Establishing balance

Happy Mid-Autumn day everyone! Fall is officially here, and it has inspired this week’s discussion about creating balance during graduate school. Living in New England (and being from Michigan), I’m used to nature being balanced: 4 seasons, sunshine and rain, wind and humidity. This past week was very unproductive in the lab and left me feeling down and cranky with myself for “slacking off”. The change of the season, along with another birthday passing by, helped me realize that graduate school is a time when we should begin to establish balance in our lives. And yes, I am talking about work-life balance.

As a PhD student, I feel like there is always something I should be doing. I should be checking recent literature in my area, writing (there’s always something that needs to be written), analyzing data, or thinking about what I should do next. However, working all the time is a recipe for burnout and fatigue. Graduate school years typically coincide with the young adult years when people are busy beginning to live their lives. I feel that during graduate school, as we naturally age, we no longer see our PhDs as “school”, but as the beginning of our careers. If grad school is the beginning of our careers, then it is very normal to begin focusing on other areas of our life and create a healthy work-life balance.

Unfortunately, from my perspective it seems that academia (and perhaps our American culture sometimes) emphasizes a work/career-centric lifestyle, often making it difficult to establish a healthy work-life balance without extraneous feelings of guilt. My journey in mindfulness has helped me seek balance in my lifestyle. Does that mean everyday is a 9-5 kinda day, unfortunately no… However, for me it means that I find acceptance in some days being work-focused and some days being “life” focused. Also, it means that I have become appreciative of achieving smaller goals that can be accomplished in a normal workday. Employing a mindful perspective throughout my day enables me to focus my energy when I’m being productive while allowing me to be friendly to myself when things are taking longer than expected to be finished. Please remember, living life is not only about reaching your desired destination, but is also about being present on the journey to get there.

Self-criticism: Can mindfulness help?

Do you find yourself often being too hard on yourself? Maybe you gave into your craving and ate that decadent slice of chocolate cake or perhaps you left a small work task for the next day so you could go home and be with your loved ones an hour early. A key training component in graduate school is to develop our critical thinking skills. Personally, I think my self-criticism has a positive correlation relationship with the development of my critical thinking skills during grad school thus far. These thoughts come to mind after having taken a much needed vacation to travel home and visit family and friends.

The week before my travels, I felt so guilty about taking time off lab and my research. Furthermore, my guilt had led me to ask for only one week off (with even fewer days being spent in my hometown). The short time I spent at home was spent with some internal conflict. I remained feeling guilty about taking time off work, and I also felt guilty about not spending enough time with my family. Overall, you can say I felt a little crummy. Although I have come to learn how important self-care is, I still find myself struggling to ask for all of the self-care I need. By this, I mean that I’ve been improving my daily work-life balance and growing in my mindfulness meditation experience to improve my coping mechanisms in the high stress environment of PhD training. However, a large part of me still strives to work, work, work, even in the face of burnout!  I haven’t yet gained acceptance for the necessity of taking a dedicated vacation and unplugging from work. This act of self-care definitely triggers my self-criticism!

While I haven’t completely shed my acts of self-criticism, my mindfulness meditation did help me face the struggles I experienced this past week with the vacation. While my usual routine was disturbed by the travels, I incorporated time to meditate each day. The meditations were short, only ~5 minutes at a time, but they reminded me to be present and to be accepting. Acceptance included the negative feelings: the feelings of guilt about time away from work and not enough time with family. With acceptance, I can acknowledge all of my emotions and thoughts and allow myself to enjoy being in the moment. I lovingly told my family and myself, “I know my time here is limited, but a short visit is better than no visit. Let’s enjoy the short visit.” Until the time our culture and mindset in the academic workplace (at least within the US) can be adjusted to better value a healthy work-life balance, we need to each take the necessary measures of proper self-care that work for us. May mindfulness meditation be a solid foundation that you stand on to view yourself and the world around you.

Self-care & essential “me-time”

On this week’s “Mindful Path to PhD,” let’s talk about self-care and the importance of work-life balance. In today’s hustle and bustle that has become everyday life, how much time, if any, do you set aside for taking care of yourself? More specifically, how much time do you set aside for taking care of your soul– not just doing the bare minimum to keep functioning at a somewhat human-like level attempting to maintain a semblance of normalcy to others? Furthermore, when you do take small snippets of time for yourself, how often do you feel a pang of guilt, regret, or weakness afterwards?

For many graduate students, these questions probably resonate inwardly to some extent. Personally, I’ve only just begun to develop an appreciation of self-care after years of putting research/ work/ studies first, and yet I still find myself feeling guilty for asking for time off to visit my family (when it’s been over 1 year since I’ve done so). One could argue that perhaps if I hadn’t worked so hard and sacrificed so much, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am now. Also, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work hard, but rather I’m trying to shed a small light on the importance of taking care of yourself holistically. Proper self-care will allow yourself to always be at your best and thus do your best work. More importantly, when you are at your best, you will be happy, you will feel alive. Burnout is a dangerous beast to encounter, and it can be encountered at any stage of a person’s career. Experiencing burnout can make you hate what you once loved and if not treated appropriately, it can lead to more serious issues, including physical and mental health concerns.

As a PhD student, and a young, aspiring scientist, burnout is a common concern. In my opinion, there’s a large amount of external pressure and competition in the general area of academic research. “Publish or perish” and “getting scooped” are ugly, common fears that can drive unhealthy lifestyles amongst researchers. Furthermore, in science there’s always (or nearly always) something that can be done next based on current findings. This perspective of focusing on broader implications and what’s next can dampen the feelings of completion or satisfaction young scholars may feel towards themselves. This all sounds pretty negative (and I’m sorry for that!) and you might be feeling somewhat cynical at the moment wondering where your rose-colored glasses went… (this was pretty much me during my whole 3rd year of PhD), but don’t despair! While we cannot change the system and the culture in which we work overnight, we may begin to slowly shift the perspective. Be confident and make time for yourself and actually take that time. Go for a jog, attend your favorite yoga class, sip and savor your favorite coffee. Do whatever it is you like to do that makes your soul smile. Your work will thank you for it in the long run. Lastly, let’s talk about these topics more. Let’s develop a culture with a frame of mind that encourages and values “me-time” and that sees the true potential that comes with proper self-care.