or overcome them. I received lots of e-mail about last week’s column Stop Talking, Start Walking! Most people expressed some version of the same sentiment: I'm overwhelmed, I don't have time to write because of other commitments, I'm falling behind, I can't keep up, I feel guilty, frustrated, angry and/or resentful because I'm working all the time but I'm not moving forward on my writing. I hear you, I sympathize with you, I’ve been there myself and it was miserable.

I hoped last week’s column would encourage you to see that the choices you make over how you spend your time each day can mitigate negative feelings by increasing your productivity in the areas on which you will ultimately be evaluated for tenure and promotion. This week, I want to go a step further by encouraging you to rethink the very assumption that tenure-track faculty are supposed to lead harmonious and balanced lives. In other words, another common mistake new faculty make is believing in “balance.”

Most tenure-track faculty members I work with seem to believe that they can achieve harmonious balance in their lives during the tenure-track years. To me, this is a problematic expectation because the structure of tenure-track life is one in which there’s far more work to be done than time in any given day. Let’s be clear -- if you have a stay-at-home partner who does the vast majority of household labor and child-care, you may be able to achieve balance in your life during your probationary period. But most of you are juggling multiple roles and care-giving responsibilities above and beyond new course preparations, heavy teaching loads, multiple service assignments, and ever-increasing research expectations. And you're often doing so with little social, financial, technical, and/or professional support in your departments, as well as varying in levels of assistance at home. In this context, the expectation of a balanced life seems just plain unrealistic. I’m not saying this is the way things should be, but unfortunately this is often the way things are. And when we operate in the world according to how things should be, we can end up feeling like one of my mentees, who recently confided: "trying to achieve balance is just one more thing I feel like I’ve failed."

What would happen if you acknowledged that life on the tenure track isn’t set up to support balanced living and faced the fact that the years before you come up for your tenure review will be the most intense, stressful, and challenging years of your professional life? I believe that facing that reality head-on will allow you to release yourself from false expectations and shift your energy towards identifying your personal and professional priorities, working as efficiently and productively as possible, and remaining attentive to your emotional, physical, and relational health.

The Good News

There is good news here! First and foremost, while the tenure-track years may seem endless, please rest assured that this too shall pass. I can personally testify to the fact that after you receive tenure, your life will change because you will be free to determine the pace of your productivity and the stress of being on probation will dissolve. In other words, the balance you are likely to experience as an academic will come over the length of your career, as opposed to having ample time for everything you want to do during the tenure-track years.


While it's great to know there's a light at the end of the tunnel, what can you do TODAY to manage your heavy workload?

1. Sharpen your focus.

The more you have going on in your life off-campus, the sharper your focus must be during the time you spend on-campus. If you have limited time each day, make sure a significant amount of that time is spent on activities (such as research and writing) that contribute to your long-term success and mobility. Likewise, if you find yourself working long hours and having little time for anything else, make sure that the things that are important to your relationships and your health receive attention.

2. Stop thinking you are selfish.

Last week, I was visiting a research-intensive university and had the opportunity to talk with a number of tenure-track faculty. During this visit, I kept hearing one woman after another describe the act of setting aside time for research and writing as "selfish." These same women described long days of putting everyone else's needs first and "hoping" they will have the time and energy to write at the end of the day. If you’re in a similar situation, release yourself from the idea that taking care of your own needs (not to mention making time to tend to the primary criteria in your promotion and tenure decision) is "selfish." It is not selfish to prioritize your research. In fact, it's your job.

3. Identify ONE problem area this week that you need to resolve in order to be more productive.

Try to identify the primary problem standing in the way of your productivity. If there are lots of them, then pick the biggest one. If you need some help identifying your problem, take a look back at the list on my blog “What’s Holding You Back?” If you still can't figure it out, try talking with one of your mentors and/or ask the peer mentors on my discussion forum. They are amazing at identifying problems and proposing practical solutions.

4. Take one small step forward to make a change.

Whatever problem you identify, come up with one concrete step forward you can take to resolve it this week. It doesn't matter how small that step is, just figure it out and commit to it. Maybe this is the week you are going to start writing every day for 30 minutes, saying "no" to any additional service requests this year, giving students a check mark instead of in-depth written comments, delegating non-essential tasks to someone else, and/or hiring someone to do your taxes, clean your house or shovel your snow. Making just one concrete change will create positive momentum, help you to begin resolving the deeper problems, and motivate you to take another step forward next week.

5. Be gentle, loving, and patient with yourself.

Learning to manage your workload and maximize your productivity takes time. Two years ago, I decided I was going to start running for exercise and stress reduction. At first, all I could do was walk around the track while other people flew by me. I told myself, "Don't compare yourself, you're just getting started, and you're doing the best you can for right now." After two weeks of walking the track, I was power-walking so fast that I passed several slow joggers and it occurred to me: “I can do that!” Each week I jogged one lap further than the previous week and before I knew it, I was running three miles, four days a week.

I could tell the exact same story about learning to work efficiently on the tenure-track. When I finally understood that I couldn't physically work 80 hours a week anymore, I started to make the changes that my mentors suggested. Again, I told myself, "Don't compare yourself to others, you're just getting started, and you're doing the best you can for right now." I took small steps forward, one week at a time, and pretty soon I was writing every morning, completing drafts, publishing my research, and feeling confident. Not perfect, not balanced, but confident that I could publish and flourish without sacrificing my health, relationships, and sanity.


This week I challenge you to:

  • Acknowledge that life on the tenure-track places incredibly high demands on your time and energy.
  • Take a look around your department and identify who is currently living up to your expectations of balance. If you find someone, consider initiating a conversation with her about how she makes it work. If you don’t find anyone, ask yourself if your expectations are realistic.
  • Release yourself from whatever negative self-judgments and criticism are keeping you from aligning your time with your institution’s priorities.
  • If you’re unhappy with your productivity, gently ask yourself, what’s holding me back?
  • Identify one CONCRETE step forward and commit to executing that change this week.
  • If you need support in making writing a daily priority, consider joining the Academic Ladder’s Writing Club.
  • If you haven't written your Semester Plan, it's not too late!
  • Express thanks to yourself for all the hard work you have done this year.

I hope this week brings each of you a sense of clarity about the structural origin of your time pressures, a spirit of gentleness towards yourself as you navigate this difficult terrain, endless creativity in designing your own solutions, and the feeling of empowerment that comes from moving forward.

Peace and Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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