Maintaining balance and sanity

September 26, 2014

Hi Dr. Laura,

Do you have any tips on being a PhD student balancing work and school but still maintaining your sanity?

Seeking Sanity

Dear Seeking Sanity,

Balancing school, work, and personal life is a challenge. Doctoral programs are unlike anything else you’ve probably ever done. There is a never-ending mountain (not stack) of work to do. That’s why you might hear someone refer to the PhD as Piled Higher and Deeper.

It is easy to get swept up in workaholic work weeks which can have a negative impact on your physical and emotional health. So this question is particularly important. Thanks for asking.

Part of what you are learning in the doctoral program is how you work best—what conditions and techniques help you be the most productive. The habits you set now will most likely carry through into your professional life. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that if you just push yourself and work hard to achieve some milestone—graduation, getting that job, tenure—that THEN you will be able to relax and focus on family, friends, and personal aims. It’s not going to happen. You don’t want the ghost of Christmas past to visit you when you’re old and gray and show you how you’ve missed out on your life.

So now is a good time to pause and ask yourself:

  • How do I want to live my life day-to-day?
  • What is important to me? What are my values?
  • What do I need to work productively and be happy with myself?

Then build your work, school, and personal life around sustaining those needs, wants, and values.

Serenity and Sanity
The next step would be to identify activities that help you maintain serenity and balance. These are some activities that have helped me maintain serenity:

  • Daily exercise. Making it priority really helped me feel better physically, lower my stress, and get better sleep.
  • Getting enough rest. I need a full 8 hours of sleep. Less and I become grumpy and stupid.
  • Spending time in total frivolity. I need to have some time every day doing something very un-serious: playing a game, reading fiction, watching a silly movie, etc. This gives me a welcome break from work and refreshes me for more creative work.
  • Meditating. Some universities have wellness or mindfulness programs that offer classes in meditation. Local churches or temples may also offer meditation classes or gatherings. Meditation helps me slow my mind down so I can focus and make the most of my work time. It lowers my stress and helps me pause in difficult situations.

I think it is also worthwhile to make sure you do something nice for yourself on a regular basis: get a massage, have a nice dinner out with friends, take a nice walk, etc.

For maintaining balance between all the things you want to do or need to get accomplished in a day or week, begin by taking an inventory of the time you spend working and analyze it for inefficiencies.

Track how many hours you spend each week on major tasks. For example, how many hours did you spend reading for your literature review? How many hours did you spend preparing for the class you’re teaching? How much on grading? How much on meeting with your advisor? Do this for a few months, and then look at:

  • How many hours a week are you working? Is this more than you want or need to spend to accomplish your goals?
  • How are (a) classwork, (b) research, and (c) teaching or other job work distributed (e.g., 30% on your research, 20% on coursework, 50% on a job)? Do these proportions reflect what you might be expected to do when you graduate and start a job? How does it compare to the way your advisor and other mentors spend their time?
  • If you are spending more time than you want or need on a task (e.g., teaching), can you identify what subtasks (e.g., grading) tend to consume you? What might be the cause(s) of this time sink (e.g., perfectionism, no rubric, a rubric in need of revision)?

Once you have answered these questions, try to identify solutions for eliminating or reducing time sinks. Your advisor and other mentors should be able to help you brainstorm possible solutions (e.g., maybe you can learn how they grade assignments efficiently).

Also, identify those undesirable tasks that encourage you to procrastinate. For these, I have found the following techniques helpful:

  • Do the least desirable task first and reward yourself afterward.
  • Set a timer for 15 minutes and work on the undesirable task. Then switch to a task you enjoy for 30 minutes. Then switch back to the undesirable task for 15 minutes. Often I have found that I end up getting engrossed in the undesirable task and spending more time than I had planned. It’s the freedom to stop at 15 minutes that makes it easier to get going.

If you notice yourself taking on a lot of projects that you later shirk, then learn how to say no.

Be Honest
Finally a word of caution. If you find yourself dealing with stress by drinking, drugging, or other risky behaviors, you owe it to yourself to see a counselor. Don’t let that little pick me up escalate into something you can’t control, something that puts your life and career at great risk.

Dr. Laura

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