Balance It Out

November 03, 2006

I really dislike the phrase "work/life balance." Just look at it: Work and Life (which aren't mutually exclusive, by the way) are in a stubborn deadlock, pushing up against one another in a heated battle. Work appears to be tipping the barrier that separates them in its favor, pushing Life (and Balance) out of the way and vying for more than its fair share of your precious time.

And Balance is way off by itself, completely unconnected to (and mostly ignored by) Work and Life, who just keep fighting with each other but never really achieve anything resembling Balance.

I am one of the X-Gals, as we call ourselves, an informal group of nine female biologists who began meeting in 2000 and have since been on a mission of friendship and support as we pursue careers in academic science. We are taking turns writing a monthly column about the conversations we have had as women in the sciences. Not surprisingly, we have talked about balance a lot over the years.

Until becoming an X-Gal, I hadn't really thought consciously about balance in my own life. It wasn't until the fall semester of the final year of my doctoral program, when I was eight months pregnant, writing a postdoctoral grant, preparing to be a teaching assistant for a course taught by my major adviser, and trying to write up my dissertation, that I suddenly realized that I was going to have to start taking the issue of balance very seriously.

That last year was mostly a blur, and my life was about as exhausting and unbalanced as it can get. Yet the experience only hardened my desire to find a reasonable balance as I began my career in biological research.

So I came up with a plan. I deliberately applied for my own postdoctoral grant to do research in a carefully chosen foreign academic environment that was not as inherently all-consuming as I perceived academic science in the United States to be.

My strategy worked: I got the postdoc grant, and my husband, infant son, and I moved overseas. I was able to pursue the research I love, and because I brought with me my own ideas and grant, I was largely independent and able to set my own hours, which, in turn, allowed me to have a family-friendly work schedule.

My postdoc is now over. My son is 3, my husband and I have bought a house, and I have started a new full-time research position (also overseas).

Most important, I have made significant strides toward experiencing balance in my life on a regular basis (really!), but it is a constant, conscious effort. I probably have a lot of things in my favor in that regard: a husband with a flexible schedule who works from home and takes on many child-care and housework responsibilities, a support network made up of X-Gals and lab mates, the flexibility that the academic environment offers, supportive supervisors.

But other aspects of my situation are not so ideal: a location far from family, a litany of child-care waiting lists, a baby who would not take a bottle (ever).

Perhaps my biggest obstacles have been, and continue to be, internal ones: changing my own unrealistic expectations that I "should be" working more (currently 40 to 50 hours a week) and finding fulfillment in what I have achieved instead of finding failure in what I haven't.

My guess is that most female scientists who are early in our careers could put together a list of things that help or hinder our ability to balance work and life. (My own list of things that have helped includes yoga: the way that you aim for equilibrium in each of the yoga postures, pushing yourself to the limit but not over the edge. Achieving a mind-body balance during the practice mirrors, for me, the whole work/life conundrum.)

Regardless of our specific circumstances, we can all make a few simple yet deliberate changes in our lives and attitudes that will move us beyond the clichéd "struggle for work/life balance" and put us all firmly on the road to true balance in our lives. The following list of tips from the X-Gals seems like a good place to start:

Write Down a Plan and Stick to It.

In any given week, most of us have multiple projects, grants, experiments, classes, and other work to manage. It is easy to procrastinate or, worse, become completely paralyzed and unable to move forward. So write down your major goals for each current project. Then write down reasonable ways to achieve them on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis. Then collate all of that information into a weekly to-do list.

At the end of each week, take stock of what you have (and haven't) accomplished. Go home on Friday knowing what you have accomplished and ready to jump right in to work on Monday morning with a new list of tangible weekly goals.

We X-gals have found that posting our goals on a weekly basis to our e-mail group helps keep us accountable and on track. We started doing that while finishing our dissertations (whoever didn't meet their goals bought the beer) and have continued the practice via e-mail. Somehow, putting our goals out there and sharing them with others helps us keep them more realistic and achievable.

Have a Routine and Be Efficient.

It is important to have a set schedule in order to both effectively plan your work days and fit in time for family and a hobby or two. For many of us, gone are the days when we could (and would) spontaneously spend 12 to 14 hours a day at work. Having a set work routine is not only fair to our families (since children thrive on routines), but it also means we can be much more efficient with the use of our time while we are at work.

Try partitioning your week, setting aside certain times or days for specific projects. Focus on getting things done that can only be done at work (such as experiments and analyses with specialized software), and leave other things (e-mail, reading and editing papers, writing drafts) for evenings and weekends when you can squeeze them in.

When in Doubt, Farm It Out.

Spending hours working on a figure for a publication, when using graphics software is not your forte? Maybe your department or university has a computer-graphics specialist who can help. Can't figure out the best way to analyze your data? Volunteer to give a seminar in the math department, as a potential collaborator with some bright ideas might be in the audience. Make use of grants and programs available to support undergraduate research that may help with certain aspects of your projects.

The point is, ask for help when you need it. That goes for home life too: Even for those of us lucky enough to have partners who do more than their share of housework, buying a good dishwasher or hiring bimonthly cleaners, if you can afford it, can still make a big difference.

Get at Least One Hobby That Is Not Work Related.

That may sound counterintuitive to those of us who already have schedules that are bursting at the seams, but it is actually incredibly important. We have read or been told too many times to forget about outside interests and activities if we want to have a successful career and family life. But our suggestion is to have at least one activity -- something you love and look forward to doing -- and then allow yourself time to do it.

Now, here's the important bit: Put it in your schedule and commit to it, just as you would an important meeting, a class, or a seminar. If you can really fit in only one activity, make sure exercise is at the top of your list: walking the dog, training for marathons or triathlons, attending yoga or aerobics classes, going to the gym or pool.

Whatever your hobby, reap the life-balancing benefits: relaxation, a new perspective, new skills and talents, and having fun.

Don't Do It All. Do Just Enough.

Challenge the idea that you must be some type of Superwoman: Be an X-Gal instead! Prioritize, and place realistic expectations on yourself and those around you, and then work hard to achieve the important things in your life. A female scientist in my building has the following mantra: "Near enough is good enough."

We're not advocating mediocrity here. We can achieve excellence by doing just enough to accomplish a particular goal, celebrating our achievement, and then moving on to the next goal.

Avoid Drama, Seek Fulfillment.

If you reach a point where you are disgruntled, frustrated with failure (perceived or real), or often complaining or blaming others for your unhappiness, then go back to your original priorities. Are the decisions you have made so far jibing with your priorities? If not, own up to it and start making decisions that do.

That might mean applying for a different job, saying "no" to new responsibilities, revising your schedule and routine, or simply changing your attitude. The only way to find fulfillment in the things we decide to do is to make sure we actually enjoy whatever it is we are doing.

We X-Gals firmly believe in owning our choices. While we have all taken very different career paths, we find strength in the fact that we have all chosen to be here. We do what we can in the time that we have; then we go home to our families, dogs, and spouses, and try to leave our work behind.

Greta Bennett is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. who just finished a prestigious international postdoc and has started a full-time research position overseas.