10 Lessons to achieving a more balanced life in academia

group © Pixabay 2021 / image: Broesis

When H.G. Wells penned War of the Worlds and George Orwell wrote 1984, they both imagined dystopian future societies that appeared far-fetched by the standards of the time. Science fiction has a way of creatively navigating a gap between reality and the imaginary future. Sometimes scientists manage to close that gap. The year 2020, however, was just the opposite. Even with the most vivid imagination, only a few foresaw the grim reality that arrived before the fiction.

As does the protagonist of the apocalyptic novel, the world carried on in a redefined reality. Including those in higher education who already struggled with work-life balance. Traditionally, it has been assumed that never the twain shall meet – yet, during lock-down, work came home, and home became work, creating a swirl of new expectations and tensions. What used to be two worlds apart, balanced on a knife’s edge, now live under the same roof.

What have we learned about how to balance the competing demands of work and family life when working from home?


  1.   Make time for healthy habits

Reducing stress to increase performance in all aspects of life – including one’s job – is the ultimate goal of work-life balance. A fixed exercise routine goes a long way to attain this goal. The academic who also acts as home executive processes a formidable amount of information on a daily basis, and the solitude of a good run or cycle has the further benefit of allowing time to do the one thing nobody ever diarises: “Think.”


  1.   Learn to delegate

Jeffrey L. Buller, Florida Atlantic University’s Director of Leadership and Professional Development, recommends that delegation be seen as a growth opportunity, rather than as shirking of responsibility. Empowering and coaching junior colleagues to take over certain tasks makes you a better leader; creates opportunities for them, and may save you some of the long hours away from other priorities.


  1.   Set and negotiate realistic expectations

Learn to say “no” early on in your career. The best way to navigate the pull of too many expectations is to be very clear about your own career and family priorities and to measure, filter and negotiate the consideration of new responsibilities within the parameters of these goals. Make it clear to other faculty members that you are serious about playing your part, but that there are limits.


  1.   Look for the signs of burnout

Recognise the early signs of burnout to monitor mental health. Some common indications are:

  •       The avoidance of work.
  •       A decline in performance.
  •       Apathy or exhaustion.
  •       The inability to separate work from family life.

Once you have identified that you are heading this way, take that holiday, resign from the committee or hire some help at home or at the office. You are only one person.


  1. Arrange family surprises

One of the best ways to lift the mood around the home is by planning an occasional surprise and spending time together. This type of activity can be as low-key or as extravagant as you like, but make sure there is plenty of laughter and silliness.


  1.   Play to your strengths for higher productivity

The things we are not best at are the ones that will eat our time and add the long hours. They are also the bigger source of stress. Take a moment to identify what your real strengths are and focus on the goals and activities that put these into play. You will achieve so much more with the limited hours you have each day.


  1.   Recognise the cycles

The academic career should have a recognisable calendar with non-negotiable crunch times.  Rather than expecting each day to play out with a fixed and harmonious routine, acknowledge that when it comes time for exams or grant submission deadlines, you will need to be fully absorbed for a period. Plan accordingly, front- or back-loading time for personal life, and explain these cycles to your family so they are prepared.


  1.   Beat the inbox blues

There is nothing that makes you feel you are fighting a losing battle against the clock and life in general than an email inbox that runs away from you. Professor Linda Duxbury of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, an expert on workplace stress, proposes her 4-D approach to inbox management:

  • Ditch it. If it’s not worth replying, don’t bother.
  • Deal with it. If you can respond to it in less than two minutes, then do so.
  • Delegate it. If someone else ought to take care of it, let them.
  • Defer it. If an email fits into a particular category of responsibility, file it away where you can easily retrieve it.


  1.   Demarcate space and time

Working from home often blurs the line between your different roles – academic, parent, partner –in part because our tools of work have become so mobile. Who has not tried dealing with faculty emails on the laptop while watching that Disney movie with the kids? It is important for your career, and for your family, to create a dedicated workspace and time slots where the family can respect that you are in a different mind space. Explain the “rules” to them. Find similar ways to block work from your family time, such as muting the university email on your phone.


  1.   Clock and audit your work hours

An academic colleague describes in Science magazine how the meticulous recording of work hours at their faculty lead to stunning insights into actual time spent on the job, as well as where the time was going. Although it may seem like extra work initially, set up that spreadsheet and keep track of your time and activities for a month or two. The result may be the most useful tool you have to help reprioritise towards a proper work-life balance.


© Pixabay 2021 / image: Broesis