Approaching balance in an academic life

Approaching balance in an academic life

As the new academic year is beginning around the world (for me it's a week from today), I thought I'd share this post from 2015 that I wrote around the same time of the year, with some edits and updates for 2020 and some updated thoughts at the end of the article. – rt

Recently, I received an accolade that not only meant a great deal to me, but also set many thoughts in motion about how I think about work. OK, this is just a Twitter mention, but it comes from a person whose own work I respect; and for me, “succeeding at research and teaching while staying human” is a pretty economical description of a successful academic career.

This tweet has come into sharp relief lately. Our semester is starting up on Monday and the ease with which I can find balance will lessen considerably. Also, when I look back on some of the comments I’ve received on recent blog posts, there’s a pattern showing up that has me concerned for some of my fellow academicians, namely that there’s a desire to have a more balanced approach to work – excellent research and excellent teaching – but this balance is disincentivized or downright impossible. There seems to be a large class of academics, ranging from adjuncts to tenured faculty at R1 institutions, who want a particular kind of life that seems, or in fact is, out of reach.

So I want to take this post to talk about my approach to balance in academia. Not that I have this all figured out. In fact I hope that others here can teach me a few things. But I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years working hard at balance, and I’d like to share those experiences publicly in hopes that they can be helpful to someone.

First of all let me suggest that the term “work-life balance” is misleading and should be avoided. It’s misleading because there are not two compartments in which we exist, one called “work” and the other called “life”, that need to be "balanced". Instead, each of us has just one life, and that life has facets which cannot make sense without the others. For me at this point in my life, those facets include:

  • Work – which is itself a broad category with many subfacets.
  • Family – including my wife and three kids, my siblings, mother-in-law, and so on.
  • Relationships outside the family – friends from the past, friends from the present, and emergent friendships, all of which need attention to grow.
  • Personal development – including my physical health and my intellectual development outside mathematics.
  • Faith – my relationship with God, which for me as a Catholic Christian occupies a unique, primary place in this entire fabric of life, work, and relationships.

Others may not have the same list of facets to their lives, but whatever the case, we do not have a life that is separate from work. We have work that occupies a place in our lives – along with many other important things that occupy places in our lives. All of these facets, like the parts and systems of our physical bodies, fit together to form a cohesive whole. The degree of cohesion is, I think, what we mean by balance. And from here on out, I am merely going to say “balance” rather than “work-life balance”.

I’ve been in academia for over 20 years, and my approach to balance has evolved greatly over time. In the early days, when I was out of graduate school but unmarried, I had a pretty simple life and could give enormous amounts of attention to my job. But later – especially once I was married and had one, then two, then three children – the constraints on time and attention began to mount, and I came to realize two truths that are central for understanding the concept of balance:

  1. Balance is intentional. That is, balance is not something that merely happens to you. It is something that is made to happen, by your own persistent actions made in accordance with specific goals and values.
  2. Balance is necessary for true happiness. If I don’t have balance not only within my job but also across all the aspects of my life, then I can say that I have my dream job, but that happiness can never be more than partial, and it’s often merely wishful thinking.

You can put these two together to form one statement: You cannot persist in a job and be happy unless you intentionally seek, and attain, balance. The challenge in this statement is obvious to those who are in jobs where balance seems impossible to attain.

In my own experience, as my life became more and more complex and the demands work grew, I started thinking about how I could be more intentional about seeking and attaining at least a significant partial balance – as well as having a framework for keeping balance once I’d attained it. Here is my overall approach that I still use. This isn’t an algorithm that automatically produces balance when the steps are followed. Rather, it’s a framework that I’ve found helpful to follow. It’s adapted from the Life Plan Manifesto by Michael Hyatt. It goes like this:

