Expecting Balance

[This is a repost of a ProfHacker oldie, originally from 27 May 2011.]

A perennial sore point in academe is the phenomenon of work-life balance. As Amy noted last year, there’s always something you could be doing. What’s more, there’s a good chance you like at least some part of the work, since it’s what drew you into the profession, and so you gladly take on more and more, until you realize that you’ve forgotten that you have a third child or sick parent, or your partner starts taking out personal ads in the campus paper, or your dog mauls you as a stranger when you come home before 7pm. The incentives in academe have always been set up to encourage more (free) work, a situation that’s only gotten worse as students have embraced the myriad forms of electronic contact as an apparently endless source of work-related responsibilities.

So, work-life balance is a genuinely hard thing. For ProfHacker posts on working toward it, see Natalie on the balance metaphor itself and Nels on creating a work-life grid. I want to take a different approach today, pivoting off a poll hosted a few years ago at the Guardian Higher Education Network:

Is it unrealistic to expect a good work-life balance in an academic career?

It’s no surprise that 53% of respondents said yes.

My response is different: expecting a good work-life balance is madness, the kind that turns you sour inside and makes you kinda hate your colleagues and institution and even students.

If you “expect a good work-life balance,” you will never get it. No one is ever going to say, “hey–why don’t you knock off for a bit and play with your kid while he’s young enough to not be embarrassed by you” (or some example relevant to your life). It will never, ever happen.

If you set clear boundaries about your time and attention, and manage *other* people’s expectations about your time, then you can probably balance your life a little more steadily than you think. Not perfectly! Not without seasonal variations!

I’ve said before that I generally think that people have the right to take care of their family (broadly and inclusively construed: everyone has family), and to make decisions about their time that allow them to be good colleagues and good family members. I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy: As Merlin Mann has acknowledged, “People will always despise you if you end up doing less stupid BS than they choose to suffer.” And no one wants to seem uncollegial, or to create the perception that they don’t care about students. (Untenured faculty, as well as those on contingent appointments, have especially just cause to worry about this.)

But I do think it’s possible to manage those expectations without being an uncollegial jerk. First, people need to think seriously about what kinds of things they are willing to assert are priorities. Second, it continues to be ok to set expectations about when you will/will not read new messages since, as Mann says, “every message is a pebble.” (See also: Natalie on “Is E-mail Checking You?” and Ethan on “Developing an Electronic Communication Policy.”) You can also leverage the flexibility of academic life to create something like balance. My wife (also an academic) and I mapped out every single hour of most weeks for the first 4 years of our son’s life so that we could both of us get our stuff done *and* we could keep our kid out of daycare. That was easier to do in academe than it would have been in many other kinds of careers.

The pro tip for today, though, is that you don’t actually have to tell people where you are all the time. There’s no need to say, “Hey, I can’t make this meeting because my kid has a dentist appointment,” or, “Sorry I didn’t respond to your e-mail, but my partner had CRAZY diarrhea this whole week, and I had to pick up the slack around the house.” Protect times that you need to be available for your family–being reasonable about things like “finals” or “the three weeks before the grant is due”–with the tenacity of a honey badger on the attack.

So, don’t “expect” work-life balance, but please do take whatever steps you can to achieve it. Work together with others when you can, and support policies that are flexible and inclusive about work-life balance–but don’t ever expect anyone to give it to you.

What steps have you taken to balance your work & private life? Let us know in comments!

Photo by Glen Bowman / Creative Commons licensed

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