When I was a graduate student I worked hard, but not quite as hard as I felt like I should work.
I often brought home manuscripts I thought I might read before bed, only to take them back to work to read over lunch, and then back home again. I would schedule myself time to do things on the weekend, only to find that I struggled to follow through with my plans unless I had been very explicit: experiment and controls already designed, protocol selected, and sometimes even tubes labeled already.
And this only reinforced my feeling that I was falling behind week by week. It made it hard to justify to myself taking time off, be it traveling across the country to see my family, or just really unplugging for an evening with my husband. Being a graduate student and scientist was a huge part of myself identify, in part because I never had time to be anything else. The notion of work life balance seemed the exclusive domain of my “life” trying to reassert and claw back time from my work.
Skip ahead to after graduation. I struggled to find a job, and while I was looking I took writing and editing contracts. Again, it was hard to escape the feeling that if I was falling behind if I wasn’t actively looking for a job, and I had a hard time disengaging from that. At one point, I had a full time contract, but because it was only going for a couple months, I continued to keep up on other short term contracts. I would do a day of work writing educational materials, then spend a couple hours editing. At first this felt really good. I felt reconnected with my ability to work hard and learn quickly, and I was getting paid hourly. More work equals more money.
But after a couple weeks of this, I noticed that those evening contracts made it hard for me to produce at the same level the next day. I would write about 1,000 words a day at my full time job to meet my deadlines. If I had worked on something else the previous evening, I would struggle to maintain that pace.
I was also working at home during this time, so I had to be intentional about leaving the house to see other humans, especially my friends. I consider myself an introvert, but made a habit of seeing people most evenings, or networking, or just getting out of the house so I didn’t feel like a shut in. One of the big reasons I did this was to reduce my feelings of anxiety about my job situation. If I was talking to other people and still felt like a member of society, I could approach my work and my contracts with a lot more confidence and calm.
During this time I finally came to understand that work life balance went both ways. Yes, my family and friends deserved to have me present in our lives. But my work also deserved to have me refreshed and energized to take on my job, not burned out, which I can only do by balancing my commitment to the work.
Since this time, this has also evolved into a better sense of my own boundaries. I’m more willing to say no to side projects at work, because I know how much I can take on before it impacts my primary responsibilities. I’m more willing to carve out time for exercise because it makes me sharper at work, and happier at home. I am also a lot more judicious about taking on responsibilities I will actually enjoy, instead of just filling my time with tasks I am supposed to do to fill out my resume. And I am much more likely to leave work at the office so that I can come at it fresh the next day after I have a chance to fully unwind. -Sandlin Seguin,PhD is an eLearning Developer with Tableau, where she helps people learn to see and understand their data. Previously, she earned her PhD in molecular virology at the University of Pittsburgh, and worked as a Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist at Bellevue College.