I’m bad at this work-life balance thing. I’m obsessive about finishing projects, and can easily lose track of time if I’m focussed on a challenge or task. But hours and hours of work without a break isn’t healthy, and I don’t do my best work. Why? Having such an intense focus on a certain problem can lead to myopic thinking — that feeling that you just keep going in circles — and a total loss of creativity. Scheduling work-life balance is, for me, the solution to preventing the pull into over-working and burn out.
Having regular, hard commitments outside of work forces me to plan my experiments more efficiently. By hard commitments, I mean those with a specific start and end time. For example, if I know that every Tuesday at 6pm I have an activity, then I also know that on Tuesdays I need to schedule my work a bit more efficiently to be through with everything by 5:15pm. This forces me not to procrastinate (on Tuesdays), because I want to be able to leave on time. And a productive Tuesday tends to roll into a productive Wednesday. It also means that, at least on Tuesdays, I’m very selective about what I say “yes” to. In a sense, having hard commitments forces me to work hard, so that I can play hard.
Having regular commitments is also important because it habit-forming. If you do something every single week, you’re much less likely to start skipping weeks. Naturally, it also helps if you enjoy what you are doing. Some activities are more demanding of attendance than others. For example, with a course, missing a week means you get behind, while with a sports team, missing a game means you let your team down. You’re also much less likely to skip an activity that you have paid in advance to attend. Finally, if committing to an activity is difficult, you can piggyback off of a friend who is stubbornly consistent. Plan to do something together every week at a certain time, and s/he can keep you accountable.
By making your “life” commitments productive, you can avoid or minimise grad school guilt. By explicitly showing yourself how your life activities can make you better at work activities, you can leave the lab at 5:15pm with confidence. For example, you can justify taking a spin or yoga class by the fact that exercise reduces stress and lets you think more clearly and creatively the next day. Likewise, a language class might offer better future employment options. A dinner date with your Significant Other or a close friend every week can help maintain your relationship, and your optimistic attitude. Volunteering or giving back to your community is another good way to avoid feeling guilty about not being in the lab. What more worthy cause is there than helping others?
Having a mix of fun and challenging activities protects against boredom and enriches various aspects of your life. You can use your commitments to stimulate your multiple intelligences that your grad school life might not be exercising. Right now, I take Dutch class, swim laps with a friend, and horseback ride. Dutch class helps me assimilate into my new community and is a great opportunity to chat with friends and challenge my mind in a completely different way than at work. Swimming is relaxing for my brain and good for my heart, and a few minutes in the sauna or hot tub at the end leads to a good night’s sleep. Horseback riding is just fun! It forces me to forget about everything else and concentrate on the horse.
Having a few hard commitments in your schedule will keep you sane, but overdoing it will add more stress to your life. Holding a few nights free each week allows you a certain amount of flexibility when work or life gets a bit crazy. If your activities have a certain amount of homework (music lessons, for example, require you to practise daily), then you probably have less time for other activities. Pets, significant others, and family members will also influence how much time you can spend on scheduled activities.
As with any life change, start small, see what works, and build from there.
What scheduled activities keep you focussed during the day?
[Image by Flickr User whereisemil and used under Creative Commons Licensing]
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