How I (sometimes) achieve academic work life balance

I was a young father. Just twenty-one and a senior in college when my daughter was born in 2001. I probably don’t have to say this, but having a child at 21 wasn’t a smart move, generally: my (then) wife and I had basically no income, lots of student debt, and only an impression of who we were as people. Fortunately, we were both also pretty mature and goal-driven. Why not have a kid while in grad school? As students, we’d have fewer responsibilities and being under the poverty line, we wouldn’t get caught up in materialism. It’d be us, our love for our child, and our professional dreams.

This might sound overly romantic, but it was true. As a doctoral student, I really only had a few responsibilites: 1) learn to do research and 2) do a lot of it, well. What’s usually hard about this is focus: there’s so much to read, so many projects that one can work on, and so many paths to take, students can get stuck trying to find perfect projects, trying to motivate themselves, and trying to find ways to have the greatest impact. I had endless peers in grad school who were lost in this soup, and often spent 10–12 hours a day searching.

This search can be a wonderful part of grad school. But as a poor young father who had a wife in school too, I didn’t really have the luxury of such expansive time. I had different priorities: 1) be a great father and 2) get a job that I loved and that would provide my family stability (tenure-track professor). You’d think (as I thought) that these two might be incompatible. How is there possibly enough time in the day to achieve both goals?

The only way I found to reconcile the two was to budget time. I gave myself 9 hours per day to make progress on research. I gave the rest of my time to my family. I negotiated some exceptions with my wife (paper deadlines, conference travel, late meetings that others scheduled), but generally, I committed to a 45 hour work week throughout grad school.

This had several positive effects:

  1. I worked the hell out of those 9 hours each day. As most of my grad school peers can tell you, I was always working. I took breaks to stay healthy, went to class, and met with advisors and collaborators. But I spent every minute of every weekday practicing research.
  2. I leveraged required activities for research. One of my more widely cited papers, for example, was based on data I gathered as a teaching assistant. Another class project led to award-winning CHI and ICSE papers. These weren’t luck; I went into these classes with plans, knowing that I had to make the most of the experiences.
  3. With the help of my advisor, I became ruthlessly critical of the potential outcomes of research opportunities. I learned to pursue projects that would result in discovery regardless of the outcomes, so I wouldn’t have any dead ends.

This 45-hour weekly cap also had some negative effects. For example, I spent too little time making friends and maintaining friendships. Because I gave the rest of my time to family, and I wanted to make the most of my work time, I passed on parties, extracurricular activities, and other social time that really would have grown me as a person, and would have grown my network of colleagues and collaborators.

To be productive in these constraints, I had to develop some robust time management skills:

  • I learned to religiously maintain my calendar, protecting research time
  • I used professional to do list management tools and build practices of reviewing it multiple times a day
  • I became extremely disciplined about capturing to do items so I’d never forget ideas I generated or anything I’d committed to
  • I became facile at decomposing tasks, breaking large, difficult-to-start tasks (e.g., write this paper) into hundreds of smaller tasks, making it easy to squeeze progress into 5–10 minute chunks.

All of these skills also helped me develop better self-regulation skills, giving me more awareness about which skills I was developing, which I excelled at, and which kinds of tasks would require more undivided attention than others. This self-knowledge helped me better select when to do particular types of tasks and plan my time accordingly.

All of this carried over into faculty life. Because my responsibilites were more numerous (adding teaching, service, Ph.D. student management, grant management, fundraising, impact efforts, etc.), I’ve had to learn some new skills over the past nine years of faculty life:

  • I keep logs about the multiple projects I’m engaged in, spending a few minutes before a context switch to capture, allowing me to context switch back more easily.
  • I set quotas on commitments and time, giving myself a maximum number of papers to review each year, a maximum time commitment to committee work, a maximum number of talks to go to each week, a maximum amount of time to spend on classes I’m teaching.
  • I maintain a “commitment” calendar for each month into the next two years, to keep track of all categories of activities I’m engaged in. This helps me assess whether I’ve run out of time to say yes to something (e.g., so I can write emails like “I want to say yes to this review, but I have no hours left to do it in May”).
  • To the extent that I can, I organize the tasks each day around a single role (teaching, research, service). A typical week has 2.5 research days, 1.5 teaching days, and 1 service day.
  • I don’t schedule meetings with doctoral students. Instead, I have a weekly lab meeting for reporting and block of entire half days for ad hoc advising. My students know when these times are and that they’ll be able to talk to me then. This means I meet with students for less time overall, but the meetings are focused and therefore far more useful. (I do schedule quarterly mentoring meetings to proactively discuss career planning, networking, milestones, etc.).
  • I (try) to read email only once per day).
  • I revise my courses each quarter to identify ways of streamlining my time while improving learning outcomes.
  • When possible, I schedule 30 minute meetings, forcing attendees to come prepared. This often has the effect of resolving the meeting topic over email.
  • I try to use Slack instead email, since it gives me a more visible context for a conversation with a person or group.

I still aim for 45 hours a week. I still have exceptions, but they mostly come from collaborations now, rather than my own work (e.g., students working up to a deadline, collaborators working up to a deadline). And even then, I work hard to teach my students their own good time management skills, both to help them have better work-life balance, and to help me maintain my work-life balance. The key to avoiding these exceptions is to not overcommit and always pre-crastinate, preparing papers grants and other deliverables at least a few days before they’re due.

All of this of course takes one big commitment. First, I have to commit to doing less. There’s a constant pressure an academia to publish as much as possible. It’s really hard to say no to an opportunity. It takes a lot of discipline (and desire) to turn down a collaboration or not pursue a grant, especially since I usually want to do these things. That’s a natural by-product of loving what I do.

Why do I set a limit if I like what I do? Lots of reasons:

  • My family and friends matter to me more than ever.
  • I have to take care of my body, both physically and mentally (exercise and sleep matter!)
  • I believe I’m genuinely more creative when I have open, unrestricted time to think. (I don’t count this as work time; if my mind is wandering at the grocery story or on a walk, so be it).

As much as I love nearly everything about my job, I’ve learned to enjoy my free time just as much. It makes me feel like a fuller, more integrated citizen and human, and unquestionably a better father. In a surprising way, I feel like maintaining this discipline over my time makes me a better scholar too. Others agree that open time is actually a critical resource for strong, deep scholarship.

Of course, I fail at capping my time all the time. I failed multiple times in the past few months while engaging in faculty searches. I fail when I’m not sufficiently ahead of deadlines. I fail when a student fails to be ahead of a deadline, and I’ve committed to helping them. And I’m failing right now, writing this blog post at 9 pm!

That’s okay. The point isn’t to be flawless, it’s to draw a line, and try to stay on one side of it.