Life Balance, Anxiety, and Multitasking
Whether you are working in academia, writing your PhD, or currently a student, you always have to balance between different activities and goals. Often you feel that you have no time to complete everything planned, and you have to sacrifice your hobbies, traveling and family time in order to progress in your career/study and achieve all your goals. You feel that you are constantly anxious, stressed, and exponentially losing the appreciation of life, joy and happiness. Almost all my life I’ve been asked by my friends and colleagues how I can balance different areas of my life effectively and achieve relatively high results in all of these areas. For over 12 years I combined study, part-time job and Paralympic swimming career, and honestly speaking each of these areas were EXTREMELY demanding. I used to reply that there are no other skills apart from multitasking. To some extent I still believe so. In fact it is not that simple. Behind the multitasking skill there is the quite complex procedure of setting up your daily priorities, as well as long-, medium- and short- term plans. In this blog I would like to share just some tips that I used as a former full-time PhD student, and currently as an early career researcher.
- What is the most important for you?
Before trying to arrange your time, goals and activities, it is important to aggregate all your desires and passions to the few main life priorities, in other words, to find out what is the most important for you in this life. For instance, my overall life objectives are: happiness (whatever it means) and impact. Both of these goals are obviously maturely related. Simply speaking, all my activities are organised in order to constantly feel happy and satisfied with my life, and at the same time to feel that my life is valuable because I provide the impact through my research and teaching, etc.
- Life Balance
After you understood what you generally want, you can start framing the main areas of your life that are important to achieve your lifetime goals. The approach that I found extremely useful is the so-called “the wheel of life”, other names are also available. In fact I never knew that it’s actually the tool that has been used by numerous people, including psychologists and business coaches, because I just used it based on my intuitional appeal. I always called it something like “The wheel of life energy”. Probably, you can download some fancy templates of it somewhere online, although I personally like to draw it by hand, or to use the pie diagram in Excel, because it simply looks good enough for me.
Thus the main areas that can support my “happiness” and “impact” aspirations are:
- Career (My career choice can give me this “impact” factor, and provided some financial resources to support the happiness component);
- Social (As a social animal my happiness depends on communication with people, and on the activities that involve the people apart from my work colleagues);
- Health (I’m less likely to provide impact or be happy whilst having serious health issues, therefore Health deserves to take a quarter of all my time and effort);
- Spiritual (Happiness in my understanding is also peace of your mind and heart, therefore the work on the spiritual development, is equally important to me as my career, social life, and physical health.
Obviously, you will have your own main areas of this “wheel” diagram. When I was a student I had slightly different priorities.
- Slice this pie further.
Following the deduction approach we need to further “slice” the wheel, for example as I did before with my life balance diagram:
Normally you can add as many areas as you want and need. Since I love simplicity, I decided to split each area just on three main components, giving 12 slices of the pie overall. The most important task here is to honestly assess whether your activities are linked to your macro life goals that you specified for yourself in step (1). Now you can see the details below and you can skip them if you find my life is boring for you, and go directly to step (4).
Career: I. Teaching and Admin Work. As a university lecturer the main part of my role is to provide high quality teaching, and support students in their learning. Also admin work is an obviously important part of my daily routine and I must invest time in it. Lecturing is providing the direct impact on students, consequently, to the younger generation. This is a very satisfying thought for me. I am doing it, and I am happy because I understand how my job is important.
II. Research. This is definitely the passion of my life, I am a workaholic and can do research non-stop 7 days a week, and obviously, in order to maintain my life balance I need to constantly remind myself that this is just a 1/12 of my life. The research impact through academic publications is also a massive contribution to my career, and within my long-term life strategy.
III. Academic Citizenship. I am trying to be an active member of the academic community, volunteering to act as a reviewer for academic journals, attending conferences, and trying to be always helpful for my colleagues. Building professional networks also supports my career. Therefore I am ready and happy to allocate 1/12 of my time and effort to this area of my life.
Social: IV. Family. I am living far away from my family since I moved abroad, therefore for me it is extremely important to feel close to them, it is a big part of my happiness. Therefore, making such things as Skype calls, WhatsApp group chats with all family members, planning holidays together etc. are actually an incredibly simple but powerful way to achieve this goal.
V. Love. Romance is one the strongest contributors to my happiness, therefore no matter how busy I am I always put effort into relationships. Spending time together with the person you love can help you to get this extra positive energy and inspiration to further progress in your career and to improve yourself.
VI. Friends. Apart from your family and partner, it is always nice to have friends, and as any other areas of life you have to invest time in friendship. Meetings, chats, phone calls, occasional parties etc. There are many opportunities to stay in touch with your friends and to meet new friends, even if you have very busy schedule.
Health. VII. Fitness and Appearance. Yes, for me this is also highly important. In order to be happy, I need to look good and feel good. Therefore I need to do some sport, and regularly invest time and money in fitness, spa/beauty treatments, and fashion. For me it is important to be beautiful inside and out, to be healthy inside, and look fit and healthy on the outside too. Therefore regardless how busy I am, this area of life cannot be sacrificed.
