On Friday 1st February the IAS held an Advanced Workshop Day on Career Progression and Planning; in this series of posts we blog the highlights from each of the four sessions on Developing your Career; Contracts and Career Planning; Gender and Academic Careers; and Work-life balance.
A session on work-life balance formed the last part of our "Careers Progression and Planning for ECRs" day back in January. While work-life balance is perhaps not something typically thought of when considering "career progression and planning", the events throughout the day had repeatedly reiterated the ways in which career development encompasses and accommodates a whole range of life factors, from the skills and experience you've gained throughout different career paths to the personal family and lifestyle issues that your career may have to work around.
This session further demonstrated that successful career progression is facilitated by good work-life balance. Although the competitive and demanding environment of academia can push us to think that success lies in having a lifestyle in which work far outweighs life, the time taken to stop, think and recharge on a daily, weekly, or termly basis is often what's needed to get through that never-ending to-do list quicker, and happier. Implementing good work-life balance seems near-impossible as an ECR, especially if you're working towards that elusive first permanent job, or feeling that you need to prove yourself worthy once you get there; but putting good techniques into practice at the start of your career is well worth the effort, setting yourself up for a much healthier and sustainable career path.
In this workshop, Kate Mahoney (VitaeMidlands Hub Project Officer at Warwick) took us through some exercises to think about work-life balance and the changes that might help you to achieve a better balance. All of the resources are available on the Vitae pages for researchers, and specific sections are linked below.
What does balance mean to you?
The first point of working out what you want to improve upon is to consider what "work-life balance" means to you, and how you'd picture your balance at the moment. There are key signs that flag up imbalance, such as stress, fatigue, isolation and worry, and these should always be taken as signs to stop and readjust your work-lifestyle. But beyond this everyone's idea of a "healthy" balance is different, and in the session it emerged that our opinions varied wildly: to some, taking work on holiday isn't a problem if you enjoy and want to be doing it; to others, anything to do with work should stop when the office door closes at the end of the day.
Most people's happy medium is somewhere between the two, but the important thing is to identify what you want your work-life balance to look like, and what you need to do to get there. It might help to identify specific goals - more time for exercise, seeing friends, taking up a new hobby - or to recognise ways in which your off-time could be improved - for example you might have regular time away from work but find it difficult to truly switch off. It's also ok to realise that you might be perfectly happy with the balance of your lifestyle and only need to make a few tweaks to what you're already doing - in which case, please, share your secrets below!
Balance at Work
The first step to making changes is to look at your work patterns and identify what could help stop the overspill from work hours into home-time. The common factors most people experience are: taking on too much; emails, emails, emails; and not getting enough time for research. A few tips we discussed included:
- Saying no and delegating: "no" is probably the most underused word of a researcher's vocabulary (can you remember the last time you turned down an opportunity? I can: it was in 2011, and felt so unusual that it's stuck with me all that time). It's not easy to turn down great opportunities, but it's important to be honest with yourself as to whether you have enough time: if you say yes, will you actually be giving your best to the project? Is it that beneficial to your career, or just more CV pollution? What would you be using the time for otherwise? Saying no doesn't have to be rude, and there are ways to politely decline; you might also be able to delegate the task for someone else, or recommend a colleague for the job - particularly good if you know it will be advantageous to them. Vitae's assertivenes techniques are especially useful here.
- Beating the email deluge: good email management techniques are essential to preventing hours of your life being eaten away by replying to emails. Kate Mahoney recommended Vitae's plan of "Do it/ diarise it/ ditch it": either reply straight away, or set aside time when you will deal with it, or hit delete. Be strict about when you check and respond to emails, e.g. only at the start/end of the day, and you could also try to delegate times to different types of email - many teaching ECRs find that student emails can get out of hand especially around essay deadlines; I've found it helpful to store up student emails over a couple of days and then sit down for half an hour (or more...) to deal with them all in one go.
- Research time: this is the main thing that slips away in a busy day of admin and, as the guilty pleasure of academic life, probably the main thing that feels most acceptable as take-home work. Of course that's fine to a point (and this goes back to finding your personal ideal balance), but it's nonetheless worth seeing if you can increase the amount of research time in your working day/week. Blocking out time in your diary is one good suggestion for making this happen- an hour a day, or a day a week, which you prioritise as highly as a meeting or seminar. Good time management techniques are also essential in increasing available research time.
Balance at home
This part of the session was about redressing the "life" side of the equation and getting that proper off-time that will help you recharge. Some of the main problems revolve around truly switching off from work, and sticking to the boundaries you set. It can be difficult to leave work at work especially with constant email access, and deciding to finish up some editing or an abstract in the evening can quickly turn into a late night at the computer. A few tips and ideas:
- Decide what your boundaries are: no emailing once you've left the office? no work after 8pm? Make a decision about what your personal rules are, and identify what would help you stick to these: enlist the helps of family or friends, or line up something to do for the off-time that means you'll have to stick to it - rather than leaving it free just in case you want to spend a couple more hours on that paper or doing your emails because you might as well.
- Block your time off: on a similar note to the previous point, block time off in your diary in the same way that you would for work or research. This can be especially hard when on short-term contracts that don't come with annual leave allowance, and even with the option of taking proper holiday, a busy conference schedule starts to eat into time off. Block off the time you want to take well in advance, and be strict about it.
- Switch off: taking an evening/day/week off is all very well, but sometimes it's hard to fully switch off from work. Email access is a big culprit here - constant iPhone alerts keep work on your mind - and social media can also keep you in the work zone when you're having time off. Un-syncing my email from my iPhone has been a bit of a revelation for me over the last couple of weeks, and making use of the "rules" on Outlook (so that all work emails are automatically filed away) has also been useful in allowing me to access the emails I need without seeing the ones I didn't want on my mind. I only implemented both of these things because I was on annual leave but I'm thinking of continuing as it will help with day-to-day work-life balance.
Theory into action
Sometimes putting ideas into action is much harder than it seems, and I have been to work-life balance workshops in the past where I've thought "that sounds amazing... and I have no idea how to actually make this work". One useful thing in the session was identifying small, achievable goals to focus on, and looking at what would help with achieving/sticking to these - some examples of goals from the session included leaving work on time, taking a proper lunch break, making time to go to a new class.
Good self-management is essential here; ultimately, only you are going to care enough (or directly benefit from) these changes, so it's your responsibility to be strict with yourself and assertive with others - something I've increasingly realised is that others can only respect your boundaries if you do so yourself. It's also useful to think about what might be blocking you from making a change - academic guilt, stress about deadlines, expectations of yourself/ by others - and working on these as much as the practical changes. Vitae also usefully reminded me in a tweet today that it can take up to 15 times to make an effective change, so if at first you don't succeed, try, try again!
What is your experience of trying to achieve good work-life balance? Do you find it difficult, or have you found effective strategies for maintaining a healthy academic lifestyle? What tips can you pass on? Please share your wisdom or difficulties below!
Slides and handouts from the workshop on 31st January are available on this page. Some additional helpful resources include:
Vitae's The Balanced Researcher(booklet), and pages on Time Management, Work-Life Balance, and Assertiveness
Storify of the latest #ECRchat on healthy ways to stay motivated and productive
Pat Thomson on Making time not to think
Jo Van Every's advice on how to stop feeling guilty
Tips on staying focused and motivated from The New Academic's Research Survivors series