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  • Writer's pictureCatie Phares

Creating work-life balance in academia—one small step at a time

I want to take a slight detour from the strictly writing-related content I normally share to talk about something I see affecting the vast majority of the clients I work with (and of course, it ultimately impacts their writing).

First, a question worth answering for your own purposes: do you believe that successful academics can achieve a healthy work-life balance?

For many professors, the answer is an instant “no” (perhaps accompanied by mirthless laughter). 

Indeed, as this article from Studies in Higher Education notes, work–work balance is arguably the more common phenomenon in academia—one that’s seeing an increasing number of professors in many areas reporting burnout and thoughts of quitting. The irony, of course, is that their imbalance-supporting institutions suffer too, as “poor work-life balance can result in lower productivity and impact, stifled academic entrepreneurship, lower career satisfaction and success, lower organizational commitment, … fatigue and decreased social interactions, and poor physical and mental health” (Bartlett, Arslan, Bankston, and Sarabipour, 2021).


But if you’re waiting for these institutions to acknowledge this harm and dramatically reduce your workload accordingly… hm. Let’s just say you may be waiting a long time

A better course of action is to get proactive about balancing your work and life goals yourself, which is going to produce countless benefits for both your career and your well-being. Here are six effective strategies to improve work-life balance as an academic.

1. Identify your academic mission and the activities that both further it AND light you up; those get top priority. It’ll come as no surprise to you that I highly recommend putting your writing in this critical category, given that clear, persuasive writing is what gets your ideas noticed, cited, funded, and just generally working for your big-picture success. And if writing just isn’t one of those things that lights you up? Turn to your friendly neighborhood editor (hello!). In addition to my usual editing services that can transform just about any document you’ve drafted into a winner, I’m now offering courses and coaching slots to permanently improve your writing skills and confidence. As for everything that doesn’t move the needle on your academic mission or light you up? Reduce, outsource, or cut it from your calendar entirely. The exceptions to this rule are the things that have no “productive” outcome other than sheer fun—because we can all use more time for fun. 

2. When it comes to reducing your workload, run a “reverse pilot program.” This suggestion comes from Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism. He advises choosing an area of your life (one that you’ve identified as a non-needle mover in the step above is an ideal starting point) and simply scaling back your effort there. Then just watch and see what happens. Negative consequences? Ramp the effort back up—no real harm done. No significant consequences? Hooray! You’ve just freed up that much more time and energy to put toward something that really matters to you.  The average academic’s day is loaded with tasks that deserve a reverse pilot program. Think about all those meetings you attend, emails you answer, boxes you tick; what would happen if they got 20 minutes (or even 2 minutes) of your time instead of 2 hours? Give it a shot!

3. Use time-blocking to overcome Parkinson’s law (the fact that work generally expands to fill the allotted time for it). As someone whose income has depended on managing my time wisely for over 10 years now, I really can’t say enough about time-blocking. Scheduling (and even micro-scheduling) out your day might seem restrictive—until you realize that, paradoxically, it’s the key to freeing yourself from the stress and guilt of a cluttered to-do list that you know full well will never be done. Time-blocking is particularly important in relation to your writing, as writing and editing are truly unfinishable tasks—meaning there’s never going to be an indisputable point where they can be considered completed to perfection—so it’s up to you to draw that line with firm boundaries around your time.

4. Limit decisions. Always, but this recommendation is especially pertinent when you’re facing a deadline or other stressful situation. The average American is now faced with a staggering 35,000 decisions a day. Research suggests that the resulting decision fatigue is affecting our abilities to cope with difficult situations, control our behavior, and (ironically) make rational decisions. Regain time and energy by choosing a default meal, “uniform” of clothing, activity (or 2) for recharging your batteries, and many other go-tos that you can resort to when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan. 

5. In line with the previous point, choose and stick to one overarching theme for all of your contributions at work. Many academics are already doing this to some degree by default (i.e., hopefully, your area of research is relevant to the committees you serve on, the students you mentor, the classes you teach, the conferences you attend, etc.). But making this an intentional strategy across all of your work has myriad benefits. When all of your work and contributions dovetail along the same lines, you make more progress and more impact with less effort. Think of it like adding a block to the same structure with everything you do, versus scattering new, disconnected blocks on the floor; which will be taller after a few years? Not only will you become the expert in the “structure” that you’re building that much faster, but you can reuse, recycle, and expand on your hard-won insights across contexts, meaning better contributions with less energy on your part.

6. Finally, outsource, outsource, outsource. Consider this post your sign to hire whatever help you need, in any area, and stop “shoulding” yourself. “I should be able to do all this myself” is a pernicious lie that all wildly successful people have discarded at some point (if they ever believed it at all). You don’t have to be a millionaire to afford something that’s going to make your life significantly easier; for instance, this meal-planning subscription has changed my life for USD$15 a month. Whether it’s help with cooking, cleaning, caregiving, finances, or your important documents, get the support you need to bring your best, most energized self to your work and your life.

Don’t let the increasingly competitive academic landscape or certain cynical actors within it convince you that a work–work imbalance is normal or sustainable. Before you say yes to another task, pause and consider: 

  • Do I love doing this? 

  • Does this further my academic mission? 

  • Is there a way for me to do and decide less here, and still mark the task done? 

  • Can I draw on something I’ve already done to complete this within the next [insert reasonable limit] minutes?

  • Can someone else do this for me?

Your career—and, more importantly, your health and happiness—will thank you.

-Catie Phares


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