Finding the Work/Life Balance

As you probably have gathered by chatting with me or following my blog/Twitter, I have been having some issues adjusting to life as a post-doc. Part of it is the pressures of my career path: I love what I do and I want to do the best I can, which often means sacrifices, lists that get longer instead of shorter, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed. I think that is part of the life as a post doc/new academic. I’ve always prided myself on being able to go-with-the-flow. During grad school, I had the mantra: “it will all even out eventually” and I still was able to have a life, race fast, and write papers and grants and my dissertation. But now, things are different. I’ve had to make huge sacrifices, including moving 800miles away from my fiance, giving up long-course racing, selling my triathlon bike, etcetera. Sometimes, I feel like I am running behind a wagon full of stuff as it heads down a bumpy road. The stuff in the wagon starts falling out each time it hits a bump, one item at a time, and I am picking up the things that are falling out, and trying to put them back into the wagon. But the more stuff I pick up and put back, the more stuff falls out, and I am having a harder time catching up to the wagon because I am carrying all the stuff. It’s cruel.

Yesterday, after a pretty rough morning, I went to the AWIS-St Louis seminar on improving work/life satisfaction for women scientists. I learned a lot, and wanted to share some insight that I gained to remind myself what to focus on during work/life balance struggles:

1. Look long-term, not at the “right-now”:

There are many times when I feel overwhelmed because what I am doing at that very moment is not what I had planned on doing. I am in the lab at 7pm when I had planned on meeting a group to run at 6pm. Or, I am sitting at my desk working on a grant for 4hrs straight when I was supposed to be doing dissections. I often feel as though I am not dividing my time well enough; that I don’t set aside enough time to get in a run or yoga, or that I don’t get enough done in a work day. I have been focusing too much on the “what’s happening now” aspect and not enough at the long-term. The leaders of the AWIS discussion yesterday brought up something that really struck home with me; Work/life balance is not like balancing scales. It’s more about doing what needs to be done now and planning ahead. One thing I love about my job is that it’s flexible. If I have errands to do in the morning, no one really cares if I don’t come into work until 10am (unless I have meetings). There is no perfect 1 + 1 = 2 answer to the work/life balance equation; sometimes its a little more convoluted. Even still, it’s important to focus on finding your center.

2. Overcome the challenges of finding work/life satisfaction by:

  • setting boundaries
  • planning and prioritizing
  • asking for what I want and what I need
  • cultivating a strong support system for both work and social well-being
Setting boundaries is difficult in my job, because of many reasons. I want to make a good impression on my boss and his peers. I want to be independent and competent, which – so far -has made me feel like I need to do it all alone. I want to be good at what I do; I want people to respect me for what I know, for who I am, and for what I have accomplished. And if I am not accomplishing anything or I am not doing anything on my own, well, where does my identity lie? One thing that has become apparent since starting this job about a year ago, and especially after attending the AWIS seminar, is that I don’t need to do it all alone. There are others who are experts in things I am not, who can help make my life easier just by asking. And there are ways I can ease the workload by delegating tasks and clearing my desk. Which leads me to…
Planning and prioritizing. I have become better over the last few months at staying organized and focused. It was a new learning process, mostly because I have multiple different foci that have a list of priorities and tasks to accomplish. Some tips I’ve learned from my friends, peers, and by trial-and-error:
  1. At the end of each day, I make a list of things that I need to accomplish the next day. I write it on a post-it note, and keep it limited to one post-it. That way, I can accomplish the tasks, and I feel like I am actually doing something productive by crossing things off the list.
  2. I use Google Tasks for the more important stuff- like when its a due-date for an animal treatment, or a grant deadline is coming up, or whatever. The check boxes also provide that “accomplished! YAY” feeling, and if I don’t get them done, I have to drag them to the next day or see them hovering in the list on the side bar.
  3. Use Google Calendar for important meetings. I used to have a pocket calendar that I would write things in but I am forgetful, and wouldn’t always have it on me. Google is everywhere– on my phone, on my computer, on any other computer, so if I forget what I need to do or if I forget I have a meeting in 20minutes, my phone lets me know or my computer blinks at me to remind me. Because, otherwise, I am forgetful.
  4. Delegating smaller, easily accomplishable tasks that would otherwise linger on my post-it notes for weeks has really reduced my stress levels. For example, I have had a stock pile of samples that I need to scan and analyze for bone parameters. But, I just wouldn’t make time to do the analysis. Every time a slot opened up in my calendar, I’d fill it with something else. So, I assigned the task to someone else, and *voila!*, its almost done. Delegate FTW.
Asking for what I need and for what I want has been difficult, because- like I mentioned before- I want to be independent and show that I can do things on my own. But the truth is, I don’t need to do that. Seeking help, like asking someone to do a task that I could do but would take me 5hrs, is a way better use of my mental capacity than just doing it myself. There are definitely lots of things that I can’t ask someone else to do, but there are lots of things that someone else can help me with. Even though I have been at my job for almost a year, I have only recently felt comfortable approaching my boss and asking for help with my project. Part of it is realizing that I am behind and having the self-awareness of saying “OK, I need help!” but also, its just part of getting my job done. There’s no way I could do all the things I am supposed to on my own.
Cultivating a strong support system has not been difficult where I work, mostly because of the incredibly collaborative environment. Both my clinical and research bosses are incredibly supportive, and emotionally I feel very happy with my work environment. But I also need to have the social support, too, which is why in a week I will be moving out of my one-bedroom apartment and into a house with roommates. Being submersed in a new environment will keep me from coming home from work and watching hours of Netflix; it will also help me feel less guilty about things like not eating all my kale from my CSA.
The last thing I want to mention that really struck home with me about the seminar is: where do I see myself when I am older. Right now, I am focused on work, career, research. That’s ok, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Yeah, I want to have a good job, have a well-established lab and be a good, honest scientist. But, more importantly, I want to be a loveable person… I want to get married and spend my life with the man I love. I want to be thoughtful and compassionate, and excited about life-things. I want to focus on building more on relationships that will last a lifetime. Because at the end of the day, it’s just a job, right?
The biggest thing that life is about is love. It’s with a heavy heart that I had to put to rest my beautiful cat, Jasper, yesterday morning. I adopted him in May, and a few months later – at the young age of 6 – he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. After many emergency room visits, vet visits, and up to 12 pills a day, he had enough. Rest in peace, big guy. I loved you so much!
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About megankillian

I am a scientist, engineer, and athlete who digs being outdoors, especially when it involves running, lakes, and sunshine.

Posted on November 13, 2011, in academia, life, motivation, science. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great post Megan! I love the analogy of the wagon going down a bumpy road.

  2. Great balance tips! Hopefully they help you find some organization in your crazy life lately.

  3. Oh gosh Meg- you have a lot of strength to deal with some of the tough cards you’ve been dealt, and to balance out your life for what will suit you best in the long run- I really admire you. Go get em’ girl.

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