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Elizabeth M., a Texas Ph.D. student, only has time to write her thesis at night. She used to come home from school, head to a bedroom to work, and hear her toddler banging on the door—yelling for “Mommy.”
“It was such a horrible experience,” she says, crying. “I said I would never do that again. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice being a mother to be a better graduate student.”
Elizabeth’s experience isn’t unique. She describes her life—with a family, a teaching position, and her schoolwork—as always keeping three balls in the air when it’s only possible to keep up with two, plus maybe herself. Whether it feels like you’re juggling, walking a balance beam, or crossing a tightrope, managing “real life” with school can be a major challenge.
Drs. Justin Boren and Jess Alberts—who study work/life balance at Santa Clara University and Arizona State University, respectively—emphasize that “balance” isn’t always possible, and that’s okay. Dr. Boren explains, “That some elements in [your life] might need to be given a higher priority than others is perfectly fine.”
Dr. Alberts adds that success involves putting one’s energy where it’s most needed and letting other tasks slide. “Stressed students should accept that meals may not be perfectly balanced and the house may not be very clean right now,” she says. “This is okay if the conditions are temporary.”
That’s basically the attitude that Heather C. takes with her responsibilities. As a married freshman at Tarrant County College in Texas, she accepts the trade-offs. She sets priorities and recognizes that she can’t do everything.
“My husband is first, my school is second, housework comes last,” she says. “Sleep when you can, study when you can, clean when you can.”
“Keeping yourself physically organized helps your brain stay organized,” explains Kate Gose, a family therapist in Austin, Texas. “While it may seem tedious to color code, have a filing system, or schedule your day, you will be grateful when a work project, school final, and parent-teacher conference all overlap.”
Gose suggests a small calendar for daily/weekly commitments and a larger one so you can see the whole month at once for planning ahead. “During [exams], students should expect to adjust other activities in their lives,” says Dr. Alberts. “They may need to save vacation time or arrange work schedules to focus on [school].”
Dr. Boren also suggests designating a specific study location. “Make sure family members recognize that place as your ‘school zone,’” he says. Kristin B., a married senior at Texas Women’s University, agrees. In addition to school, she’s a part-time paralegal and has two daughters. “I plan every minute of my time months in advance,” she says. “I set specific hours to work on school, and I take a textbook to every dance class, volleyball practice, and doctor’s visit.”
While mapping out your schedule might seem like something for which you don’t have even a moment, it will ease stress later.
Kill Two Birds With One Stone
Kristin touches on something else students can do: combine activities. Since she has down time while her daughters do things, she squeezes in some studying. You can take care of two responsibilities at once by exercising with family or all doing homework and paperwork at the same time.
Keep in mind: accomplishing more than one thing at a time is not the same as multi-tasking. Dr. Alberts explains, “We are not cognitively wired to devote full attention and energy to two tasks at once.” She recommends avoiding the temptation to do multiple, unrelated things simultaneously.
More ideas of activities to combine
- Include your family in school activities. Can you practice a presentation in front of your kids, teach them something you’ve learned, or bring them to a school event outside of class?
- Study and do your homework with your children and/or partner. If you all sit down at the table to concentrate, there’s built-in moral support. Plus, you’re setting a great example!
- Cook meals with your family. Creating nutritious meals together means family time, too.
- Use audio books and study materials when possible. You can listen to them during commutes, while exercising, or anywhere you have to wait—such as a doctor’s office or school pick-up.
- Form a study group with people you like. You can discuss class material while also getting to know one another. And you’re already together if you want to relax over a meal or take a walk.
- Walking across campus? Call a friend or family member to catch up.
- Invite a friend or family member to join you for some exercise.
- If you’re looking for a job that fits your schedule, consider one that relates to your academic program, or involves physical activity, too.
Communicate With Family
Even the best organizational efforts can’t prevent occasional conflicts or hurt feelings. “It can be helpful to talk about what it will be like when you return to school before it actually happens,” notes Gose.
“Remind [your family and friends] that just because you are busier, it doesn’t mean you care less. Commiserating together, and validating their feelings and your own will make them feel heard and appreciated.”
Show those close to you that they are a priority by setting aside scheduled time together. Simple gestures like Sunday breakfasts or a movie night can help you slow down and reconnect. “My family still comes first, no matter what,” explains Kristin. “They deal with a lot of stress sometimes, but I never miss a game or activity.”
