How do I define a good work-life balance? Being satisfied and happy with both parts, where I define “life” as the part where I’m simply doing nothing related to work (but doesn’t mean that it’s not including science)! In this post I don’t want to give a recipe for the perfect “balance” but I want to write about some pitfalls, and give tips which at least help me to be happy in both work and life.
As scientists we have to be flexible in many aspects and this is especially true when referring to our work–life balance. We do fieldwork, run experiments, write grant applications or go to conferences, which all makes it extremely difficult to stick to the “normal” five working days a week. In addition, things never work out in the way you planned them to: experiments fail, equipment doesn’t work and all of it will result in longer and unexpected working hours. The first thing I learned here: don’t be too stressed about it! Of course it’s annoying and will ruin your meticulously planned schedule, but it happens to everyone and postponing things is totally ok.
Furthermore, flexibility in science does not only mean that you need to adjust your free time to your job but also the other way round. If you had a really long and tiring day, it’s fine when you start work the next day a bit later, or if you want to leave early on Thursday afternoon to pick up your kid or just do something nice outside – you can always decide to work on the weekend instead. So, this flexibility in science can be nicely used to fulfill a satisfying work-life balance. However, a flip side of flexibility can be that it requires independent time management, which I’m writing about in the next section.
Let me tell you about a good friend of mine who is master in procrastination! His usual working day looks like the following: he starts working around 9 am thinking about all the tasks he wants to tackle today, but around 10 am he decides to first check the news before seriously starting to work. This ends in a chain reaction googling one article after the other until he sees that it’s already 5 pm!! Consequently, he feels bad because he hasn’t really achieved anything and tries to continue working. In addition, he feels bad because he actually wanted to meet a good friend this evening whom he had to cancel. Result: dissatisfaction and work-life balanced failed.
The fact that we can flexibly manage our working day is a major challenge and probably one of the main reasons why people procrastinate (if you want to read more about procrastination Stephen wrote a really nice post about this “issue” earlier in our blog). Consequently, procrastination can lead to dissatisfaction in both - work and life.
How I try to avoid too much procrastination? I make myself a plan!
Planning and prioritizing
Before going home I usually set up a plan for the next day. This really helps me to directly start working in the morning and not to lose much time. When writing down my goals I try to be as precise as possible. For instance, don’t write something like “Catching up with new literature”, but better write “Read three papers on …. “. By doing this you will know exactly what to do and most important when you are done with it. When I have to start something new which I’m not very excited about I often catch myself starting to procrastinate. For those tasks I try to split them up into small goals. This helps actually getting started in the first place, but also helps to feel more satisfied as you’ve achieved something at the end of the day.
At school and university I always used to make myself a plan, and I usually worked hard for a few days so I could relax more in free time at the end – without worrying about things I still needed to do. However, during my master’s studies this didn’t work anymore… I worked a lot to finish everything as fast as I could, but instead of reducing the pile on my desk everyday something new arrived on top. At some point I still worked in the evenings, during weekends, holidays and I hardly ever got to enjoy free time. As a consequence, I started to feel very exhausted and unsatisfied. I never finished the work I was planning to, I never had some relaxing time for myself or to meet with friends. So, at some point I decided that I need to prioritize! If there is an important deadline coming up, I also work in the evenings or on the weekend. However, if there is nothing very urgent I postpone the things I couldn’t finish until the next day and leave at 6 pm, to do other things I enjoy in the evening. During this phase I had to learn that there will be days where I wouldn’t finish all my tasks and most important: That this is ok!
Comparing with others
I’m an early bird and usually start working around 7/8 am, so often I’m one of the first in my department. When leaving the office at the end of the day I saw that everyone else was still working, and I felt guilty for leaving earlier than they did. How weird is that? I didn’t work less than they did, but knowing that they would still be in the office while I was already sitting at home doing nothing bothered me somehow. Another example is weekends: One Monday at our coffee break I asked what people did during the weekend and I realize that most PhD students spent at least a few hours working on something while I was doing NOTHING at all! The result: I felt lazy and guilty for not working enough…
But, here I asked myself whether I would be happier if I start to work every day of the week. For me this was easy to answer: Nope! Everyone has their own personal definition of a good work-life balance. Some people prefer to work in the morning, others at night, some work every day without ever feeling the need to take a break, and others need two days off per week. You won’t gain anything from comparing yourself with others. Know your own limits and don’t push yourself too hard! Overworking will satisfy none of your goals, neither at work nor in your private life! Breaks will even benefit your efficiency. Believe me!
In this post I wrote about my own personal view on “work-life balance” and tried to provide some tips that help me to maintain it. However, my main message here should be that everyone is different and finding YOUR perfect work-life balance is a very personal journey.
This is why I also want to encourage readers to share their experiences or advice on how they achieve a good work-life balance in our comments section below!
Good luck with finding your work–life balance! J