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Improving Your Work-Life Balance

CREDIT: Atlantic Photography

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Most early-career researchers struggle to maintain a satisfactory work-life balance. There is, after all, tremendous pressure to produce significant results in order to stand out in today’s competitive job market. And many scientists are just so passionate about their work that they cannot draw a line. And then there is training, which often reinforces the single-minded pursuit of work to the exclusion of all else.

A Saturday session at the AAAS annual meeting—"Work-Life Satisfaction: Developing Your Own Personal Action Plan"—offered practical advice on how scientists can reclaim life from work. The workshop was developed by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and presented by three members of the Chicago, Illinois, chapter of AWIS: Keng Jin Lee of Northwestern University, Tara Teppen of the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Marina Pazin of Randstad Pharma. Here is what they recommended:

Every time we are saying 'yes' to something, we are saying 'no' to something else.

—Tara Teppen

Define your situation. Work-life balance—which they defined as "the levels of personal fulfillment and professional success that are right for you"—is a very personal thing. Take stock of the context in which you are living and working. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and your values and priorities. Recognize that your aspirations and the barriers to work-life balance can—and will—fluctuate over time.

Develop a strong support system. "All too often we think we have to be a lone ranger when there are times in our life when we can’t handle everything," Lee said. When those times come, "[p]eople in our support network can help." It may be family, friends, or close colleagues. Seek to expand your support system further by networking. Seek coaching and mentoring.

Plan and prioritize. Establish what must be done and review your list of objectives regularly. Keep your focus on the values you have identified as most important and make decisions accordingly. Plan ahead, and give yourself enough slack to be able to deal with unexpected or urgent issues as they emerge.

Learn to say "no." If you find it difficult to say "no" to any request or expectation, this is something that needs to be changed. Before you agree to any new time-consuming task, ask yourself if this must be done at all, and if so, does it really need to be done by you. Might family, a research assistant, or even a laundry service be able to help you out? If you determine that it must be done, and that no one else can do it, decide whether it must be done now, and to which degree of perfection; for many tasks, good enough is good enough. Finally, consider what "the cost of saying 'yes'," will be Teppen advised. "Every time we are saying 'yes' to something, we are saying 'no' to something else." A good compromise could be to decline the request but offer an alternative solution that you can help with.

Set guilt-free boundaries. Manage conflicting time commitments and activities in a way that doesn’t produce feelings of guilt. "I come to work early and I leave early to pick up my son," Lee said, adding that she feels OK about this. "My lab knows that." You may need to tell others about your intentions and ask for what you need.

Recharge your batteries. However much we would like to, we do not have endless supplies of energy. Get good nights of sleep, take breaks during the day, and make some time for sport or other activities that you enjoy.

"Think of managing your work-life satisfaction as an experiment. If one strategy doesn’t work, try another," Teppen advised.