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Graduate student Benjamin Martin learned to prioritize efficiency to balance his responsibilities in lab, on the field as a member of Canada’s men’s field hockey team, and in his personal life.

Yan Huckendubler

Yes, you can have a life outside the lab

With the constant pressure to publish papers and get grants, it’s easy to set aside anything that’s not related to your research. But, you have other roles—as a friend, a partner, a child, a parent, to name a few—and the responsibilities of these roles and to yourself are important, too. Making time for life helps you not only keep a healthy state of mind and body, but also stay sharp at work. For some inspiration, these early-career researchers share their strategies for balancing the demands of their rising careers with their non-work life.

Reframe productivity

Jonathan Kershaw, Postdoctoral fellow in nutrition science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana

Jonathan Kershaw

Melissa Kershaw

When does working hard become workaholism? I know my workaholic tendencies may be creeping in when my compulsion to work affects my emotional health and personal relationships. In graduate school, I often felt guilty when I wasn’t writing late into the night or in the lab on weekends. I value achievement, but I also value personal growth and relationships with others. So, I’ve since found and refined a few attitudes that have helped me maintain balance: making values-based decisions, reframing “non-work” activities, and establishing “protected” times.

When faced with a tradeoff between work and life, I try to base my decision on the things that are most important to me. I honestly reflect, “Will working a few extra hours really help me have the life I want, or is it displacing more meaningful pursuits?” Reframing “non-work” activities as “productive” so that I still feel like I am accomplishing something also helped me manage my compulsion to work. For example, I choose to see adequate sleep as an investment in my health and time with my family as an investment in both relationships and my emotional well-being. Deciding beforehand not to work during “protected” times frees my mind and helps me dedicate more mental energy to the things that matter most. Besides evening mealtimes, I also set aside an entire day, Sunday, to rest from everything work-related. With this routine, I feel energized and renewed on Monday morning and throughout the week.

Flex the flexible schedule

Michelle O’Malley, Assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara

This career—academic science—often attracts perfectionists. But once you become a professor, you realize that there simply isn’t enough time in a day to finish all tasks to 100% of your ability. The problem is that there is always something—lecture notes, paper revisions, departmental committees, the list goes on—that needs to be done, and the to-do list grows ever longer. As dual-career academics, my spouse and I have a mutual understanding of the demands of our positions, so it’s also easy to bring work home. But if you do not carve out time for yourself and your family, you can spend your whole life working!

Given all the challenges of being an academic, the most important thing to do is prioritize and capitalize on the flexibility of the position. I love the fact that I do not work a typical 9-to-5 job. I find that I’m more productive working from home 1 day per week, and I feel no pressure to be in my office all day if I have no appointments or student office hours that day. After all, I know that I will be spending at least a few hours in the evening answering emails, editing papers, or doing other work-related tasks—which means that I can spend some time during the typical work day exercising or running errands.

I also try to identify the most “important” tasks on my to-do list, especially things that cannot be done well by others—typically writing and editing scientific papers and composing grant proposals—and focus on these. I try to delegate other tasks—for example, a student can write a draft of a grant update—and to limit the amount of time I will spend on a particular task. I am far from perfect, but these strategies have afforded me more peace of mind over time.

Plan for extreme efficiency

Benjamin Martin, Graduate student in molecular biology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada

When I told my wife I’d been asked to share about work-life balance, she had a good laugh. Along with being a Ph.D. student, I played for Canada’s men’s field hockey team for the past 7 years before retiring last year. I competed in the 2014 Commonwealth Games; the 2015 Pan American Games, where my team won a silver medal; and the 2016 Olympic Games. I traveled for 2 to 3 months cumulatively each year and spent upwards of 20 to 30 hours a week training.

The key to finding time for both hockey and science was being efficient in the lab. Knowing that my time was limited helped give me a “get on your horse” attitude for lab work. I found creative ways to layer experiments around each other and around midday practices. It also became critical for me to design experiments well. One well-thought-out experiment can advance a project far more than 10 hastily conducted ones. And reading may feel like a diversion, but I’ve found that scouring the literature for ideas and experiments has saved me time in the long run. Also, so much of my growth and enjoyment as a scientist has come from immersing myself in the literature. Even if it’s not always directly applicable, it’s almost always time well spent.

