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How to Improve Your Work-Life Balance


This spring, many of us found ourselves scrambling to reimagine our courses for remote delivery. Our summers were spent redesigning classes for remote, hybrid, or socially distanced on-ground delivery. Dealing with the technological challenges, the issues that our students have with new teaching modes, and the struggle to balance our work with an equally complex home life can lead to a neglect of self and a quick path to burnout. Achieving a work-life balance has been particularly difficult for academics who were already accustomed to toting home sheaves of grading or looking at a grading queue with a seemingly insurmountable number of files. Now, add to that “homework” trying to balance the demands of students and administrators who expect immediate responses to emails or texts and helping family deal with their new Covid realities, and it’s easy for one day to melt into another in a never-ending carousel of wake, teach, grade, sleep, repeat.

Establishing a healthy work-life balance can be difficult, but there are a few ways to get started:

  • Set rituals. When working from home, our old rituals such as the commute or the stop at the coffee shop are gone. These rituals were important for signaling to ourselves the transition from home to work. Developing new routines for a new schedule, according to Cody McClain, host of the MindHack podcast, is vital to help to reinforce boundaries between work and home. Don’t forget to perform these rituals in reverse at the end of the day. If you have a home office with a door, shut it at the end of the day.
  • Avoid chasing notifications. Set specific times for responding and checking emails. We quickly train ourselves to jump when we hear the ping of an incoming notification. Lauren Huddleston, writing at edutopia.com, describes how after a few weeks on the treadmill of email and texts, she found herself at her wit’s end: “After speaking with administrators, faculty at my school were given an ‘end of day’ time for email responses.” Even easier is setting a few “check and respond” times during the day. To avoid misunderstandings, make sure to let students and others know (diplomatically) that you won’t be participating in the 24/7 email culture.
  • Use Timers. When working on campus, interruptions come in a constant stream: colleagues stopping by the office to ask questions or gossip, students asking for advice, and meetings to walk to across campus, or lunch or coffee catch-ups with friends. At home, the day is streamlined enough that getting sucked into a task is much easier and much more dangerous. Set a timer (I like the simplicity of the Toggl Timer so that you don’t start grading papers and then look up five hours later with a sore neck and the rest of your to-do list untouched. Schedule an amount of time for working on a task and when that time is up, move to the next one. You may not complete everything, but you’ll return to the task the next day with a more productive mindset. While many people swear by the Pomodoro Method, you don’t have to choose anything that formal.

    Use the timer for scheduling breaks as well. Take some time during the day to talk to a friend, listen to music, or otherwise spend time on something that you enjoy. The break doesn’t have to be long for you to return to your laptop refreshed with a clear mind.
  • Get some exercise. I never realized how much I walked around campus before the pandemic. Likewise, my daily in-person yoga class seemed more like a pleasant diversion than a necessity. However, after a week of sitting in front of my computer for eight hours a day, five days a week, my body hurt, my mind was fogged, and my posture was shot. Set a time and a timer each day to be physically active to create a habit. The activity could be as simple as a walk in the evening with family.  Moving your body every day has benefits beyond the physical. YouTube has dozens of free yoga and meditation classes and apps like Headspace and Calm have found large audiences. Try some options out until you find the one that’s right for you.    

Finally, give yourself some compassion and let those around you know how you’re doing. While my wife and I have been working from home in some capacity for over a decade, my best friend has two adults working from home with three young children learning from home all from a small kitchen all for the first time. Acknowledging that your work life has changed, communicating that stress to those around you, and accepting that it’s normal to feel stressed can help to establish boundaries between your work life and your home life. Taking care of yourself will make you a better, more compassionate teacher and a happier human being.

About the Author

Michael Dittman lives, teaches, and writes near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania surrounded by the palimpsest of the Appalachian Rust Belt and its ghosts. He’s worked at bike shops, in newsrooms, and on top of roofs, but today he can be found more often at the front of a classroom. He is the author of "Jack Kerouac; A Biography, Masterpieces of the Beat Generation, and Small Brutal Incidents." His short stories and poetry, as well as his journalism and non-fiction, are widely published. He has been awarded grants from Pennsylvania Partners on the Arts and other foundations.

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