3 steps to a better work-life balance

In first grade, I remember the look of shock when I told my friends that my mom was a teacher. They couldn’t imagine teachers ever leaving school. They thought teachers just lived in the classroom, and their sole purpose in life was to teach.  Similarly, I think people (both scientists and non-scientists) often believe that their science defines scientists.  I see several issues with this framework: 1) people generally have other interests than their scientific research. 2) Putting all of your self-worth into one thing (e.g., your “success” as a scientist) is a dangerous disposition. 3) Forgetting that scientists are people can lead to unrealistic expectations of yourself, colleagues, and/or people you don’t even know. It is why striking the right work-life balance is incredibly important to succeed as a scientist and a human being.

Credit: Pixabay

Enter the work-life balance dilemma.

The more I talk with other scientists, the more I find that many of us try to strike this perfect work-life balance.  I don’t claim to have it all figured out. However, I would like to share my thoughts and some personal insight hoping that it might help others.  Here are 3 steps that I follow to help me maintain what I feel is a reasonable work-life balance.  Perhaps, they will be useful for you too.

1 – Barring any pressing deadlines, schedule time for work, and only work during that time

When I started my PhD, I felt like I had to work on my degree constantly.  Early on, I would spend 8+ hours per day on campus working. Then, I would come home and work more after dinner. However, I spent a ton of time spinning my wheels and not really getting anywhere. One day, my husband asked me to make an agreement. We agreed that we would not continue to work when we got home for the evening (barring any pressing deadlines). A year later, I started volunteering as a coach with the university cross country/track & field team. Later that year, I signed a contract to be a professional athlete.  After partitioning my time to include the extra activities associated with coaching, professional athletics, and keeping my evenings free from work, I learned how to work more efficiently

Similarly, a colleague once told me that she reached a new level of focus and efficiency after having children. She suddenly had a specific window of time in her day when her children attended daycare to complete her work.  It seems that dedicating a particular section of the day for working can provide multiple benefits of keeping a person more on-task when working and also saving part of the day for personal life.

2 – Avoid assigning your self-worth to your current scientific achievements

We all have good and not so good days at work.  When we spend so much time and energy trying to figure out a piece of code only to receive countless error messages; or when we craft what we see as an excellent manuscript only to have our targeted journal reject it, it can feel devastating. However, I have found that keeping a clear perspective is essential in overcoming adversity. 

Growing up, my parents and mentors would emphasize the importance of being a “well-rounded” person. I have to agree with them. I try not to associate my self-worth with my perceived ability to conduct research or any other single component of my life. Of course, I have days when I feel dumb and/or don’t enjoy my research. However, I try to have it not ruin my day because I have so many other things to enjoy (e.g., running, lifting, hiking, skiing, cooking, reading, playing video games). 

As scientists, we encounter setbacks all the time. Filling our lives with hobbies, volunteering, and meaningful social relationships can help remind us that we are so much more than our science; we are multi-faceted people with plenty to share with the world in addition to our scientific feats.

3 – When you get stuck, take a break

When the going gets tough, it can be tempting to just try to grind it out and (hopefully) emerge on the other side with all the answers. However, this strategy can lead to unnecessary frustration and lost time. Sometimes when I’m stumped with my research, I do something else for a bit. When I come back to my work, I often figure out the answer a lot faster. I am also much happier with myself.

I have lost count of the number of times I have failed to spot a simple typo in my code that is leading to an error message after staring at it for minutes on end – but then seeing it stick out like a sore thumb immediately when I come back to it after taking a short break. Sometimes when I struggle to figure out what to write, I go for a run or a walk. I let my mind wander. Amazingly, when I return to my work, I often have better clarity. I think sometimes the mind just needs a quick reset to see the forest through the trees (or the trees through the forest…depending on your particular challenge).

We are all unique individuals with our own goals, hobbies, and challenges. However, I hope you find these 3 steps as helpful as I do. I have not made it this far as a marine mammal research scientist in spite of my varied interests but because of them!  I encourage all of you to pursue all of your interests; it will likely make you a happier person and will probably even make you a better scientist.

Thank you for reading!

Here are some more tips on succeeding as a marine mammologist, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Whale Science in the time of COVID: how to make it work?

Jamie is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington who mostly works on modeling different components of populations (e.g., survival, abundance, habitat usage). Her work largely centers around research questions related to conservation and theories of evolutionary biology. She received her B.S. from the University of Illinois, M.S. from Coastal Carolina University, and Ph.D. from Montana State University. Although most of her work has focused on seals (Weddell seals and harbor seals), Jamie also has research experience with bottlenose dolphins and Florida manatees. In addition to marine mammal research, Jamie also enjoys running, obstacle course racing, coaching (track & field), hiking, fumbling around on skis, and cooking.

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