Monday, August 27, 2012

Four Tips for Academics to Help Reduce Stress and Regain Life Balance

Note from moderator: This post is by Brooke Neely of Whitman College

Academic life can be overwhelming. Here are four tips I find helpful for managing stress and finding balance.

Natural Narcissism!!

Tip #1: Be mindful of your boundaries

Strike a balance between your personal and professional spheres, and carve out time for yourself when needed. I’ve found boundary negotiation to be key to my sanity (and I’m certainly not always successful). As a sociable introvert (yes, that exists!), I love engaging with people and asking lots of questions, which is why I’m drawn to qualitative research and interactive teaching. But I find this academic enterprise quite draining. I’ve figured out I operate at my best when I set clear boundaries on my time and space to allow myself to recharge—e.g. little to no work email during evenings and weekends, closing my office door when I need to regroup between classes, declining or postponing social engagements during particularly stressful times. And, when I’m really busy, I remind myself how much better I feel when I exercise, cook, read, spend time with family and friends, snuggle my cat, breath deep, stare at the wall, write morning pages (see The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron), and so on. The key is to figure out your own needs and develop boundaries appropriate to you.

Tip #2: Make time for collaboration and supportive networking

Academic work is often very solitary. I find it crucial to connect with people in a variety of arenas professionally and personally. Early on in graduate school I hit it off with a woman in another department with similar academic interests and a compatible temperament. She has become one of my closest friends as well as a professional collaborator. Her outside perspective opened up intellectual possibilities for me and kept me sane when I became too immersed in sociology. On a related note, we hear so much about the need to network for professional advancement. I find it most useful to network with people who inspire and support me. Within my academic institutions and especially at conferences, I have worked to cultivate a collection of people who I can reach out to for intellectual motivation and general encouragement. If I frame these relationships in terms of inspiration and support, they feel less daunting. And they have paid off professionally as well.

Tip #3: Trust your instincts, develop a flexible work plan, and don’t reinvent the wheel

Over the years, I’ve read many articles and books on writing strategies and work plans, hoping to discover the magic formula for smooth and effective productivity. While no magic formula emerged, I did get clearer on my own work habits. I’ve learned to trust my process of meandering ideas, lots of to-do lists, and productivity under firm deadlines. It helps tremendously to figure out your own work tendencies. It’s often difficult to trust your instincts (with plenty of conflicting voices and expectations swirling in your head), but I find when I’m successful at listening to myself, I feel most empowered and usually chart the best path.

As I trust my process, I try to remind myself to make an adaptable work plan. Whether it’s an article or teaching commitments, I find my stress levels usually decrease when I allow for flexibility along the way. I often think I have to do way more than necessary when initially crafting a plan, and as I proceed, I feel much better when I prioritize and whittle down the tasks.

And whatever project or task I’m tackling, I find it’s helpful to remember someone else has likely tackled it before—e.g. course syllabi, research proposals, articles, etc. Reaching out to people about their work helps to demystify the process and, if they’re willing to share examples, provides a clearer roadmap for a project.

Tip #4: Be gentle on yourself

It’s simple, but probably the most important tip. Academic pursuits do not always lend themselves to emotional well-being. I feel best when I take good care of my needs and am kind to myself even when I feel I’m not meeting expectations or don’t accomplish exactly what I set out to. Perhaps surprisingly, being gentle on yourself translates to more inspired and committed work as well.

As you probably know, there’s no easy fix for the stress associated with academic life. When your work begins to feel daunting, try to remember: set boundaries, collaborate with supportive people, trust your instincts, and be gentle on yourself. Best of luck finding your own life balance.

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