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Managing Life (or how you might manage to stay somewhat sane)

April 9, 2011

How often do you feel like you have little to no time to do the things you want to do — or rather, how often do you have the energy to do the things that you *want* to do in the little “free” time that you can scrounge up?

If you’re like me (and let’s be honest – none of us are where we are because we sat back and watched the leaves turn through our office window…if we even have a window), my days are scheduled from the time I should wake up until the time I should be going to sleep. But let me confess: not everything on my calendar is for work or school. I actually schedule the things I need (and even sometimes want) to do because if I don’t, I know that I won’t get to them by the end of the day.

One of the things that I schedule “for me” is pleasure reading, usually for 15 – 20 minutes before bed. A few weeks ago, I started to reread one of my favorite fantasy series called The Song of the Lioness Quartet, by Tamora Pierce. If you aren’t familiar with these books, the synopsis is that a young girl, Alanna, wants to be a knight but because women aren’t allowed to be knights, she disguises herself as a boy — don’t worry, I haven’t given much of the story away. The books are fabulous (as are the other series that Ms. Pierce writes, which all feature strong-willed women who break out of the traditional paths!) and there is a passage that has stayed with me since I first read the books when I was 13 because it seemed at the time, as it does now, to exactly describe my life. So, the pages and squires are given impossible amounts of work that they can’t possibly ever hope to finish. They are up before dawn and go to sleep well after dark, and every hour of their day is scheduled. (Sound familiar?) At one point, Alanna asks one of the squires how the heck she is supposed to get all her work done. The answer is that she won’t; she will do as much as she can and take the punishment for not finishing her work. Basically, she will forever be behind and forever trying to make up what she did not finish. And this is what everyone has to deal with on a daily basis. I really connected with this life lesson because even before I started graduate school, I found that no matter how hard I worked, there always was much more work to be done. Since there will always be more work to do, there won’t be any harm in taking time for myself now and again to do things I enjoy – right?

When I was an undergraduate, I worked in a computer lab with graduate students who never seemed to leave. I would waltz in, smiles and sunshine, to do my daily work and see some of the grad students in the same clothes as the day before. Clearly my undergraduate life was very different from the grad students’ — was this the life I was getting myself into if I went to graduate school?! Would I be forced to give up the things I enjoyed – athletics, reading books for pleasure, watching TV, hanging out with friends? I chose to answer myself with the simple word: no.

How do I manage this?, you might ask. Well, I look at Life as a balance. I have found that my life is much better if I make the time to do the things I enjoy, even if these things aren’t really “productive” or “relevant” toward finishing my degree. The benefits to making the time to do things I enjoy keep my Life’s balance even. Other students ask me where I find the time to tan by the pool or go to the gym or sew a sun dress because they certainly don’t have any free time. My response is always that I make the time because I need to do those things for me. If I don’t get the sleep or nutrition I need to push forward in my studies, I can’t function. Similarly, if I don’t take time to decompress for some length of time each day and on the weekends, I find myself burning out. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way either (right?).

And yes, it stinks a little that I have to schedule things like “grocery shopping” and “painting my toenails” into my calendar to give me that little extra motivation to actually do those things, but at the end of the day I am sure glad that I did. We all have limits, and we all have multiple responsibilities, whether they are to advisors, colleagues, family, the pets, ourselves, or a multitude of other things or people. When I take that little bit of time for just ME, I feel a whole lot better about life and the demands that my research, advisor, friends, family, etc., make on me day in and day out. Again, I am pretty sure that I am not the only one.

It’s said that happy people are successful people and generally speaking, successful people are productive people. You can take it from me that the Universe will not collapse if you take some time for yourself. Whether it is a 10 minute walk around your campus, taking a yoga class at your local gym during the day, or taking some time on the weekend to (re)read your favorite novel, take some personal time-outs. In fact, take a personal time-out at least once a day to do something just for you. It’s a rare case when anyone is truly caught up in all the work they need to do, so what’s the harm, anyway? Your work will be waiting for you when you get back.

How have you attempted to reconcile “real-life” responsibilities like grocery shopping, family time, and paying bills with your research and professional responsibilities? What are some of the things you choose to do for your personal time-outs to gain a better Life balance? What are some of the roadblocks you’ve faced trying to lead a balanced Life?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 2:21 pm

    When I was working on my teaching certificate, I knew I needed to have some time for me, time to decompress, & time to see friends. As an undergraduate, I had participated with a science fiction club, but they only met once a month, which I knew wouldn’t be enough during student teaching, and then the club folded that semester! So I started playing with the Society for Creative Anachronism, which I had learned about from the science fiction club, and which met every week. Also, I didn’t have a car, & so I carpooled with another student teacher in the mornings and rode the bus home. I would always take a fun book with me to read on the bus ride home. Also, I didn’t go to the closest bus stop to my school, but one that was about half a mile away, so I got some good exercise as well. Between the walk & reading, by the time I got home, I was ready to grade papers & plan future lessons without any of the stress that comes with trying to get teenagers to participate & learn something all day.

  2. squawky permalink
    April 9, 2011 10:03 pm

    On the email interruptions – have seen a few “GTD” articles that suggest reducing the frequency that you check email as a way to increase productivity. Rather than allowing your email reader to check for new emails 3 or 4 times an hour (or “push” notifications instantly to your phone), set your email reader to check for new emails no more than 3 or 4 times a day. You don’t change the number of emails you receive, but you change the number of times you are distracted away from another task by the “you’ve got new mail” sound.

    For me, I’ve also had to put in a “24 hour filter” – I get work related emails at all times of day/night, but if it’s not a convenient time to reply, I try to remind myself that an instant response is not required… I can take up to 24 hours to write that reply (or even better – wait until an actual work day…), at a time that is good for me.

    The last minute critical “needs to be dealt with immediately” emails are rare, at least for me.

  3. julie permalink
    April 9, 2011 8:47 pm

    I am on leave right now and this is an interesting experience for me, because I cannot remember the last time I actually could focus on writing papers without interruption for extended periods of time. This goes back to Alyssa’s comment in that I can usually put a 10 to 12-hour workday, but only half of it is actually productive. Not that I am spending time getting coffee or browsing the internet at all. Just interruptions of all kinds, and especially emails, are time-consuming and lead to brain-scattering. Right now I do miss the interaction with colleagues, but on the other hand my productivity has increased by 30%, thus I have cut my workday by as much. And I realize that working from home presents a lot of advantages, like WALKING my kid to and from school, and exercising in the middle of the day.
    When I go back to work, I am going to change the way I interact with colleagues inside and outside my workplace. For example close my office door for part of the day, filter my emails so that I only receive the messages I am waiting for, etc. and devote one hour at the end of the day to deal with the rest.

    • April 16, 2011 5:58 am

      Julie, you’ve hit on some of the strategies employed by telecommuters in many industries – there are a LOT of advantages to dedicated work/writing time on days at home!

  4. April 9, 2011 7:24 pm

    What a wonderful post! As a graduate student, I rarely worked in the evenings and weekends and I was constantly asked how I could do that and still get all my work done. My “secret” was to actually work while I was at work, and put in a full 8-hour day. I saw many students at work for 10, 12, 16 hours a day, but they wouldn’t do anything! They were on the internet, or going out for coffee four times a day, or chatting with their office mates all day long. Nothing wrong with taking breaks, but I spent the majority of my time at work working. That freed up a lot of time for me, which was a life saver!

Trackbacks

  1. Kelsi Singer: do research as an undergraduate, and embrace the rewards of grad school « Women in Planetary Science: Female Scientists on Careers, Research, Space Science, and Work/Life Balance

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