Work/life balance. Is it truly possible to bring all aspects of our lives under control? Balance is a myth and should not even be the real goal. We are all constantly negotiating our energy and attention. The goal is to maximise the time you are enjoying both work and personal life.
There are no easy answers to negotiating a demanding career in science with other interests and priorities, but many find it helpful to obtain support and ideas from those who seem to be managing. Being reminded of the seemingly simple actions we can take to help ourselves can be an appropriate first step.
Managing time and energy between work and the rest of life is sometimes more of a struggle and sometimes less. When we are lucky, we are “in the zone” and everything seems to fall into place. When the balance tips, we need to look to for support and ideas to manage our stress. If you are saying to yourself, “I’m not married,” or “I don’t have children, so my life will be under control.” Think again. Maybe you’ll need to care for an elderly family member, want to train for a triathlon, finally buy that charming fixer-upper house you have always admired or volunteer to lead a charitable cause.
While I can’t make it “all better” for you, I can offer some tips and tactics that have worked for my friends, my colleagues and me. To that end, here are my personal 10 commandments for making it all work – most of the time.
#1 Thou Shalt Find Enjoyment in Your Work
If you are happy at work, you will find balance. If you enjoy working and come home happy in the evening, your friends and family will truly sense and appreciate this – and they will be happy too. On the flip side, if you are not happy at work, you probably need to find a new job. If you are miserable at home or work, your relationships will suffer in both the short run and the long run and so will your work. Nobody wins, and you need to make a change.
#2 Thou Shalt Sometimes Put Work Ahead of Life
Sometimes, work has to come first. That means you and/or your spouse won’t be at every school performance, chaperone every field trip or cheer at every soccer game. Tip: take turns going; that way you can have someone there clapping more often than not. You want your family and friends to know you care, but they need to know that you have an important life too. They will respect you if you show respect for your own career and it will teach them to respect their own responsibilities. Another tip: don’t miss your grandfather’s 100th birthday, as your mom will never forgive you…
#3 Honor the Work Day and Keep It Holy
Keep a regular schedule at work. Choose a lab/job where people have regular schedules. Work 8 to 5 or 7 to 4 or maybe 7 to 6 and 8 to 10 or whatever works for you, but most days go home at the same time. Use time management tools and tactics to plan your work and make this happen. Be realistic and:
- Your co-workers will learn to work within these bounds
- You can work later (in the evening, or in a few years) when life responsibilities are less
- You can work at home sometimes, but do so carefully and with attention to those around you
#4 Thou Shalt Not Bear the Burden Alone
You, alone, are not solely responsible for care and attention to your home and family unless you live alone. If you try to do it all alone, it should be obvious that your career will suffer. And, yes, your partner CAN take the kids to the doctor without your help. Your partner is equally responsible and capable. The only exception is that men cannot actually give birth and breastfeed. Keeping this always at the forefront will go a long way toward alleviating the guilt (which you should not be having anyway) for enjoying your career and life as well as your family and friends. If there is any guilt, you should be sharing it absolutely equally, which means you only have one-half of the guilt. You can handle that, right? Big tip: this is an important topic to discuss and agree on before you get enmeshed in a serious relationship.
#5 Thou Shalt Not Sweat the Small Stuff
The house can be messy and things won’t always get done, but you’ll have time to read a story to your baby or run that extra two miles which is way more fun. And despite those who may wish to tell you so – towel corners do not need to match up exactly when you fold them. The same with sheets – wash them and put them right back on the bed to save a step! There is more than one way to do most tasks – try to resist the impulse to control by insisting things always be done your way. Be patient with yourself; you will make progress over time.
#6 Thou Shalt Throw Money at the Problem
If you can, pay someone to do the “jobs” that take you away from having your personal time. Someone else can clean your house, pick up your dry cleaning, cook your dinner and deliver your groceries. Do anything you can to make your life easier and to have more time to relax and be with friends and family.
#7 Thou Shalt Create Community to Help
Involve family. If you don’t have local family to help, create “fake” family by forming a social circle of people in the same situation. Go to church, join a club, meet the neighbors and create a network of support to help with elder care, carpooling, cooking on nights when you can’t get home, babysitting or running errands. Give help when you have time, and in return you will get help when you need it. On the work side, join a professional community that you can count on for tips and tactics that will help you do your job better.
#8 Thou Shalt Enthusiastically Foster Independence
Your partner can make his or her own dinner if you are going away to a conference. Really. No one will starve while you are away a few days. Also, your children will enjoy day care and school if you tell them they will enjoy it. If you cry and tell them they will miss you, of course they will. Try really hard not to do this. For a family with working parent(s), the sooner your kids can make a decent meal, fold their laundry, take public transportation, call a cab and remember their own school assignments, the better. In my opinion, a level of independence is better for them anyway. You will worry less about how they will handle an emergency and this will make you much more confident about their safety when they leave home which happens very, very fast! I will never forget the time my eight-year-old daughter vehemently reminded her doctor that she was allergic to penicillin – I am much less worried knowing that she can take care of herself this way (except I am glad she never told me how much hitchhiking she did in Israel until after the fact).
#9 Thou Shalt Make a To-Do List, and a To-Don’t List
Prioritize! Some things can wait and some things can’t. I kiss my kids good night every evening I am home no matter how busy I am. Believe it or not, teenagers just go to bed and you’ll never know it so don’t miss out on those early kisses. The laundry or dishes can wait. Also, be ready for anyone in the family to have to miss something – for example, say no to some of those birthday parties. Tell your mom you can’t make it to dinner this week. One swim lesson missed can mean a world of mental relaxation. And, I’m not sure I should put this in print, but I actually let my daughter skip school a couple of times. Be sure to add time with your family, for yourself and for fun to the to-do list.
#10 Thou Shalt Also Have Fun
I’m really busy, but I go to the gym almost every morning. Of course, this is more than just fun, as your health needs to be a priority. Pick an area to focus on with your “volunteer” or fun time. For me, that’s been volunteer work at our temple, my kids’ school, and with professional organizations supporting women in science and career development. I try to do a really good job in one area at a time and try to say “no” to other activities. Take care of yourself. Take a vacation alone with your partner – no kids. Get a massage – no guilt. Have recreational time with your friends – no spouses or kids.
The Bottom Line
We don’t just “do science” – we are scientists. We have to figure out a way to keep being ourselves and to be happy. Building your plan to live a good life may be the most challenging assay you will ever have the opportunity to develop.