Academia and Work-Life Balance

fwp-A-Healthy-Work-Life-Balance-webIn Academia, there is often a lot of chatter and inner-struggle concerning the ideal Work-Life Balance. Although it may be too early for me to comment on this (since I’m only a postdoc and I don’t have kids), I feel that I have a decent work-life balance. After all, I finished a PhD program with both my physical and mental health intact afterwards- so here goes some of my opinions on this much sought after balance.

First off – let’s address the statement “Academics are Work-A-Holics”: 


I always hear folks (including academics) complain about how academics work all the time. I experienced this firsthand since I grew up in an academic household and I saw how much both of my parents worked (my own dad even labeled my mom as a ‘work-a-holic’). Both of my parents are/were tenured professors and scientists, and my mom was Departmental Chair at one point at the Ohio State University.

I also saw how much my parents (and other academics) enjoyed their work, which I think is one of the main reasons of why academics ‘work’ a lot. I will linger on this for a second because: if you enjoy your work – is it truly ‘work’? Is this any different than an olympic athlete that trains constantly to achieve their goals/dreams? (Don’t worry.. Im still going to talk about enjoying life below this also). 

The concept of enjoying your work, and waking up excited to start your work day is more than most people outside of academia can say about their jobs. And yes, I realize that academia is a privileged job position to hold because of this very reason.

However even though academics self-identify as work-a-holics- I also see and appreciate the huge amount of flexibility that academics have for when and where they choose to do their work. My parents for example always made time for all of the important things- my gymnastics competitions, birthdays, family vacations… the list goes on, and of course they could take off work whenever I got sick. When one parent was writing a grant- the other parent would take me to a bookstore or to the amusement park (weather pending). My dad was actually the main chef, and we would have family dinners together almost every single night!

Now compare this lifestyle to the working family where both parents hold down more than one full or part time job… Or to a family of lawyers or doctors.. or business CEOs….How many family dinners do these families have? How many times are they able to take off work without penalties for when their kids get sick or have a special event?

If you keep this perspective – then maybe you will see my first main point.. that academia might actually be the most perfect job (if you can get a tenure-track position of course) to feed your soul and to have a decent work-life balance (with a little bit of effort of course).

In fact for me this hit home when recently my dad got terminally sick during my postdoc (metastatic cancer from a brain tumor) and I was able to work remotely in Ohio helping my mom provide at home hospice-care for him for almost two months! Although it was horrible watching my dad suffer, as well as knowing what was to come, I am so glad I was able to be there with him and my family during his last months.

How many other jobs would let someone take off two months and work remotely? Not many I bet. I also had a ton of support from colleagues and my research mentors which makes you realize that most academics are amazing humans and care about each other’s well being.


So, given that academics have a soul-fulfilling job (ideally), and have the flexibility and potential to have a decent balance….

How do you ensure a work-life balance to where you make time for friends, family hobbies and a healthy life-style?

Below are some of my tips that I have implemented myself. *Disclaimer- I do not have kids.. so the below tips could likely very well change or be different for those that do have kids.


1. *MAKE* THE TIME FOR THINGS IMPORTANT TO YOU

Aka- Don’t try to ‘find’ the time… Just ‘Make’ the time and stop making excuses.

Example- if exercising is more important to you than the postdoc or faculty happy hour.. then go exercise! Better yet if you can find a colleague or friend to exercise with.

This theme is incorporated in all of the other tips below.


2. BE PRESENT IN WHAT YOU ARE DOING AT THE MOMENT

Whether you are working or relaxing/having fun- try to be present in the moment. 

This advice goes hand in hand with #3 below.

There is no point in taking time off of work if you are thinking about work- so face the fact that in that moment you are not supposed to be working and just enjoy the time. In contrast- if you are working- don’t go on facebook or do other non-work activities. Try to keep to the task at hand.

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3. USE YOUR TIME WISELY

I’m sure you have heard that ‘Being Busy is Different than Being Productive‘. Sometimes the hours that you spent working in a day don’t always equate to ‘productive’ hours.

By this, I am not discrediting the creative process or troubleshooting projects, which can sometimes feel unproductive.

However, just be aware of your time spent ‘working’ and how productive you are actually being while away from your other activities/spending time with family/friends. 

For instance- I find that I am mentally most alert, creative and productive in the mornings. So I try to do my writing, data analysis and brainstorming in the mornings, and then save meetings and lab work for the late afternoon and evenings. Everyone likely has times of the day where they are more productive at different types of tasks.

Try to find out when you are most productive with different types of tasks, and then schedule your work day and free time accordingly.


4. INCORPORATE PRODUCTIVE HOBBIES and ACHIEVE YOUR LIFE GOALS

Since I tend to feel guilty unless I feel that I am being productive- (a feeling that I think many academics share) -I have gained an affinity for hobbies that make me feel productive and achieve life goals I have outside of work.

