A secret solution to the challenge of finding a work-life balance

Wash U has appointed me to their work-life balance committee. It makes me a little nervous, because I’m not sure what I think about this. In my group I want the people with passion for research and for new ideas. I want the people that are always thinking about new ways of understanding social evolution. I want the people that discover cool new papers, close or far to our central questions.  I want people that embrace all sides of the academic enterprise, from discovering and experimenting to mentoring, teaching, and guiding. In short, the balance I want is a passion for research and an ability to read broadly to get new ways to discover. I am not interested in people that go home at 5 or 6 and don’t think about social evolution until 8 or 9 the next morning.

Does that mean I don’t really care about balance? Perhaps. Don’t the best ideas come from passion, from tireless pursuit of a difficult and new idea? Haven’t I watched my husband cover page after page with equations, pausing for dinner, but continuing in the airport, on the plane, until late in the evening? Haven’t I seen the frustration, the many times things go poorly before they go well? Can you have that and a work-life balance? What does the term mean, anyway?

Well, we don’t work night and day. We get enough sleep. I love my garden, my birds, and my family. I love to cook. I love Italian class. So, what is the difference between balance and a lack of a work ethic? I think the answer lies in the difference between what you are doing and what you are thinking about. If your passion is social evolution, you will be thinking about it while you are doing other things. When you walk to work, you will ponder a question. While you are cutting up the squash, or picking their blossoms, you will be thinking about that paper you read in Science. When you stretch your muscles in downward dog and breathe deeply, some part of your mind will be on a rich biological treasure, whether you want it to be or not. So, you may look like you have balance.  But there will be that corner of your brain that loves your research questions that never quite turns off. It’s that passion and drive that makes excellent research thrive. Even when you are not at the lab, you keep working away at least some of the time on your big ideas.

So, I guess the secret to balance is to keep thinking about research while you are doing other things. If you don’t do this, if you aren’t driven to this, then how will you shine? How will you really discover?  I always tell my students that they should do what they love, for then thinking about it all the time, worrying away at complex questions will be fun. If they don’t love it, they should find an easier job that pays better, like medicine.

Where does that put me on the balance chart? Probably right in there with Cin-Ty. To my way of thinking, balance is not so important as stress avoidance. I believe in that because it is hard for a stressed mind to be creative.

A lot of other people have written about work-life balance. Maybe you’ll like what some of them say more. Here’s one from Neurotic Physiology. Here’s one from Bigger Brains. Find your own balance or lack thereof. I doubt anyone else can solve this problem for you.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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23 Responses to A secret solution to the challenge of finding a work-life balance

  1. Liz says:

    Joan, this is really interesting. I’ve been hearing quite a bit from the graduate students about work-life balance and how they want it and I’m not quite sure what I think about it either. I’m not sure I think grad school is a 9-to-5 kind of proposition.

    • For graduate students I think the important thing is to show it can be fun. If you love it you can do it all because that thinking while you are doing other things pays off. If it doesn’t look fun, they won’t want to do it. If they don’t have fire in their belly for research questions, they should find something else to do. Is that harsh or realistic?

  2. Liz says:

    PS Ursula wrote a really groovy article about doing science and having kids–how you can do both because you can do both at the same time (like your yoga example)! I’ll dig it up for you.

    • I’ve heard Ursula say you can also get a lot of help from others in child rearing. My daughter thought you just got assigned an animal to study when you grew up and lost respect for us when she found out we chose wasps.

  3. Liz says:

    OK, one more thing. (I guess I think about this more than I thought!). There are things the university should consider when thinking about how to help people more easily combine their work and outside life. For example, it can be expensive or just challenging for those of us with small children to fully participate in faculty recruitment events, departmental retreats, or other events that take place over dinner or early breakfast and require finding childcare. Or even our after seminar snacks are off limits to people who have to pick up their kids from daycare at 5.

    • Good point. If recruitment events are at people’s houses, children should always be welcome. I brought mine and they loved those occasions, even if it did mess with bedtime. I figured it was worth it. I think it is necessary to have recruitment dinners, retreats and things. Most people don’t have little kids for very long, and can just skip such events when they are inconvenient. Does daycare end here at 5? I never heard of that. In Houston it ended at 6 most places. I’d be fine with moving seminars to 3:30 if that would help.

