A good work-life balance contributes to your overall mental and physical health. Since graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression or anxiety than the general population, achieving a good work-life balance should be one of your top priorities.
Working Longer ≠ Working Better
The stereotypical grad student is overworked and doesn’t have time for anything but their research. But this stereotype is based on a flawed idea. Working longer doesn’t mean you’re working better. Are you really doing your best work after 12 straight hours on the same task? Is there really any benefit to starting a new project at 8 pm rather than waiting until the next morning?
Working effectively and efficiently is key to achieving a better work-life balance. It’s also the biggest mindset change required for most grad students. To work effectively and efficiently, you need to minimize any unnecessary extra time spent on a task. An easy way to do this is to make a plan before you begin a new project so it doesn’t take longer than it has to. Before starting a project, think through all the steps, determine if you have all the resources you will need, and figure out how much time you should set aside for each step. Things may not go entirely according to your plan, but it’s better to spend a little more time learning proper technique then to waste a day because you have to order a reagent you didn’t know you would need. If you plan, you minimize your chances of working late to compensate for time lost earlier in the day.
Being selective about your work goes hand-in-hand with planning. Say you need to learn about a new topic. Is it better to spend the entire day reading every single article you can find about the subject or instead spend eight hours reading a few of the most-referenced articles and book chapters, then spending your evening doing something else? Which do you think will give you a deeper understanding of the topic? Cramming will mean you spend the whole day working and end up with only a cursory knowledge of the subject. You’ll learn more from a close reading of a few key articles, plus you’ll have some time to actually process what you’ve read.
Set Your Hours
Academia is rarely a 9 to 5 job. While this often gets construed as a justification for working nights and weekends, use it to your advantage to set your work hours at the time when you are most productive. If you are a morning person, consider starting your work a few hours earlier. If you do your best thinking in the evening, shift your day so you can relax in the morning then do the bulk of your work during your most productive time. Of course, if you work in a lab or shared office, check with your supervisor first to make sure they are okay with you working different hours.
Once you set your work hours, stick to them. When you’re done for the day, move all tasks still in progress to tomorrow’s to-do list. Having set hours means you can enjoy your nights and weekends, but also gives you the flexibility to work a bit longer if you need to. There are only so many hours in a day and if you already work for most of then, how will you find any extra time when there’s a deadline approaching? And on that note...
Getting enough sleep isn’t just a way to achieve work-life balance, it contributes to your overall health. You can’t give 100% at work if you’re overtired. Sleep also affects your long-term memory making it even more important to get your eight hours every night.
In addition to getting a full night’s sleep, work-life balance also includes taking a proper lunch break and even a dinner break if you must work late. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if you don’t eat lunch you are going to crash later in the day. Secondly, a lunch break gives you a chance to take a break and socialize with the people you work with. Getting to know your fellow grad students helps foster a friendly work environment, which will make your job a lot more enjoyable.
Forming these good habits in grad school will help you maintain a great work-life balance as you progress in your academic career.