Work-life (im)balance, or where’s my creativity?

This blog is an effect of procrastination. Here’s how.

It’s been tough few weeks filled up to the roof with labwork, with my agenda featuring twice as much anyway. While at the beginning the fast pace kept me motivated and happy with completing a lot of tasks, in the long run it turned into a frustration. Rescheduling one experiment after another, I started to feel unappreciated, thinking: I have so much to do and nobody even cares, my boss should get me a student or more help on the project. My collegues became unusually frustrating, inquiries on my order details made me feel angry for not trusting my professional judgment. I kept planning all the labwork during the days and leaving writing to the evenings, which then never happened due to the labwork eventually taking up the evening time as well. Hence, the writing on my to do list became a dark heavy cloud following me day after day, unresolved. I knew I worked hard, but I was chronically dissatisfied, because I only thought of the things still on the to do list.

I realized I expected more and more from my surroundings, while my own efficiency seemed to hit the rock bottom. I went to work expecting already I’d stay there for the rest of the day and evening, and I noticed my motivation levels tumbling down.

So, in the middle of all this mess, overwhelmed and unmotivated, I decided to work… less. I worked out my eight hours a day and left home. I bought raw ingredients and cooked myself yummy homey dinners, which I ate sitting on the couch and watching a tv series. I told myself this is it, rescheduled my agenda to actually fit the writing in the daytime and dispatch this deadline-heavy dark cloud above my head. I postponed some of the labwork until it’s physically possible to manage. I started to breathe.

Good food, good sleep, good book in a free evening hour, and I calmed down. Motivation slowly crawled back in its place and I even embarked on the big bad rebuttal, which with every piece I tackle seems more friendly and bearable. Because sometimes the hardest is to start, look your monster in the eyes and see it’s scared of you too!

The other thing that happens when you finally take a break is this lovely curiosity and creativity boost. No matter if it’s within your career or hobby area, it makes you feel better. And in the flow of such a boost this blog was born, which will hopefully keep going on (provided somebody wanders by).

I would be lying if I said this is the first time my little burn out – break – remotivation circle happened to me. I tend to get myself overloaded with work, and while I can bear it very well for some time, getting great boost from things getting done at fast pace, after a while I dive into a dip.

One thing I learnt is that you need to diagnose it, remove yourself from the lab, and deliver yourself some quality time (or, sometimes, just crash on the couch and relax). You deserve it. You worked for it. A free evening after a 8h work day is not something to feel guilty about. Do you even remember that for people outside academia this is a normal thing? (Same being true for free weekends and reading books on trains instead of working…).

I don’t say this is a successful strategy for academic career. Perhaps some people can work around the clock and keep their minds intact. But I know a break does wonders to me. And the longer the break, the more curious, creative and daring I become. If it was up to me, I’d ordinate every scientist to take at least one full-month (if not two) vacation per year. The ideas you’d get afterwards – oh my! But, who has the time

Few conclusions:

  • We’re often over-optimistic when writing to-do lists. Try to remember how much time things really take. Or always add 30%.
  • Putting something in your already full agenda to force (ekhm, motivate) yourself to do it, will most likely not work and only make you feel guilty afterwards!
  • Celebrate the things you DID get done today, instead of feeling guilty about the ones you didn’t.  If there was not enough time, you did best you could and deserve a break. But be honest: if there was time and you goofed it away on youtube, ask yourself why and try to be more efficient.
  • Acknowledge that you do need breaks. In fact, acknowledge that taking breaks can make you more efficient in the long run.
  • Appreciate what you did and reward yourself with some quality time. Cook yourself a good dinner, have a glass of wine, relax. It is OK to have time not filled with work.
  • Give your mind a break (do something lazy or something out of the box for you), and it will suprise you! With new ideas, creativity, and likely some more caurage. Worst could happen, you’ll start a blog. No big deal 😉

At the end, a link to a great article with a brilliant take on the work-life balance in academia, from a different, a bit more advanced perspective. Strongly recommended!

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