On the importance of attaining a healthy balance between work and personal life in academia
Dr. Tove Larsson
The season of New Year’s resolutions is here and with it goals such as getting more exercise and making more environmentally-informed purchase decisions. I, for one, am never as fit as I am every year in January. However, already in February, the initial enthusiasm tends to wane. Come June, even the grittiest among us are likely to have resorted to their usual lifestyle. Against this background, what I am about to propose may seem difficult (or even impossible) to keep up. However, while admittedly ambitious, it is an achievable goal – and not only that: I would even go as far as to say that it is vital for maintaining a healthy and sustainable lifestyle in academia. What I would like to propose is a collective New Year’s resolution for 2020: let’s all work towards attaining a healthy balance between work and personal life.
For many people in academia, in particular graduate students, honoring this undertaking would entail a relatively drastic change in lifestyle. However, as someone who has spent several years working on this, I can say that it is definitely worth it. In fact, while I make no pretense of having succeeded, the changes that I have made have helped me go from always feeling stressed despite working practically all the time, to being a happier person, a better friend, a better colleague – and even a more productive academic. Not surprisingly, I prefer the new me. There is no denying, however, that working towards achieving work-life balance is difficult. In order to succeed, I believe that it is important to know (i) what might be causing our behavior, (ii) what the benefits of changing it are and (iii) how to change our behavior. These points will be addressed in turn.
When we know that we should deprioritize work (and friends and family are not shy about reminding us), why is it so hard for us to do so? As I see it, there are two main underlying forces that drive us to prioritize work over free time: pressure (external and internal) and enthusiasm for what we do. Academia in general, and graduate school in particular, have systemic pressure built in, involving heavy course and teaching loads and expectations to publish. Pressure to prioritize work can also come from advisors, other faculty members – and even from other students. Internal pressure often stems from a wish to do well, to prove ourselves and to avoid failing at the task at hand. Both external and internal pressure are likely to lead to feelings of guilt: when we are not working, we feel that we should be, which makes us feel guilty. The second force, enthusiasm, can be an equally guilty culprit. Although our work tasks are not all equally enjoyable, the fact remains that most of us are really enthusiastic about what we do – passionate, even. Let’s face it: a degree in Applied Linguistics is not likely to lead to fame, glory and immense riches, so the reason we put ourselves through the agonies of graduate school is most often a genuine interest in (and even a love for) linguistics. Spending less time on something we love is difficult.
Why would we want to deprioritize work if we would make the system, our superiors and ourselves happy if we were to prioritize it; what are the benefits? Due to its subjective nature, I would like to encourage you to think of answers that apply to your life. I will, nonetheless, proceed to provide three answers that I believe are general enough to apply to all of us. First, better work-life balance is likely to lead to improved mental and physical health, both of which are key for a sustainable lifestyle. Second, it will lead to a richer personal life, as it enables us to devote time to friends, family, hobbies and general relaxation. Third, better work-life balance is likely to lead to a more enjoyable work situation: if you limit the time you spend working, you will find it all the more enjoyable when you do.
How can we work towards achieving a healthy work-life balance? The first step to getting started on this path is deciding that we actually want to go down it, which is why the points addressed in the two preceding paragraphs are important to think about. It may sound like an easy choice, but I know all too many people for whom it is far from obvious. I used to be one of them. Once you have made that decision, the next step is to try to change your habits. Concretely, the most effective way in my experience is to set rules to help you distinguish between work time and free time. The rule that I set for myself three years ago stipulates that I am never to work after 6 p.m., no matter what. If need be, I can still get long hours in by going to work early, so it is not necessarily a matter of limiting the number of hours spent working so much as it is about guilt release and compartmentalization. The rule enables me to take every single evening off guilt free, which has been nothing short of life changing for me and led to all the benefits listed in the previous paragraph (see Larsson et al., in press, for the full story). That is not to say, however, that I have achieved work-life balance; it ultimately comes down to developing strategies that enable us to handle situations as they come up. Also, the rule that I have set for myself should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution; maybe a no-work-before-10 a.m. rule or a strict no-work-on-the-weekends rule would be what works best for you. Other ways of facilitating work-life balance include strategies that help you be more mindful of your time, such as trying to be more forgiving towards yourself and caliber your performance vis-à-vis the importance of the task and its deadline; not comparing yourself to the “ideal academic” (there is no such thing); and never saying yes to things without giving yourself some time to think it through (see Plonsky, in press, for more suggestions).
All in all, in order to thrive in academia, we have to lead a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, for which a balance between work and personal life plays an integral part. However, managing this kind of balance while dealing with to-do lists the size of a standard AAAL poster requires a lot of determination and constant reminders of why it is important to do so. For this reason, I believe that the key to succeeding is to turn it into a collective endeavor. In teaming up with colleagues, we can hold each other accountable and try to change unhealthy department cultures that glorify being busy. Let’s work together on this. I hereby pledge to continue working towards attaining a healthy balance between work and personal life. Who’s with me?
P.S. Let’s help each other by posting our best tips for attaining and maintaining work-life balance (WLB) using the hashtag #WLBpledge.
Larsson, T., Loewen, S., Oliver, R., Sasaki. M., Tracy-Ventura, N., & Plonsky, L. (in press). Towards achieving work-life balance in academia: Comments and personal essays from six applied linguists. In L. Plonsky (Ed.), Professional development in applied linguistics: A guide to success for graduate students and early career faculty. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Plonsky, L. (Ed.) (in press). Professional development in applied linguistics: A guide to success for graduate students and early career faculty. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Dr. Tove Larsson is a post-doctoral researcher affiliated with Northern Arizona University, UCLouvain (Belgium) and Uppsala University (Sweden). Her research interests include corpus-based investigations of L2 writing, register variation and research methods.