VIII. Rest/Sleep. Those people who know me in person, can confirm that I can function pretty well with 3-4 hours of sleep per day without losing my working capacity. However, I recently attended conference in Vietnam where I got heatstroke, and could barely manage to take the return flight back to London. That made me think that my body gave me a signal that this lifestyle is unhealthy. I decided to put “Rest/Sleep” as a separate sector of my life balance wheel, and currently I sleep 8-10 hours per day. I believe that in the long-term my body and mind will be grateful for the changing of my work/rest pattern. And I have already noticed that the level of my happiness has increased.
IX. Food and House Keeping. Don’t need to explain that a healthy diet leads to healthy mind and body. Similarly, organising your living space is a must have for your everyday comfort, happiness, and overall success.
Spiritual: X. Religion I am a scientist, but I believe in God; in my universe they are neither separate nor contradicting things. Therefore, for my happiness, inspiration, life energy, I need to live in line with my religious beliefs. For me it is extremely important to see myself as a “good human”, to be less judgemental, to avoid all negative feelings as jealousy, pride etc. I am happy to work on my soul to be a better human and to provide a positive impact on the people around me.
XI. Personal Development. I regularly invest time in reading of inspirational literature, blogs, watching YouTube tutorials, public speakers, movies…. Everything that can be useful for development of any skills, starting from cooking and ending up with singing. This area for me includes my hobbies, at some stages in life I drew, sang, attended dance classes etc. Good entertainment too.
XII. Self-reflection. The last but not the least is self-reflection. It is highly important to revise whether your life is actually not in balance. If this is the case, think how to balance it, which area requires extra effort, and in reverse which area requires less.
- Maintaining the balance.
Okay, we set all the priorities, now it is important to understand that the core factor of your success is to maintain this balance. In school/uni/office you always can meet this one guy who never has time for anything, always busy, asocial, and working non-stop, always single, always stressed, and regardless how much effort he actually puts in his study/work, he barely can outperform others or achieve truly remarkable results. Sounds familiar? I used to meet numerous people like this at different stages of my life. The trick is that expansion of one sector by sacrificing others does not guarantee the increase of your efficiency and improvement of your results in this life area. For example:
I personally believe that this will not work for me. It definitely will affect my happiness and will cause me stress and anxiety.
Alternatively, the following perspective sounds nice for many, but put too much effort into a relationship and you will risk losing control over other areas of your life, get addicted to your partner, become a very boring person and consequently lose your lover with time.
So how to maintain the balance? Simply print this diagram, stick it to the wall or mirror, and remind yourself that all these sectors are EQUALLY important. Take this wheel into account every time you plan your daily and weekly activities, and with time you will develop your routines that will help you to maintain this balance. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I used to call this method the wheel of life ENERGY, because the balance of each sector of your life is not related to the physical “time” spent on each area. It is more about the feeling of full satisfaction of each of your needs. For example, in accordance to the time measurement you will spend most of your hours every day on work and on sleep, which is completely natural, if you need 7 hours of sleep per day – you need it. While a 30 min Skype talk with your mother can satisfy the need of your “Family” sector. Similarly, some occasional meetings with friends will satisfy your friendship needs etc. Another good example is a holiday to some exotic location for 7-10 days even once a year, with your family, friends, or partner, can give you such a boost of energy and happiness that definitely will provide positive impact on your overall success. Therefore, this wheel can be used as a guidance and projector for your overall life path. It can be modified from year to year.
- Fight with Anxiety.
These numerous goals can make you extremely anxious. Yes, it is almost unavoidable. I have a personal trick to fight with anxiety. I am an ambitious person and never satisfied with what I have, always want more, and want to develop further, achieve more. Therefore, to trick my brain, in contrast to my personality, I am setting the “minimum” standard of happiness. And I am making an agreement with myself that I am not going to get anxious unless I will fall below this benchmark.
For example, for my fitness, the maximum body weight I set for myself is 65 kilos. Therefore, unless I will weigh more than 65 I am not going to even think about my weight. For me these +- few kilos is not a source of stress at all. I know that I designed my diet and fitness to maintain an average 58 kilos, but if not – it is okay. I know that I am doing what I can do to achieve this goal, and I am not going to get obsessed with the extreme diets, or invest too much time in fitness by sacrificing other activities etc. because it is just 1/12th of my life priorities. Similarly, with my main passion – research, my minimum goal is to publish 2 papers per year. Since not all papers have equal chances to get published I am working on several projects simultaneously to diversify risks and maximise the chances. Obviously, I want to publish more. But if not – it is okay. It will not ruin my happiness because it is just 1/12th of my life.
This way of thinking really helps me to plan my day, my week, month and year, and to cope with stress, anxiety, and feel happy almost every day. I feel that I am living an interesting, exciting and amazing life. It is an awesome feeling!
P.S.: It was quite hard to organise my chaotic thoughts in this blog, and I definitely didn’t cover all the tips I use on a daily basis. But I will try to expand this topic in my future blogs.