As an academic, you may find it difficult to maintain a positive work-life balance.
This is because academia, by nature, blurs the lines between the professional and personal. It involves long nights in the lab, and extra hours put in at the weekends.
But reaching a manageable work-life balance is crucial to avoid burnout. And the value of rest, relaxation, and recreation for maintaining positive mental health is undeniable.
How to improve your work-life balance
Here are 10 ways to develop a better balance between your research and home life.
1. Create physical boundaries to improve your work-life balance
A flexible schedule and the ability to work wherever you want are two of the best things about being an academic.
‘Work adjustment theory asserts that a separate home workspace ensures clear structural boundaries between work and home and maintains job satisfaction by controlling distractions.’
This suggests the importance of creating a physical distinction between your research and personal spaces. You might decide to set up a home office, or desk where you only ever do your work, or opt to spend more time in your institution’s work spaces.
2. Work smart
You don’t need me to tell you that academia is fiercely competitive. It’s all about your latest triumph, and there’s a constant pressure to keep innovating and collaborating.
Because of this, you’re constantly thinking about doing more and more, wanting to get ahead of your competition. This can have negative effects on your work-life balance.
However, a lot of energy is wasted by trying to make tasks unnecessarily complicated, and taking on unnecessary tasks. Only take things on when you feel they will meaningfully benefit you.
This means prioritizing what matters to your future career, and disregarding tasks that don’t. You could also delegate more simple tasks to your assistant, if you have one.
3. Take time off when needed
What do you do when you just can’t stop thinking about work, or you have less motivation to do things around the house?
It should be a very loud wake-up call that you need to take time to rest. Your body and mind need to be switched off for a while in order to function at their best.
4. Abandon perfectionism in favour of a positive work-life balance
Something that runs rife in the academic community is perfectionism. However, you’re not perfect—nobody is. And you can only do your best.
‘Two recent meta-analyses confirmed that perfectionism is positively related to burnout, occupational-related stress, anxiety, and depression.’
Instead of trying to be perfect, focus on gradual improvement over time, and work at your own pace.
5. Spend more time with loved ones
Life is about more than just work. You also need people around you to enjoy your time with.
Furthermore, research by Bizzego et al. reveals that ‘the mere copresence of another person synchronizes physiological signals’, including things like body temperature and blood volume pressure. This is vitally important to keeping the body healthy.
Make time for socializing and you could see your happiness and work satisfaction dramatically increase. The bonds we form with others are precious and worth investing in.
6. Get out into nature
Nature has incredible beneficial effects for both our mental health and work-life balance.
It can refresh your mind and reduce the stress associated with a high workload. It also represents an excellent opportunity to get away from your desk.
It has long been known that nature has multiple other benefits, such as lower heart rate, improved nervous system recovery, better mood, and enhanced cognition.
If possible, take 30 minutes out from your day to walk outside. This can provide an ongoing source of refreshment, and a better routine for the future.
7. Clear your mind after work
As soon as you leave your workspace, turn your computer off, or put down your pipette, find a way to clear your mind and not think about work. Meditation could be the way to do this.
You could try mindfulness, which involves being aware of which thoughts pass through your mind. In fact, in a study conducted in Indonesia, mindfulness breathing meditation led to a group of university students being less stressed, anxious, and depressed.
You can find mindfulness exercises online and from your local healthcare provider.
8. Schedule breaks
Even when you’re working, you need to take frequent breaks to maintain your work-life balance.
The benefits are many. The results of a study conducted in Karlsruhe, Germany, reveal that ‘standing or active breaks help students or workers become more focused, motivated, and feel better at the same time’. This research was also covered by BBC News in March 2019.
Make sure you add purposeful breaks for meal times, but also randomly throughout the day.
You could try the Pomodoro technique, a time management technique developed in the 1980s. It involves working periods of 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. After four working sessions, you should take a slightly longer break, of between 15 and 30 minutes.
There’s also the 52/17 rule, which suggests working for a period of 52 minutes, followed by 17 minutes of rest.
9. Talk to your supervisors for tips on work-life balance
Everything that you’re going through, your supervisors have been through as well. They’ll be able to understand and provide support if you’re struggling to obtain a good worklife balance.
Maintaining an open channel of communication with your supervisors is important for reasons such as these. They can help and advise you if you’re struggling.
A good work-life balance is one that allows you to conduct research to the best of your ability, while maintaining a healthy, happy personal life.
The above tips will help you to realign your balance and thereby improve your quality of life. But it doesn’t end there. Ensuring a good work-life balance is a continuous process.
You should review the balance every few months, looking at how you can improve happiness and mental health, as well as productivity.