Matters to a Degree

When you entered graduate school, did you ever think you'd have to temporarily drop out of life to survive and meet your academic demands? The topic of balance and self-care continues to gain popularity with students, yet these practices remain rare. After all, who really has time to care?

Here's the paradox: Allowing time for self-care-in spite of looming deadlines and other responsibilities-creates balance and fosters success. You don't achieve balance by trying to juggle more or working faster and harder, which are typical strategies employed when you feel behind, disorganized, exhausted and stressed.

What is balance, really, and how can you realistically have it? There are three elements of balance-meaningful work, satisfying relationships and personal rejuvenation. These rarely combine in a stress-free manner. However, using the following methods to rebalance your life in a more gratifying and sustainable pattern may ease the burden.

STOP JUGGLING

Think about it: Juggling means you have to perform multiple tasks concurrently. In extreme situations, many of us can do this for a short period of time. But we can't maintain the necessary level of mental and physical activity to juggle well for an extended duration. Try hopping on one foot, cooking dinner and having a meaningful conversation with your partner all at once. Possible? Yes. Sustainable? No.

Juggling is a coping mechanism we've all learned as our default when time gets tight and seemingly nothing can be postponed. As long as we are rested and our reflexes are sharp, it works. But we quickly tire, and our skills decline when we have to juggle. Preparing dinner may distract you from listening to the conversation, and hopping with food will cause spills that you'll have to clean up later. If you're a fatigued juggler looking for balance, consider these strategies:

  • Focus. Focus on a discrete task without interruption for a period of time (hourly, daily, weekly). Then, switch to another task. Or focus on a particular activity in certain environments. For example, focus only on school when you're on campus or in the library. When you get home, focus only on family. Turn your cell phone off during certain times of the day. Refuse to check e-mail at certain times or in particular locations that will distract you from getting required work completed.

  • Delegate. Offload some personal or optional academic responsibilities to free up time and energy. Hire a housecleaner and eat out less often to zero-out the costs. Hire a typist. Let your partner cook, even if the food isn't as tasty as your meals. Ask your children or roommate to do more household chores. Give opportunities to others, rather than thinking you need to seize them all in order to advance. Let go of some control.

  • Consolidate. Rely on your support network (classmates, friends, neighbors, family) to band together so you can all enjoy more balance. Group dinners, babysitting exchanges and study groups can all consolidate resources and free up time for self-care. Get involved in fewer activities, but get more mileage from them by double-dipping. For instance, meet regularly with others to exercise so you can also get the benefit of social contact and the chance to deepen friendships.

  • Tech-advantage. Leverage technology to your advantage, for flexibility and to gain control over your schedule. Use technology to decrease-not increase-your work by liberating your work hours and streamlining paperwork. Use it to enrich your personal life by sending e-mail letters, invitations and thank-yous, rather than time-consuming hand-written notes. Use digital photography and share photo albums electronically. Complete your banking and pay bills online and file electronic income tax returns, instead of using traditional methods for these transactions.

  • Simplify. Commit and continuously seek to reduce nonessential activities or habits that will free up time for self-care. Perfectionism is antithetical to simplicity, yet it's a tendency of many graduate students. Allow yourself to make mistakes and be willing to forgive your own errors. Envision what your life will look and feel like when it's simpler, and take small steps to make your vision a reality.

School-life balance and self-care aren't all-or-nothing. Spending an hour or two per week on the things that matter most to you can make the difference between feeling out of control versus feeling a little tired yet satisfied.

Who cares? I do and hope you do, too.