There are days where I feel like I never stop working. Sometimes, it’s just about the most awesome thing and it gets my brain-juices flowing and I feel productive like nothing else. But sometimes, it’s not that I want to keep working, it’s that my brain just won’t shut off.
Maybe that’s incorrect. I don’t necessarily want my brain to shut off, and heck, if I wanted to, I’ve got a few tricks. I just want my brain to focus on other things with the same intensity it does the latest research question. I just want to be able to talk to my friends and family, jump full-on into cooking mode, or read that new novel I’ve picked up at the library. But with my brain constantly chewing over the latest science paper and its implications for my research, I spend the whole day spinning my wheels. I feel like I never left work, but I have nothing to show for it either.
Trying to get a real work-life balance set up and stable is proving to be much more challenging than I had once thought. I am better now than before, but it’s still a process. I still spend too many days just sitting and staring at the screen/my science journal/my field notebook and not getting anywhere. I am still not always able to put my work aside for long enough for me to get some real rest and relaxation in. But hey, it’s better than before.
First, I set a weekly and if possible, a daily schedule. I spend three days on campus, up to one day working from home (barring emergencies or illness), and at least one day doing field or greenhouse work. By charting out the week, I can schedule regular meetings and I get used to the rhythm of the week. I find that now that I’ve started on my (hopefully) dissertation research (oh god please don’t fail), I no longer have the structure of classes to keep me anchored throughout the week. Creating that structure using seminars, meetings, and my own research deadlines is supremely helpful in that regard.
Second, I try to set a maximum number of hours I can work a week. This part is a lot trickier. For instance, the other day I got very little accomplished. I barely entered any data and I only hit the very top of the backlog of papers I need to skim. But I spent the whole day finding problems in my preparation for going out to collect data and the next day I was able to make a field-work check list and create a new datasheet that will hopefully be easier to use. I don’t know how many hours I actually worked on that project – I can time the checklist and datasheet creation, but that’s it – but I feel like things are going more smoothly now. Still, while I am aware of the need to cap my hours, I am still sorting out the best way to do this.
Third, I am actively working to be more engaged with different groups and activities outside of my graduate program bubble. It’s sort of cheating because anything I do on campus, even if it is with teaching services or outreach seminars, feeds back into my progress as a graduate student. It isn’t directly tied to my research, but it sure as hell makes it easier for me to land funding. But! It is a break for my brain, and being introduced to people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, in different stages in their lives and with different end goals is absolutely refreshing. It generates more ideas (yay work!) and allows my mind to engage with other issues. What’s even better is that these graduate-school related activities bleed into my other hobbies – thanks, lady in my seminar who gave me the perfect phrase to cross-stitch on a pillow! Thanks, dude who suggested a new pasta sauce to try out! And hearing these suggestions makes me want to make the time to invest in my hobbies, and by golly, I do it.
Fourth and last because this is getting long-winded, I am trying to change some unhealthy thought patterns. Maybe this deserves its own post since it’s something that I’ve run into a lot, but I’ll at least touch on it here. See, I thrive on some level of stress and I used to think that the more stress the better, since it’d serve as a motivator, but the more I work towards getting more balance in my life, the more I am assured that to do anything well and with enthusiasm, I have to come at it fresh. The best ideas come from who-knows-where (Inception??), but I can’t cultivate them unless I have an open and (somewhat) relaxed mind.
So what do you do? Do you feel that the work-life balance is something you even need to have? What do you do to ensure that you have that balance if you feel that you need it? What are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in making time for you?