  4. Ruth Lewis says:

    Just thought you might be interested in the new article written by my recently retired Dean of Libraries, Shirley Baker. She is writing from a supervisor/administrator work position, not research, but there might be something here that is useful or at least interesting. http://publications.arl.org/2dotsi.pdf Leading a Full Life: Reflections on Several Decades of Work, Family, and Accomplishment. The article is CC-By-NC by the way.

  5. Interesting. I wonder how much of this applies across the board. I think tolerance and openness are important. But we don’t really have bosses as faculty and need to discover our own balances.

  6. Margaret says:

    Ugh. I think this workaholic attitude is terrible. I think it’s absolutely important to think about *other* things. I am not thinking about my research when I am playing with my child. I am not thinking about my research when I play soccer. I love science and I love research, but I am not interested in doing it 100% of my time. Does that make me somehow doomed to failure? I don’t think so. I think you can have a passion for something, and not have that be your life. I also think you can have multiple passions.

    Most of “work-life balance” committee stuff is going to be centered on parents (especially with young children), and that makes sense, since parents are essentially doing two full-time jobs at a time. Spend your time figuring out how to make it easier for parents to participate and excel. The sorts of things you figure out for parents will also likely benefit other people who struggle with “work-life” due to, e.g. taking care of ailing parents, dealing with chronic illnesses themselves, pursuing additional interests at near-professional levels — such as Olympic training or producing art, and so forth.

    In one comment above you claim that one is not the parent of young children for long. Maybe 6 years, say, isn’t long in the grand scheme of things, but when those 6 years fall across the career-establishing ones of late grad student / post-doc / early faculty, you can bet that obstacles to both doing good research and parenting can have a major effect on one’s career. Don’t dismiss them so lightly.

  7. Thanks for posting. Did I say 100%? Did I say all time out of the office? Did I say love your research? I agree you can have multiple passions, but only to a point. I think there are tradeoffs and I made plenty of them with my three kids. The first was born the month I started my first job. I’m not dismissing kids. I’m surprised you get that out of my post. Back then I felt that I could do two things well, family and work, and the rest would have to wait. Olympic training while you are a faculty member? Really? You are right, I don’t think you have time for it. I’m sorry you sound so angry. I’m surprised you dismiss the insight that thinking about cool research problems while not at the office can be helpful.

    • Margaret says:

      My point is that you think that doing things other than work are useful — for doing better work. My point is that other things are worth doing intrinsically for their own benefit. I agree with Tyler below. What you describe is a workaholic attitude to the point of complete UNbalance. Perhaps you don’t actually think this way, but it’s the way your post comes across. (And yes, I think that Olympic training is a full-time job, just like raising children is a full-time job. Why should we say that it’s okay to have children, but not pursue Olympic dreams?)

  8. Tyler says:

    This isn’t a “solution” at all. What has just been described is the illusion of balance instead of balance itself. If your mind is distracted from outside pursuits then they might as well be described as distractions rather than balance under this train of thought. Further, to say that one loves these outside pursuits while admitting to thinking about work borders on denial. For example, if I told my wife, or if any spouse told their partner, that they loved them but continuously thought about another fling, the spouse would be justified in demanding a change or leaving for a better relationship.

    The first two lines of the second paragraph should be the title of this post; especially since those offering “secret” solutions often don’t offer any solution at all. Importantly, the solution offered here is not helpful for attracting and retaining scientific talent. While the number of tenure positions continue to dwindle and the number of graduated PhDs continue to rise, the science community should be working to maintain the growing talent pool, instead of positing the idea that only one-track minds are allowed in the scientific community. Most individuals want outside interests that they can actually dedicate their entire mind to, and if this is a barrier to staying in science then it would be a waste of resources to train all these PhDs when hiring talented undergrads would suffice. Alienating individuals from science is a poor strategy and under this strategy we shouldn’t be surprised that over 50% of the US population doesn’t accept undirected evolution.

