Work-Life Balance


Planning ahead and scheduling are your friends, by identifying things which truly must get done, and prioritizing them, you leave yourself in a better position to deal with extant obligations efficiently and to schedule in time to react with flexibility to emergent demands on your time that you had not expected.

How you plan is necessarily a matter of subjective judgement. Stephen Covey in First Things First, argues that tasks should be sorted in the following four categories: 1. Important and Urgent, 2. Important, Not Urgent, 3. Urgent, Not Important, 4. Not Urgent, Not Important and that far too much time is spent on the latter two categories. Conceptually, you may think of this approach of managing your priorities, rather than your time. Rather than trying to fit an ever growing list of obligations into the finite and valuable resource that is your time, you may find it useful to prioritize what is important, and focus your mental energy on that. Covey holds that your goal should be incrementally to work towards spending most of your time in the second category, to reduce last minute related stress. Some recommend maintaining a tripartite system of a daily, weekly and 6 month plan to keep your obligations in perspective. In terms of weekly planning. Covey argues that you should start with your  most important activities, ‘the big rock’, followed by ‘pebbles’ followed by ‘sand’ ordered  by their importance, to make sure you have time for your highest priorities. Ultimately it has to be something you can stick with and that works for you.

Scheduling sleep and exercise

Getting the right amount of sleep for you, is an absolute prerequisite for performing at your best, not to mention retaining your health and sanity. A key means of maintaining work-life balance is scheduling, and nothing is more important to schedule than your sleep. You will conduct research more efficiently and you will be happier while you do it, by putting sleep first and scheduling all other obligations around it.

The benefits of exercise, similarly, pay the most dividends when maintained as a consistent practice. Whether it is running, swimming, weight lifting, biking or something else, a consistent exercise regime of some form is essential for your overall wellbeing. Exercise, like sleep, is easiest to pursue when it’s the default, not a choice you have to revisit everyday. Pick an activity, a set of times  you will do it every week, and stick to it. As a researcher at Duke, you have access to an array of fitness courses. Using a type of fitness tracking technology and related apps might help you ‘gamify’ your exercise experience, making it more fun and consequently making you more likely to stick  to your chosen routine.

Immersing oneself in nature may indeed bring a host of benefits for your body and mind, and is certainly worth investigating if you are feeling constrained in your lab setting.

Scheduling Work

Finally, another critical element of your life that you should schedule to achieve work-life balance is your work itself. Radhika Nagpal  identified ‘work[ing] fixed hours and in fixed amounts’ as a key means by which she retained happiness and survived her tenure-track days at Harvard.  By keeping a reasonable cap of the amount of time and of what time you spend working (whether at home or actually in the workplace) you are doing yourself and your research a favor. A happier, better rested, better exercised and more relaxed you is the version of yourself most likely to perform at your best. In line with the pareto principle, it is not the quantity of your working hours that will determine your contribution and accomplishment in your field, but their quality. Being healthy, in body and mind, is a prerequisite for performing at your highest level. Accordingly, for those interested in boosting their productivity, overall wellness needs to be a first order priority.


The Happy PhD Zone.

First Things First.

Graduate student work-life balance.

Nature Prescription.

Radhika Nagpal’s tips.