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Find your sweet spot for work-life balance

Today is Valentine’s Day, which has me thinking about how scientists can find success and satisfaction in both their professional lives and their personal lives. One sign of a healthy career is that you know how to distinguish between the two. There’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all approach. Finding the right balance is a very personal challenge, and even for a single person, priorities are likely to shift over the course of a career. But I’d argue that everyone—and maybe scientists in particular—can benefit from considering what works for you to keep your career on track while ensuring that your personal life has time to blossom as well.

A cultural matter

These days, more and more companies are talking about work-life balance. This is generally a good thing. But it also means that, when you’re considering a potential new employer, it’s your job to figure out what exactly their definition of work-life balance is—and whether it matches yours.

Some employers have taken the approach of enlivening the work day with gourmet food, upscale gyms, neck massages, and more. Although perks like these may be great tools for recruitment, they are often simply giving lip service to the work-life balance question. The truth is, these things often enable ever longer work hours. Yes, an endless supply of snacks sounds great, but does it do anything, really, for employees’ work-life balance? Not at all.

The truly enlightened organization establishes a culture where management has a different view entirely of work hours and effectiveness. They prioritize results, not keeping people in the lab or office at all hours. So, if you want to have a life outside of work, don’t get distracted by free snacks or a gym. Instead, focus on finding a company that truly values your time, at work and not.

Some of this culture comes from the top, but individual managers also play a huge role. For example, I know a scientist who is a complete whiz at getting high output from her scientists. While making reference calls about her for a client, previous supervisors couldn’t stop talking about her ability to get people to perform. What’s her secret? I spoke to people who had reported to her to find out.

Susan (not her real name) was repeatedly referred to as “a tough boss, but one who cares about me.” Digging deeper, I found it had nothing to do with the clock. She insisted that people learn to focus, and when they were present in the lab, it was all about work. But when the end of the workday rolled around, Susan would make sure that people were on their way out the door. “She cared about my life outside the job,” one scientist related. “She was the sort of boss who I could talk to about issues with my kids, and I could always count on being able to attend my daughter’s recitals. As a result, I always gave my work in the lab 100%.”

There are other bosses out there just like Susan, and you can find one yourself. Should you ask your prospective boss in an industry interview how they feel about the subject? That can be done, but it must be phrased correctly. Asking “How much vacation time will I get?” sends the wrong signals. But an easy rephrase, like “Tell me about how your successful scientists manage their work-life balance,” can help you find the boss who will help you be your best.

Individualized approaches

As is true for many aspects of the job search, when it comes to work-life balance, it’s up to you to find a scenario that works with your work style. A big step in the right direction is simply keeping work-life balance in mind while job hunting and interviewing. But another big piece of it is knowing what your work style is in the first place. Some of you may already have a good grasp on this. But for those who may not have given this much thought yet, these examples of different work styles will help you get started—and prove that, no matter your work style or seniority, you too can balance work and life.  

For my part, I like to work in spurts of great intensity, during which I work all-out for several weeks at a time. During those periods, my work is my life. But those periods are also finite. My wife knows that when that office door opens and I come out, we are going to take personal time to decompress. We might get on a plane and take a trip to a location we’ve always wanted to see, tour a winery, or just binge-watch a favorite television show.

Others prefer to balance their time on a more day-to-day basis. For example, a relatively junior scientist told me about her efforts to get more done during the workday to save time for family and friends—along the lines of what manager Susan would recommend. “The ability to be well rounded in my life seems to gravitate around whether or not I have actually been effective during my work hours,” she told me. “I’ve had to learn to focus. I’ve removed distractions like the internet, and I keep my brain stimulated with ideas that are entirely about work-related topics. If I focus on my work and get it done in 8 hours, then I am free to spend the rest of the day in any way that I please.”

For one friend of mine, a leading agricultural innovations scientist in the climate change arena, it’s the outdoors that works to balance the intensity of his job in international development. “I don’t claim to have found the right work-life balance,” he told me, “but I do strive to maintain a healthy mix. Running and hiking play a very important part in my life.” He lives in Mexico, a country that is blessed with stunning mountains, and he’s found that the setting is a perfect retreat for a few hours or an entire weekend.

His work-related travels also offer an opportunity for him to create balance in his life. As he described the icy summit of Mount Toubkal in southwestern Morocco, where he spent 2 days of therapeutic hiking following a conference in Marrakech, he reminded me of the writing of naturalist John Muir: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”

Muir’s reverence for the outdoors may not resonate with everyone, but the larger sentiment probably does. So get out there and find your wilderness, whatever it may be.

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