  9. Nancy Dudek says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. I am now practicing monotasking. When I cook, I think about the smells, the feel of the food, the color changes, the sounds. When I talk to a colleague I focus on their emotion and message and the words they choose, their expression and voice. When I watch a movie, I study the fashions, the framing, the sets, the props, the musical composition. When my mind wanders to work during a movie or playtime with my daughter, I force myself to turn it back to the subject in front of me. I feel more present and I have learned a lot more about subjects beyond the scope of work. I also enjoy and understand these subjects more deeply. I think it makes me a better scientist and a more calm and thoughtful person.

  10. Owen says:

    I think some of the people above (Margaret, Tyler, and Nancy) misunderstand Joan. They expect Joan to ask how to get enough “living” accomplished given that work is top priority. Of course you might expect this because Joan’s publication record suggests she is a workaholic. In reality, Joan is a lifeaholic. She is telling you one way to get some work done, given that you do a bunch of fun activities that reduce stress and contribute to well-being. I think Joan’s attitude is healthy and not at all reflective of a workaholic attitude. How many professors do all the stuff she does?

  11. Wow! Some people love my post and others hate it. I think it is partly a failure to communicate on my part and partly some real differences. People that know me seem to be more likely here and on Facebook to like it. I’ve been in Rocky Mountain National Park for a week hiking with my family (and sneaking in thoughts about research, but only stuff I felt like working on). I’ll take another more thorough stab at these issues soon. It is certainly a topic worth thinking about.

  12. Here’s a discouraging post Ruth just alerted me to. We’ll definitely have to think about these issues in more detail. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/22/sociologists-consider-how-male-scientists-balance-work-and-family

  13. Liz Haswell says:

    There is an interesting article in today’s (Sept 2) NY Times Business Section on Work-Life Balance and how it can be unfair if flexibility is only extended to worker with families (“When the scales of work and life weigh unequally”). I think there are some good nuggets in there, like the advice to “remove the why [you are leaving work early]” and instead focus on “how am I going to get my job done.”

  14. Thanks for pointing out this article. Here is a link:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/02/business/straightening-out-the-work-life-balance.html?_r=1/. Here is another article on the topic that sprung from it: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/01/in-flexible-work-debates-parents-have-unique-position/. I think Liz’s point is an excellent one, that people should be responsible for tasks, not hours, whenever possible. As far as universities go, I think events, including seminars, celebrations and the like, should take place so they end, including the reception afterwards, by 5pm. There will be exceptions, as is the case when visiting speakers come to town, or job candidates and are around longer. I also think that there are different kinds of needs with children. Care of an unattended child is different from a swim lesson, for example. I’m currently helping with aging, wounded parents. Their needs are different from those of young kids. Let’s try to work together on these things, helping each other, caring for children jointly when possible, not pitting one party against another.

  15. I have to say I’m more on the skeptical side of comments.
    I think everyone of us has experience of thinking about research during leasure time…but wether that is a healthy thing or not, well, that’s another story!
    I think of it as a by-product of the kind of job we’re in, something that in certain instances can actually be counterproductive/not very healthy, in other instances just normal.
    So, while I think this is sort of normal, I don’t exactly agree to apotheosize this as the secret to life-work balance…

  16. Here is an interesting new post on work/life balance. http://arthropodecology.com/2012/10/25/the-work-life-balance-how-many-hours-do-professors-work/ One of the things that is worth doing is to see how you use your time. Tweak it if this is not how you want to use your time. Don’t let it get out of hand just because of what others ask you to do.

  17. Ruth Lewis says:

    This ProfHacker post on Working Hours for Graduate Students addresses some work-life balance issues. http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/working-hours-for-graduate-students/43912

    • Hi Ruth,
      Thanks for the link to the ProfHacker article on work/life balance. I think 80 hours is crazy, certainly impossible for parents. It almost sounds designed to discourage people, especially women, from academia. I did work some crazy hours in grad school, but they were in the field, where I learned the canyon wren’s song and had to row my boat across a cove to my study site. Then the actual work of counting and marking wasps was slow, fairly unstressful and mundane. It took a lot of time, but I was outside. I had plenty of time for creativity. I can’t imagine spending so many hours in a lab would be good for very long. Perhaps what people remember is a super hard work stint packed into a richer life where there was more time for reflection.

      I want my students to work hard at making every working minute pay. There is no point in working hard and not writing up the work, for example, unless it is an unforeseen dead end. How many good studies I have in files not finished. How much less hard those students could have worked. So, if you do good work, publish it!

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