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Work-Life Balance: Defining Work vs. Personal Time

The balance between work and life for a grad student is generally tilted in the favour of school.  For a majority of time during my Master’s, my approach to work-life balance was as follows: grind away until all your work is done then recharge the batteries in preparation for the next onslaught.  This approach was unsustainable and often led to neglect in other facets of my life (more often than not with personal relationships).  Given the nature of grad school, there will be times where this approach is unavoidable; however, the accumulation of ‘hermit time’ coupled with the stress associated with work can have deleterious effects on your mental health and overall sense of well-being.

I have since been attempting to take the approach of compartmentalizing my time into ‘work time’ and ‘personal time’.  The basis behind this approach is that I’m NOT going to be able to sustain a 24/7 focus on school work without other aspects of my life suffering, especially emotional well being.

I adopted the compartmentalizing of time approach from an Expanding Horizon’s seminar “Time Management: Avoiding Procrastination and Maintaining Motivation”.  In short, with this approach you allocate a set chunk of time that is devoted to work (i.e. 50 hours/week).  Within that time, you define your work commitments as fixed vs. unfixed commitments; fixed being tasks that you do not have control over and unfixed being tasks that you do have control over.  Once you have added the fixed commitments to your schedule, you begin to plug in the unfixed tasks based on their level of priority.  Once you have completed your workweek, you begin to schedule your personal time.  A PDF can be found on the Expanding Horizons website (here) that explains this approach and provides you with a framework for creating your own weekly schedule.

While this may read as a generic daily/weekly approach to scheduling, I feel that there is great value for grad students in defining how much time we allocate to our work vs. personal lives.  Many grad students that I have spoken with report, at times, experiencing guilt when not working and this guilt is often accompanied by compulsive thoughts of what still needs to be done.  While this guilt is normal, it has very little utility aside from the constant reminder that there is work that you could be doing.  Compartmentalizing your time allows you to define when work time starts and when it stops.  It allows you to control how your time is allocated based on the time required to complete a task and takes into consideration your own personal needs.  Defining when you work and how much time is budgeted for work allows you to turn off feelings of guilt that may creep up when you’re doing something non-school related.

With this approach I have personally noticed two major shifts in my day-to-day:

1)   Greater focus and time on task while working: in setting my work-time parameters, I find myself more focused when doing work.  Admittedly, I am easily distracted, so having a defined/structured work period with defined/structured tasks helps me to stay on task and refocus if I get distracted.  During this structured work period, I TRY to implement a no email and no cell phone rule.  While this can be tough, I find it’s manageable when the work period has a set endpoint (i.e. can’t check my phone for the next 2 hours). There was a time where I equated sitting in front of my computer in the lab as ‘working’, when in reality the time was divided 4 ways between music, Facebook, texting, and the article that I was ‘reading’.  As a result, it would take me significantly longer to complete the task and leave me feeling like I had less personal time (even though I was mixing in personal time during work).

2)   More meaningful use of personal time:  When I’m busy or mismanage my time, aspects of my life such as administrative duties, making time for friends, or looking after my health generally take a back seat to school work.  Having work time defined allows me to stay on top of personal responsibilities and to make time for things that I enjoy.

The biggest thing that I noticed after compartmentalizing my time is that you can do A LOT in a given day if you structure your time accordingly.  For a somewhat unorganized individual such as myself, this approach has provided much needed structure for my work life and has directly improved my personal life as a result.  I’d be interested to hear about YOUR approaches to work-life balance and how you organize your days/weeks in order to remain an effective worker while enjoying your time outside of school.

Posted in General, New Students, Staying Well, Student Perspective Tagged with: ,
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  1. […] Check out previous blogs I, and others, have posted about managing your time and staying productive here, here, and here. When I became a PhD student, I was still responsible for doing everything I was […]

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