  1. Identify all the stakeholders in my life. For me, these include: my wife, my kids, my students, my colleagues, my department, my employer, my extended family, my friends, and myself. I think it’s helpful not to think of “work” but rather the constituencies within work – mentoring my advisees, for example, is different than working on committees, which is different than helping a colleague out with a question or problem.
  2. Realize that these stakeholders are people or groups that I must not only serve, but also negotiate with. By giving them space in my life, I am committing to giving each one adequate time and attention. But in order for each to be adequately attended to, each one also needs to have boundaries placed around it, and those boundaries – while they may shift from time to time – have to be defended. Uncomfortable example: I cannot be available 24/7 to students. If I were, then this would take away attention that's needed by family, colleagues, and so on. Instead, I have to negotiate appropriate amounts of accessibility within appropriate boundaries with my students.
  3. With those stakeholders and a sense of their place in my life identified, intentionally design a plan for how I want to spend time and attention so that each one gets adequate amounts. This is “40000-foot level” planning. Given the stakeholders in my life, what is my relationship to each of them? What do I want to give to them? Where and how do they fit it? And what are the overall guiding values that I have for governing these relationships?
  4. With the big-picture plan in place, be intentional about planning the day-to-day operations of my life so that the projects I take on are coherent with the overall plan. For me, making these “10000-foot level” plans entails regular goal-setting activities and careful planning and management of tasks and projects. If I have an opportunity to take on a new scholarship project, for example, but doing so would render it impossible to give adequate time and attention to my kids, then I either have to renegotiate my plan for the kids or say no to the project. But I can’t just mindlessly say “yes” to that project just because I have some vague impression that more is better in academic jobs. I need to be clear about, and happy with, not only the things that I am doing but also the things that I am not doing.
  5. With the big-picture plan and the specific plans in place, be intentional about moment-by-moment actions and choices. Just as the specific, weekly plans need to fit into the big picture, micro-scale actions need to fit into the specific plans. I’ve found that while strategic planning is important, balance is much more a matter of close-quarters combat with the stuff that comes across your inboxes on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s here on the small scale that balance either happens or doesn’t happen.
  6. Finally, be intentional about taking time to review all of these plans on a regular basis. My approach is to take an entire day out once every 90 days to do a Trimesterly Review in which I review my Life Plan, my professional and personal goals, and my projects, and then spend time tweaking all of these as well as working on one or two big projects that need dedicated time to get unstuck.

If this seems complicated, let me just say that it took work for me to get started with being intentional about this process, but once it was in place, it simplified my life greatly and made it many things in my life a lot simpler. Much of the boots-on-the-ground action within this process is properly the subject of my task and time management philosophy, which is the Getting Things Done or GTD method, which I've blogged about extensively.

And anyway, the whole issue with balance is that it has to be intentional. Balance is not something that just happens to you, and it’s not something that another person (or an employer, or an employee union, or a government, etc.) can make happen for you. It has to be your idea and your effort or else it will never happen.

Let me end with a few words for those in academia who are in a place where they believe that balance within their lives is far out of reach, given the realities of their jobs.

First: I've been there. I have been an adjunct; and I have been in tenure-track positions where my responsibilities gradually crept to a point where my employer was essentially asking me to either radically increase the amount of time I spent working – or face repercussions. And bear in mind that I’ve only ever worked at teaching-oriented institutions, so this is not something specific only to research universities. Right now I’m in a position that I love, where everyone grasps the concept of balance and it's not a struggle to maintain reasonable boundaries. But that hasn’t always been the case. I don’t dispense the above advice lightly, and that advice is not theoretical.

Second: Even in those positions where it was an ongoing, often losing battle to maintain balance, I found that if I put up a stiff defense, I was able to work within that job situation to find and keep a significant measure of balance. And when I did, I was happier and more productive than if I had gone with my employer’s suggestion and stayed at work all the time.

Third and finally: I have a serious suggestion for those who feel that, despite all I’ve mentioned here and despite having given their best effort, they will simply never be balanced and happy in their current academic positions. If this is the case for you, then you owe it to yourself to start finding a way out of that position. I am not saying merely, “Quit your job”, because that’s not an option for everyone at any moment. But what is an option is to create an exit strategy from that job that will eventually put you in a position to be balanced and happy in your work, as soon as possible. Because without balance and happiness you are dehumanizing yourself. Note well that this exit strategy could lead beyond academia, and if it does, you should be unafraid to follow it. Don’t make an idol out of somebody’s idealized vision of academia.

So balance is a necessary condition for happiness in life; and intentionality is a necessary condition for balance.

Looking back on this post in 2020: The pandemic has us struggling for balance like never before. Many of us are fighting for our lives in a literal sense, and not just seeking some kind of tech-bro zen enlightenment, and we'd be quite happy simply to make it through Fall 2020 and the global pandemic with our sanity and employment intact.

The central message of this post — that balance, and therefore happiness and sanity, in our lives and work is a matter of personal intention, not something we can expect to just happen — remains intact. Balance is a discipline, something that we should expect to have to work at, if we want to have anything like an existence we want to keep.

The good news is that I believe that every faculty member, every administrator, every staff member, every student has the tools to practice this discipline. Even in the crappiest adjuncting job or the most thankless upper-admin position and all the faculty work in between, we may not be able to control our circumstances but we can certainly control at least some of the choices we make within those circumstances – and definitely we can control the principles and values that drive those choices.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.