How Can You Progress Towards Better Work-Life Balance?

April 14, 2014

Last month, we turned our attention to work-life balance and posed several questions for scholars to consider. This month, we highlight some strategies that may be effective for you, as you progress towards better work-life balance.

Set Boundaries
Setting clear boundaries about one’s time and attention may alleviate the sense that one’s professional activities are all-encompassing since there always seems to be something on which we could be working. In our own experience, colleagues have reported or demonstrated a number of strategies for establishing boundaries such as:
·       checking emails only at designated intervals or times;
·       developing an email communication policy;
·       protecting specific personal/family times (e.g., family dinner, daughter’s volleyball games, yoga class) when scheduling meetings or classes;
·       maintaining a “traditional” work schedule to ensure time with non-academic partners;
·       scheduling non-negotiable writing time;
·       maintaining rigid office hours;
·       scheduling work time around child-care activities;
·       delaying responses to requests for new projects or service activities at least 24 hours to allow careful deliberation (e.g., allowing oneself to say no); and
·       working behind closed doors or from home to minimize potential interruptions and maximize on-task time.
Such boundaries are dynamic and may shift as professional and personal priorities change.

Sometimes, it is helpful to communicate these boundaries to colleagues and students (e.g., developing an electronic communication policy for inclusion in syllabi). This may shape their expectations about how they use your time and reduce ongoing confrontations or intrusions. At the same time, it is important to remember that people do not need to know what you are doing at all times or why you are not available; often it is fine to simply say, “Sorry, I am not available then” (Jones, 2011). The goal is to develop some autonomy over one’s work life. This sense of control over one’s schedule has been shown to be the strongest predictor of work-life balance (Berry, 2010).

Work Smarter
For many faculty, having the feeling that there isn’t enough time to accomplish everything that must be done may be one of the greatest hindrances to a sense of balance or satisfaction. Competing and seemingly endless demands make time management and efforts to increase organization and productivity critical to success. Faculty can assess ways they can be more productive by documenting and reviewing their work tasks, monitoring time on-task and progress toward goals, and eliminating time spent on tasks that do not align with goals (e.g., web surfing, spending hours a day on emails). Others suggest making daily or weekly lists of action items organized by type of work (e.g., reading, writing, class, emails, calls, errands), rather than on relying on to-do lists of general tasks (Cavendar, 2010). At the same time, creating—and reviewing regularly—lists of short and long-term goals can be important to keeping track of the bigger picture.

Some early career scholars have reported tracking and charting time spent writing, words or pages written per day, and other key behaviors. A simple web search for “productivity tools” or “time management tools” yields numerous free applications that can be used to self-monitor. Amanda likes the free app for computers and mobile devices from Rescue Time because it does all the monitoring for her, allows for categorization of specific applications and websites, permits goal setting, and automatically generates reports on productivity. Mac users like Bryn may enjoy apps such as Concentrate or Anti-Social. Such resources can be used to determine how you actually use your time and where potential inefficiencies lie so that you can address them. Rob uses a digital chess timer to keep track of on-task and off-task time, but only uses it when starting new tasks, which is particularly challenging for most of us. He has also used a repeating alarm on his digital watch as a self-monitoring strategy. Setting a repeating alarm (it just beeps for a second and then starts counting again) is a useful way avoid getting too far off-task. Faculty members should share resources on these topics and provide support to each other in an effort to improve work-life balance within the professional community.

Reflecting upon one’s work-life balance is the first step in improving areas in need of change. Faculty members may choose to focus on improving one aspect of their situation at a time, or to increase the positive aspects of their job to increase their sense of satisfaction. It is important to note that this process is not simple or quick. As such, it evolves and continues throughout one’s career. However, faculty members are better teachers, researchers, and administrators when perceptions of work-life balance are positive.

What strategies do you use to improve work-life balance?
Have these strategies changed over time?

Also, stay tuned for the next blog post focusing on self-care, another important aspect of work-life balance.

Berry, E. (2010). Achieving work-life balance: More than just a juggling act. American Medical 
News. Retrieved from
Cavendar, A. (2010, February 5). The balancing act. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Jones, J. B. (2011, May 27). Expecting balance. Chronicle of Higher Education.

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