If you feel ‘productive’ when you are doing things outside of work.. chances are that you will decrease that guilty voice in the back of your head that keeps reminding you about ‘work’.  Note that your individual definition of ‘productive’ may vary from mine or someone else’s .

For instance, my mind (aka the guilty conscious) rewards me for several categories: 1) exercise/staying ninja-fit, 2) cooking up awesome meals for friends and family, 3) spending time and staying in touch with friends/family, 4) learning (including improving upon a new skill/language) 5) producing a product (artwork counts), 6) getting enough sleep, and 7) having enough alone time.

If you ‘feed your productivity meter’.. you can actually have fun and put that ‘I should be working” thought to rest.  Again – being productive can include going for a swim or rollerblading (exercise points!), creating a new art piece (you needed to make something for mother’s day anyhow!), cooking with a friend (after all you need to eat -don’t you?), exercising with a friend, learning a new language (e.g. practicing spanish for that upcoming Cuba trip!), learning how to flip off of a wall, or learning a new aerial silks or capoeira move, or becoming a *certified personal fitness trainer.

*I became a NASM certified personal trainer after graduating with my PhD since I was concerned about back-up plans if I didn’t get my current postdoc…so now I have a constant plan B to make ends meet for those academic transitional periods (check out my hardly-ever updated fitness blog here, or my 10 min ab video here).

There are of course a couple of hobbies that you might have to tinker with in order to ease your guilty consciousI admit- it’s still hard for me to curl up with a good fiction book… I’m not perfect. There is that thought in the back of my head that says ‘If you are going to be spending time reading-you should be learning something’. So instead- I curl up with a National Geographic issue or a good non-fiction book (I love Mary Roach’s books!)- since those are both relaxing and ‘productive’, thereby putting my mind at ease.


5. PLAN ACTIVITIES 

My main balance tactic is to plan fun activities, with friends and family and for most of these activities to revolve around some form of physical activity (that way you have fun, socialize and exercise at the same time!).

IF you plan something, then it is easier to turn off the ‘I have to do work’ part of your mind since you already scheduled the non-work activity. 

If I don’t plan something, my default for the weekend tends to be work and exercise (currently working on a 10 year streak of not missing a day of exercise…).I’ve learned from this personality disorder (blame it on my PhD!) and I try to plan at least one thing with my husband or friends every weekend so that I don’t just work away my weekend.

Some of my favorite activities to do with friends/family include:  hiking/backpacking, capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial arts), aerial silks, and surfing- all great workouts also!

For example, one of my best friends (shown below in the photo) is my former lab manager during my PhD program and we did a duo aerial silks performance together a couple years ago. We would meet at the gym, train together and have fun, and then go out to eat or cook together after. Here is our show we did a couple years back, we performed for both the Athletic Playground and for Tourettes without Regrets: Aerial Silks Show Duo

Me and Cristina performing our Aerial Duo
Me and Cristina performing our Aerial Duo

And with my husband- we push each other to be our better selves (mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.).  Some of our favorite activities together revolve around exercise- whether it be backpacking (see picture below of us climbing half dome), capoeira, or trying out for American Ninja Warrior.

Gerid_Julie_yosemiteIn the end we both got on American Ninja Warrior back in 2011 and 2012 when I was doing my PhD. Here is one of my audition clips that my husband helped me make: ANW 2011 audition and here is my actual run on the obstacle course: American Ninja Warrior 2012 Venice Beach, CA


6. SET A STRUCTURED WORK-SCHEDULE AND WEEKLY ROUTINE

*Disclaimer: I have not yet conquered # 6 here yet…

I tend to still have an unstructured work schedule- where I start work at variable times throughout the week- sometimes as early as 9am and as late as 11am. This of course means that if I start at 11am, and bike to and from the lab that sometimes I don’t get home until 8 or 9pm. This sets me on a bad repetitive schedule where I get off work late, go to sleep late, wake up late.. and repeat the cycle.. ugh. It also means that if I take half a day off to deal with life stuff (DMV, go to a store/bank, etc)- that then I need to work on the weekend when everyone else is having fun…

I still have mixed thoughts about this #6, since a structured work routine would probably allow me to take more time off in the evenings and the weekends. However- it also means I would have to go to bed at a structured time, wake up early and start work early. So the jury is out on # 5 for now… but I have a feeling that once kids come along… # 6 is going to be key.


7. ANY OTHER TIPS FOR ACHIEVING WORK-LIFE BALANCE? FEEL FREE TO COMMENT!


And with that, I will be away for a bit on my honeymoon in Cuba! Whoop! And no I’m not going to do work while I’m on vacation. There’s no wifi where we are staying anyhow! (Side note..Yes I will end up working several weekends when I get back.. but that’s a cool price to pay!).

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