Balancing Life Through Purpose
“I’d like to meet somebody who doesn’t have problems with work-life balance,” says Nancy Costikyan, Director of the Office of Work/Life Resources at Harvard.
Balance in life can equip us with a gyroscope that stabilizes our orbit securely around our timeless priorities. And, in the end, it’s all about those priorities.
Once we understand and embrace the relationships between balance and priorities, then we are ready to place our priorities at the center of our existence and our lives in a balanced orbit about these priorities.
Stress is not a “bad” thing or a “good” thing. It is value neutral. Having no stress in our lives – no change, no challenge, no novelty, no responsibility – is literally fatal. Having only minimal stress is boring while experiencing extreme stress can lead to illness and disability. What we are looking for is the right amount, the perfect balance.
According to a recent Pew survey, time is the highest priority identified by people today. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed said that having enough free time to do the things they wanted was a very important priority in their lives. In contrast, only 12 percent said that “being wealthy” was a very important priority.
I have spoken to hundreds of graduate students about Finding Balance on Purpose. In these talks, I encourage students to structure their lives around long-term goals and priorities. When we reflect on our ultimate goals and life priorities instead of urgent demands and take advantage of tools and habits that ensure a healthy lifestyle, then we can reduce our level of stress and increase our quality of life.
For graduate students, the goal is to achieve balance in these priorities and develop intentional plans that help manage stress and bring better emotional and physical health. In order to better manage stress, consider the following tips:
1. Set achievable personal goals.
2. Utilize personal tools at your disposal. (Ex. calendar, schedule, & to-do list.)
3. Keep a journal of the process and learn from times of stress in order to make adjustments. There are tremendous health benefits from journaling your experience.
4. Check out our time management tips and articles at www.gradresources.org/time-management
All graduate students deal with relatively fixed limits of time, money, physical energy, emotional resilience, and intellectual capacity. If you work at a stress level that feels appropriate and sustainable, the next step is to build some margin into your life, some space between your workload and those personal limits. You can find a short video about achieving this margin by visiting www.gradresources.org/seminars.
Margin vs. Balance
Margin is about making space for the things that matter most, while balance is about preserving space for those things. Margin is productivity with sustainability while overload is productivity with exhaustion and burnout.
If you have gone beyond the threshold of your stress limits and depleted the margin in your life, then you’ll easily feel overloaded. Fatigue begins to build and as you continue, it leads to exhaustion. Clearly, this cannot be sustained without associated dysfunction. To recover balance in life, you will first need to regain a sense of control.
A healthy human, in both body and mind, requires sufficient exercise, adequate sleep, appropriate nutrition, meaningful work, nourished relationships, and spiritual connectedness. It is not a sign of weakness or immaturity to admit these needs. In fact, it is part of growing in wisdom.
Many graduate students struggle to set margins in their lives in the face of escalating academic, social, and occupational demands. To regain balance in graduate school, you must be willing to confront the forces of escalation and coercion wherever they are found. You can proactively move to restore a sense of control by better managing your time, people (even advisors) and disruptions. Interruptions coming to us by way of technology require our permission – we own the technology; it does not own us. You can begin facing these challenges by turning off the cellphone or computer. Or don’t answer.
Recognize that the best activity is that which utilizes your strengths and DNA. Some say we have “internal wiring… that has predisposed me in this direction. It would be correct to say this is what I do, but much more correct to say this is who I am.”
Priorities can be the gyroscope that keeps returning you from chaos to balance in a world that constantly attempts to abuse you for research and publication purposes. Ask yourself, “Do I have enough flexibility to adapt but enough firmness to keep the boundaries from crumbling?”
The goal is to keep reaching for new discovery and achievement while keeping perspective on the important things of life. Consider Steve Jobs’ remarks at Stanford University’s 2011 commencement ceremony.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
On the one side of the equation, we have more and more of everything at an increasingly faster rate. Again, this is the inevitable result of progress.
Balance is not the Kingdom, but if your priorities lie in that direction, balance can help you sustain your focus. Stay off the high-wire. It requires astonishing balance, continuous practice, and perfect concentration. You must keep your eyes open, choose a single focal point, stay out of the wind, recognize early warning signs, be completely single-minded and almost insanely courageous.
An imbalanced life implies stress, disharmony, and agitation. A balanced life seeks serenity, calmness and moderation. Speed belongs to the former, but depth to the latter. As a University of Southern California professor once wrote, “Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”
Steven Covey says, “Principles guide behavior like a compass guides a traveler.” Nothing makes a worker or family feel more helpless, or more resentful, than when control is taken away and work concerns flood home every evening.
Steps Toward Finding Balance
If we wish to have a life outside of work, it makes sense to complete our responsibilities expeditiously. If we dawdle it will mean, once again, another cold dinner. Here are some steps that will help
1. Identify your prime time and pour most of your efforts into that space. Some are early birds while others are night owls. Plan your work schedule accordingly, if possible.
2. Control interruptions during sessions of productivity. Turn off the phone, shut down the internet browser, turn off the TV, and focus.
3. Batch similar tasks together, such as email and voicemail. As you hammer out the small things at once, you’ll feel more productive as you approach the bigger projects.
4. When researching, be selective about the information coming in. The sheer volume of information is beyond anyone’s ability to assimilate. Therefore, narrow the focus more precisely to those issues that matter most for the project at hand.
5. Don’t try to remember everything. Write down the important things and make an attempt to forget anything unimportant.
6. Prevent stress by becoming more organized, or do it by letting yourself become less organized – and you know who you are. Both the hyper-organized and the sloppy worker waste unnecessary time and effort.
7. Nest your workspace. Set things up precisely according to your particular (and sometimes peculiar) needs. If you can feel at home in a place, you’re less likely to stress out and lose your drive.
8. Minimize bodily stress by making your work environment comfortable.
9. Prioritize your commitments before each work session.
10. If you are deadline motivated, schedule more time for a project near the due date and less time at the beginning.
Special thanks to Dr. Richard Swenson. With his permission, this article drew extensively from his book, In Search of Balance.
Nick Repak is the founder and director of Grad Resources, a faith based service organization addressing the needs of graduate students. He is also the founder of the National Grad Crisis-Line (877.GRAD.HLP).