One of my mentors delivered a piece of advice that is too good not to share here. He is a well-published tenured professor with an endowed chair and the winner of a major book award, but he is also a feminist man who functioned as a stay-at-home father during his ABD years because his wife was the dominant wage earner in the family. It took him two extra years to write his dissertation because he was dependent on 3-mornings-a-week day care to get any writing done. The first fifteen minutes of his grad seminars are devoted to answering questions that we might have about professional life, questions that we submit anonymously at the beginning of the semester. One of the first to come up is inevitably work-life balance.
He argues that this critical dilemma is too often erroneously presented as an either-or choice between work and family (especially true for women), when in fact there are five aspects to academic life:
He suggests that at any given time, you can only give your all in three of these areas, and two of them will have to be compromised in some way or another. While he was writing his dissertation and taking care of his infant son, research, teaching, and family were the three areas he invested in. He did not serve on any additional committees, and he didn’t really have any friends. It sounded like he didn’t sleep a whole lot either. Once he graduated and became an assistant professor, neglecting service was no longer an option, so he found ways to reduce the amount of time he spent grading by not commenting extensively on informal assignments. And he still didn’t have any friends or hobbies. But, he says, he picked up his kids from school every day and never missed a major event in their lives.
While your mileage may vary, I think that this is an absolutely brilliant way to look at the balance problem. So often we talk about work and life as if they are these homogeneous and entirely incompatible concepts. One can have either a career or be a good parent or friend. But the choice to be invested in any big component of your life (and I think it really is all “life,” I’m not sure how work came to occupy this weird “non-life” category in our imaginations) is made of up thousands of smaller choices to do this and not that. We could subdivide those five aspects into even tinier chunks if we needed to. On any given day that I have devoted to research, I have to decide whether to spend all of my time on my dissertation or to give a little time to an article that has nothing to do with it. In my free time, I have to decide whether to blog or to spend a little time unplugged.
It’s strangely liberating to embrace the fact that you really can’t do everything, but you can pick three of these five and do them well, and you are allowed to change your three as your circumstances shift. Right now, while I’m enjoying a teaching hiatus, my three are research, job hunting (that should really be the sixth category), and taking better care of myself by cooking, exercising more, and working on some other hobbies. What are your three?