Work, Well-Being, and Social Connections: Advice from a Graduate Student on Finding the Correct Proportions

By Kevin DeLuca of Harvard University

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“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” – Some wise person

For academics, I think the saying is backward: “If you, an academic, love what you do, you’ll work every day of your life.” The line between work and life in academia is often blurred, making the achievement of work-life balance elusive. For graduate students still in their first years of being “in academia,” it can be particularly hard to find a healthy, sustainable routine. Compound this with the anxiety and stress that comes with the typical grad program and voilà: the recipe for a well-being disaster.

Given the premium academia places on over-working, most graduate students feel they can’t spend much time on other important aspects of their lives. This is causing a mental health crisis among grad students; it’s time to make a healthy work-life balance in academia the norm.

Finding Balance
One definition of “balance” is: “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” In my view, the essential elements of “work-life balance” are:

  1. work, of course;
  2. well-being, including leisure, mental health, and physical health; and
  3. social connections, including relationships with family, friends, and social groups.

Each of these elements should be “in the correct proportions,” and a worthy goal is to develop each category every day. Notice that in order to achieve this balanced development, you must spend time doing things that are NOT directly beneficial to your career (*gasp*). Of course, finding your personal “correct” proportions is the hard part.

By virtue of being grad students, we all share common challenges in our pursuit of healthy and productive academic lives. The following advice is meant to provide a general set of tips to help grad students achieve a healthy work-life balance. These are based off my own personal experience dealing with the stresses of grad school – if you are struggling with mental health issues in your program, please contact a trained counselor for help, consult services that are available on your own campus, or access resources like the Academic Mental Health Collective or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Less, More Efficient Work
Most grad students feel they must continuously be working in order to keep up with their work. There are two ways to combat this problem: 1) make the time you spend working more efficient, or 2) reduce your commitments.

One of the best ways to increase work efficiency is to focus on creating periods of “deep work” – work time that is completely free of distractions, especially social media and email. Aim for at least 90-120 minutes of distraction-free work per session (but don’t stop yourself if you’re on a roll!), then aim to have about 3 sessions per workday. Try not to force yourself to work more than that – this is crucial. You need time to relax and invest in other parts of your life. Four to six hours of work might not sound like a lot (especially if you think you work 60 hours a week), but most people can’t do more than 4-6 hours of intense work per day anyway, plus you’ll need time to do other work-related things (meetings, classes, emails), so this is actually an ambitious goal.

If you cannot keep up with all of your obligations with a healthy work schedule, you need to reduce your work obligations as soon as possible. It’s OK to do less. Make it a habit to say no to work you don’t really want to do. It’s tempting to overcommit due to social and professional pressures in academia, but these pressures are based on unrealistic expectations about what you “should” be doing. I find it’s better to focus on work quality, rather than quantity of academic obligations.

Successfully keeping your work from invading other elements of your life is the first step to establishing a healthy work-life balance. By focusing on making your work efficient and limiting your work obligations, you can decrease the total amount of time you spend working and increase the time available for other important aspects of your life.

Investing in Well-Being
“Well-being” is an all-encompassing term meant to include physical and mental health, along with any other things that make you a happy, balanced, healthy person. Taking care of your health, as well as spending time on non-work leisure activities, can improve your quality of life while also giving you the energy to be productive at work.

Rather than suggest specific activities, I want to suggest a more general philosophy of leisure time. My advice for improving well-being is similar to my advice on improving work efficiency: make your leisure more productive. By that, I mean spend your leisure time in a deliberate way and, most importantly, in a way that allows you to totally disengage from your work. I call this kind of leisure “deep leisure” – the much more fun variant of deep work. It’s about being fully engaged in a particular leisure activity with no (work) distractions.

Given that the typical schedule for grad students is often unstructured, it can be hard to fully stop working to enjoy leisure time. Imposing structure on your time – including scheduling leisure activities – can be highly beneficial to your well-being. You have to convince yourself that it’s OK to unplug from work for a while. I’ve had many conversations with other students where they remark that a lot of “leisure” time they spend is also spent with a lot of anxiety about other work they have to get done. This is not time spent leisurely! Allow yourself to enjoy time off, guilt-free, and schedule this time into your day just like you would homework or classes. Make time for a life beyond work.

Many grad students feel guilty about “wasting time” on leisure, but leisure is not a waste. In fact, it will likely improve your performance as a researcher, since you’ll be more energized, focused, and motivated to work after spending time relaxing. Even if all you care about is improving your career prospects (which you shouldn’t!), it’s a smart move to engage in deep leisure and not overwork yourself.

Social Connections and Positive Externalities
Social connections are not totally distinct from well-being, since many people’s mental and physical health depends on positive social interactions with friends and family. But they are different because not all social interactions are relaxing or leisurely, and because improving relationships with friends and family often involves tradeoffs between other work or well-being goals.

For example, taking time to call a family member is time not spent on homework. Spending an afternoon helping a friend means you can’t spend that afternoon in the office working. Going to lunch with people in your department means you’ll have less time to watch your favorite show later. Of course, many social interactions can also be considered “leisure” time – like going to a party or having dinner with a friend. But some social interactions are more leisurely than others, and it can be tempting to opt-out of many of them to get more work done.

The fact that many grad students feel pressure to keep themselves disconnected socially in order to be successful (I’m definitely guilty of this) reveals how unhealthy the social norms in academia can be. Instead of isolating yourself, try something different. Be the externality you want to see in the world. Check in on your peers from time to time. Thank people often. Give back to your department or community by volunteering. Do things to make your workplace welcoming and friendly for everyone, especially for those who may feel isolated.

Grad school is difficult by nature, but should never require you to isolate yourself or keep you from being a healthy person. It’s true, investing in your community, friends, and family takes away from time you could be working! But fostering better social connections will make you feel good about yourself, feel more like part of a community, and can give you that sense of accomplishment that is too often absent from our academic work,

The Correct Proportions
Finding the right proportions for these aspects of our lives can be hard. You won’t always get it right. The key is to strive for balance and to forgive yourself (and learn!) as you work through the process. I hope that these ideas can help you find your balance.

About the Author: Kevin DeLuca is a Political Economy and Government Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University. His research interests include voter behavior and elections in the United States. He can be reached by emailing kevindeluca@g.harvard.edu or on Twitter at @cantstopkevin.

 


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