Drawing the Lines of Work-Life Balance

How my time-management skills are crucial to my productivity, and more importantly, to my happiness
MARCH 2018
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Most mornings, I don’t set an alarm. As a student in cognitive science, when I’m not working with participants, almost all of my work is done on the computer and can be done from anywhere at any time. This is both a blessing and a curse, but it translates to the fact that I am almost entirely responsible for dictating my own work schedule. The stereotype of graduate students toiling away in a lab for 80 hours a week as they become paler and more anti-social by the day is certainly a myth; but the reality of a heavy workload without much imposed structure does mean time-management skills are crucial to productivity, and more importantly, to happiness.

I was a lab manager for two years before I came to graduate school, where I was responsible for work very similar work to what I have now as a graduate student but in the structure of a 9-to-5 job. I learned a lot of the skills that I use in research now during those two years and was fortunate to be able to do my own independent research, but with the glorious bonus of being able to physically and emotionally punch out at 5pm and go on my merry way.

After years of living in a jumble of schoolwork and social life in college, working full days was a hard transition, but being able to pack up and head home at 5pm without taking my work home with me allowed me to have a lot of time in the evenings that I could spend how I wished. During those two years, I learned to cook real food (rather than just baking treats), started doing pottery more seriously at a nearby community studio, and began bike commuting. These hobbies have stuck with me, and carrying them with me into graduate school has helped immensely with my work-life balance.

I am fortunate that the culture of my lab is not centered around who can prove that they care the most about their research by staying late into the night, and it is not uncommon for most people to leave by 6pm. But because the nature of our work allows it to be done from anywhere, if I’ve had a day that I judge to be less productive or I’m working on something with an approaching deadline, I sometimes feel compelled to pull my computer back out at home in the evening and get more done. It’s nice to have the flexibility to work from home, but the nagging feeling that I could always be working definitely takes away from the time I should be spending on relaxing and resting for the next day of work.

Some of my classmates keep an almost reversed schedule, doing work late into the night and rolling out of bed in the early afternoon, while some manage to keep a more typical 9-5 schedule (especially those with families/children). Finding what schedule works best for my productivity is something I am still working on, but my best hours seem to be early in the morning. If I’ve gone to bed early enough, I usually wake up early and try to get some things done before the distractions of the day begin. I still struggle with the nagging feeling that I should be getting more done in the evening after I get home from lab, but I think what benefits me most is if I am as strict about the time I take for myself as I am for the time that I dedicate to my work. Getting a PhD happens over a large swath of one’s young-adulthood, so I try to make sure that I am also working on my personal goals at the same time as my educational goals. I don’t want to look back and feel like this time in my life was only spent with my head down while my life sped past me.

I’m not sure I’ll ever figure out a perfect schedule, I just try to continue to stay conscious about how I’m spending my time and focus on things that add value (both personal and professional) to my life. Work-life balance is something I’ll always have to actively work on to keep myself from tipping too much towards one or the other. I’ll never be able to drink enough coffee to get through my dissertation if I haven’t first designed the perfect mug to hold it all!