The term “work-life balance” is out of favour. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because everyone is working so hard it seems like an impossible dream.
I came across a recent piece in Harvard Business Review arguing for the importance of boundaries. They are not talking about academics but this definition of the problem definitely resonates:
Success is typically a function of our passion for work and accomplishment—my clients and students are generally “happy workaholics” who love what they do and wish there were more hours in the day to get things done. … The concept of life/work balance isn’t that helpful for us, because there’s always more work to do, we’re eager to do it, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. In some cases, particularly in junior roles early in our careers, this tendency can be exploited by a dysfunctional culture or an uncaring manager, and at those times we need to protect ourselves to avoid burnout. But as we advance professionally we’re less subject to those external forces, and we need to protect ourselves primarily from our own internal drive.
The main difference is that in an academic environment, the culture is such that no one expects anyone else to “manage” you in the way assumed here as ‘functional’ and ‘caring’. Although your head of department or a senior colleague may take you aside and make some suggestions for managing your workload and time, it is not expected even for junior faculty.
The downside of autonomy is that you need to manage all this yourself, even in early stages of your career. Your work is not your life, even if you enjoy it.
The recommendation? Boundaries.
boundaries offer a sustainable means of keeping things in their proper place. … Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.
Good boundaries support your work
Boundaries between your work and other parts of your life ensure that you get the rest and exercise that ensure you are working at peak cognitive capacity. Taking time away from heavy intellectual work allows your ideas to develop in the sub-conscious often leading to Aha! moments. Taking the time to nurture your personal relationships feeds you in ways that are hard to measure, but very important.
Boundaries are also helpful within your work. Academic work is complex and varied. Setting boundaries around specific areas of work can make you more focused during those times. You are less distracted by the work that you aren’t doing right now, knowing that there is time set aside to do it. It is easier to focus for shorter periods of time with clear endpoints.
You may have noticed this effect when a boundary has been forced upon you. For a while I lived in a different city from my partner. I was amazed at how many essays I could mark in a 1-hour train journey. Similarly, after I had my daughter and needed to leave the office at a specific time to get to the day-care to pick her up, I noticed how much time I had previously frittered at the end of the day.
Don’t wait for external circumstances to provide the boundaries. You can provide them yourself.
You get to decide the balance
The thing about work-life balance is that no one else gets to decide what “balance” looks like for you. There are some classic signs that you are out of balance — anxiety, overwhelm, withdrawal, exhaustion, etc. However, what works for someone else may not work for you.
Think about your whole life. What is important to you?
- your work?
- your children? your partner? your family?
- your friends?
- particular causes? (I’m thinking about activism and/or volunteer work)
- your church or spiritual practice?
- sports? recreational activity?
There are no right answers. Your own balance will be unique. If there are things you are frustrated about not having time for, that’s a sign they are important.
Figure out what your vision of balance is, though, even if you aren’t achieving it right now. Then you can experiment with creating boundaries and adjusting the balance between those important things to suit you.
You never achieve balance
Try standing on one foot. You will probably sway and wobble. How much depends on how often you practice that kind of physical balance. If you aren’t swaying and wobbling you can make balancing harder by changing the position of your arms and legs and closing your eyes. In yoga, the teacher often encourages us to make it harder. The work is in the focus necessary. The swaying and wobbling is good for strengthening your muscles. She also encourages us to use a wall for support if we need to.
Your goal is not to achieve balance and then live happily ever after. Something will always change. The balance that was easy last term will be almost impossible this term. None of this means that you are a failure at balance and should just give up.
Your goal is to practice. To notice what is off (for you). To experiment with things that might bring you into better balance. To accept that some days are harder than others. To figure out whether you would benefit from support and if so, what kind.
If you need a teacher to guide that practice, I’m here. Everything I do — Meeting With Your Writing, coaching, everything — serves the whole you.
This post was edited August 10, 2015.