Outside of lab, I make sure to find intentional ways to center myself on the aspects of my life that are core to who I am, which helps me avoid burnout when I’m stretched. For example, I try my best to have breakfast with my wife every morning before work. It may seem simple, but routines like this keep me grounded when life is hectic. Up to a point, I find that this centering is more important to my general well-being and demeanor than rest and relaxation. Obviously, in an ideal world I would get rest and relaxation as well, but if I don’t have the luxury of those, I make sure to keep myself centered.

Create life to-do lists

Jason Cantley, Postdoctoral fellow in botany at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

I work a typical 9-to-5 work week and otherwise spend time living life. Many academics would scoff at that idea, and it only works because I actively manage my productivity and allow for scheduling flexibility. On Monday mornings, I make a physical list of small, achievable goals for the week. This gives me the satisfaction of checking items off when I complete them, and I don’t have the anxiety of items that stick around for weeks or months. Next to this work to-do list, I create a separate “life list” detailing the obligations that I do for pleasure, such as personal fitness, meditation, travel, or other social engagements. The “life list” is heavily weighted and I generally do not let myself remove items. But I don’t rigidly plan down to the minute for either list. Like counting calories for a fitness regimen, counting minutes makes me feel neurotic and anxious. When unexpected or forgotten items arise—which happens frequently—I assess if any items can be moved to the next week, if I should work extra hours to successfully meet an impending deadline, or if I need to readjust the schedule because of lost productivity, for example due to illness.

Nothing has proven more powerful for me than assessing my productivity at the end of the week with a completely checked off list. And, with weekly list items that only have to be finished “by Friday,” there is the amazing benefit of increasing my productivity without increasing my anxiety. Additionally, I am able to more fully celebrate and enjoy the items on my “life list” without an inner voice pestering me to feel guilty for not working.

Hit the ground running

Deborah Hemingway, Graduate student in biophysics at the University of Maryland in College Park and consultant at Potomac Research and Consulting

Deborah Hemingway

Deborah Hemingway

In my magic formula for healthy work-life balance, my first strategy is to outsource absolutely everything possible. Someone else cleans my house. Someone else does my laundry. I hired a personal assistant to do mundane tasks like running errands and scheduling appointments. If anyone can take anything off of my plate, I let them. I only do the things that only I can do. I know that not everyone is able to do this for financial reasons, but my family and I chose to make this a priority.

My second key strategy is to live with intention. My family and my work are the two most important things in the world to me, so I make sure that I am a present and loving mom to my children and a productive and active member of my research field. At home, I get up early in the morning to spend 3 quality hours with my children and spend another 2 hours with them at night. When I am with my children, I am with them—I'm not checking email or trying to get work done. We are making breakfast together, doing a craft project together, playing a game, or having tea parties. In the evenings, we all have dinner together and then go on a walk before bedtime. This is sacred time to me, and I guard it fiercely.

At work, I know that there are others who put in way more time than I do, so I make up for that by getting more done in the time that I do have. I use a concept I learned as an athlete when I was younger. Before a game, we would prepare our minds so that we would come out with a bang on the very first play. Now, I prep my mind on my commute in so that I am “in the zone” and hit the ground running when I get in. I also make a list at the end of each day of exactly what I am going to do the following day. I start the list by “eating a frog:” I put the worst or most dreaded task first. Then everything else seems easy and fun.

Prioritize proactively

Christopher Ehrhardt, Assistant professor of forensic science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond

During the first couple of years of being a tenure-track professor, the biggest problem I had for work-life balance was that I had no strategy for creating or maintaining the balance. I just assumed that there would be alternating periods of high stress and high workload and times when I could scale back and recharge. Except, there never seemed to be any downtime. I can’t think of a holiday during those first 2 years where I wasn’t writing a proposal, preparing a technical report for a funding agency, or up against a manuscript revision deadline.

Since then, I’ve gotten a little better. The thing that has helped the most—which was suggested by one of my postdoc advisers—was being more efficient and productive during the day. I was wasting a lot of time ”putting out fires” or addressing issues that would have resolved themselves had I not been there. Sometimes, if I was writing proposals, I would look for excuses to procrastinate. Need help troubleshooting an old instrument? Sure! Setting up dilutions for a viable plate count? Let’s map it out on the whiteboard! Spending time on these things that for all intents and purposes didn’t need my direct input meant that I had to spend more time at night or on the weekends doing tasks that I could have completed earlier. Knocking out these habits was sometimes as simple as closing my office door or working from home every odd morning before coming to campus.

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