Mary B., a single mom and graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, reserves 6 to 9 p.m. for her kids. “I unplug myself from the outside world. I try to give [my son] undivided attention so he knows our time is just as important as school or work,” Mary says.
Also remind your family why you’re in school, says Dr. Boren. It may feel like a sacrifice right now, but it will help everyone in the future. One of the top conflicts among couples, says Dr. Boren, is managing household duties. “Couples that explicitly negotiate and divide their household labor tend to report lower overall life stress and higher amounts of relationship satisfaction,” he notes.
Juggling School and Career
Recognize your limits with your job too, Gose says. Consider a lighter class load or asking for support at work. “We often hesitate to ask for help because we believe it indicates weakness,” says Dr. Alberts. In reality, asking indicates strength, and many people like to help.
Dr. Boren agrees. “Communication demonstrates you are a good student and worker.” Setting expectations can prevent stress later if it does become difficult to fulfill all of your responsibilities.
“Make sure not to provide excuses, but make them aware of [your] current situation. Not all [but some] professors and supervisors will be able to provide exceptions or grant extensions,” he notes.
Take Care of #1
Family, work, school… What about you? “Often self-care goes out the window,” says Gose. “Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep and exercise, eating well, and taking breaks,” she suggests. These will help you accomplish more in the long run.
Some students cut back on sleep thinking it’s a “waste of time.” But, as Dr. Alberts explains, getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep each night ensures better physical and emotional health.
“During sleep our bodies do repair work that boosts our immune system. [We also] process information we have been absorbing all day,” she says. Sleep helps cement what you’ve learned, so in some ways it’s a way of studying.
Dr. Boren also suggests that strong social networks help people manage stress.
More ways to prioritize your self-care
Taking care of yourself needs to be a priority, but it doesn’t have to take tons of time. Here are some ways to focus on you.
- Plan your meals in advance and keep snacks with you. If you’re up late studying or will be in class during dinner, you’ll feel better physically and mentally if you eat something nutritious.
- Find a way to fit physical activity into your day. Exercise helps release stress and increases your energy level. Small bursts of activity a few times a day are often easier to fit in so try walking briskly to appointments or class, getting off the bus a few stops early, and climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Stay active with your family by walking the dog, raking leaves in the yard, dancing to your favorite music, or using an exercise video together.
- It might sound silly, but pay attention to your personal hygiene and appearance. When life is hectic, even 15 minutes in the morning or before bed to take a hot shower, massage your feet, or use a pampering lotion will help you feel more "human."
- Set aside at least an hour a week for time alone. Put it in your calendar and treat this time as an appointment that can’t be compromised. During this period, do something that’s just for you, and not school- or work-related. You might take a yoga class, meditate, enjoy a bubble bath, read a magazine, or take a leisurely walk.
- Ask for help when you need it. Talk to friends, a religious leader, counselor, or someone else you trust. Expressing what’s hard can really make a difference. If you are feeling totally overwhelmed, having difficulty concentrating, or are experiencing changes in sleep pattern, appetite, or mood, don't wait until the situation gets worse. Contact your school’s counseling center or your health care provider.
Schedule personal time every week. The time you spend relaxing (without multi-tasking) is essential to your academic success. Younger classmates or neighborhood teens may jump at the chance to earn a few bucks playing with your children or mowing the lawn while you catch a nap or get a project done.
Walking the balance beam of school and “real life” will never be easy, so cut yourself some slack. As Gose notes, “Nowhere is it written that you have to be a stellar student, perfect worker, and super parent all at the same time. Balance means letting go of perfection.”
- Create a schedule that incorporates school, job, and family priorities.
- Communicate with family, professors, and supervisors early and often.
- Combine activities when possible: reading with waiting (for buses, appointments, to pick up your kids), phone calls with commuting, cooking with family time.
- Set aside “you” time. No canceling; no distractions.
- Realize you can’t do everything. Let go of the idea of “perfection.”
Get help or find out more
Consult your school’s academic advising, mentoring, and counseling programs.
Mayo Clinic, Work-Life Balance
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National Public Radio, When Employers Make Room for Work-Life Balance (Three-Part Series)
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Nigel Marsh, TED Talk, How to make work-life balance work
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Degrees Online, 10 Ways to Help You Balance School and Family Life
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