• Kevin Hylton

Maintaining Work-Life Balance While Working on Your Dissertation

Throughout life, we are told how important work-life balance is to our wellbeing and the achievement of our goals. While navigating a doctoral program, work-life balance seems far-fetched and unattainable. It is common, once the dissertation stage begins, to get bogged down by the significance of the dissertation and keeping it at the center of your focus, while losing sight of the big picture.

With a project that large, there isn’t time for anything else, right? Wrong! No matter how big the task at hand, work-life balance is possible and has many benefits with positive outcomes. Work-life balance means to prioritize both the demands of school (work) and personal life. The balance does not need to be equal, but it does need to be fulfilling. The amount of time, energy, effort, and resources poured into working on your dissertation should not overwhelmingly outweigh the amount you put into your personal life. More does not always equate to progress, productivity, or quality.

Achieve work-life balance

It is possible to achieve and maintain work-life balance while working on your dissertation, it just has to be made a priority. Nothing productive can get accomplished if you are too burned out. So, during my time as a doc student (many moons ago) and from working as a dissertation coach I have created a list of ways to achieve work-life balance during the dissertation phase.

Set working hours and stick to them

When you have the presence of an unfinished dissertation looming over you at all times, the pressure to constantly be productive often deters students from allowing themselves time to enjoy other things. Dissertation guilt is real. It is the guilt you feel when you take the time to do something enjoyable or relax instead of work. I have experienced it and watched my peers experience it as well. Occasionally, I would feel so guilty for taking a lazy day or enjoying a night out with friends, that I would try to make up for it by working non-stop the rest of the week, which was not sustainable. Constant thought and worry about my dissertation lead to burnout, stress, and anxiety.

After months of trying to deal with my emotions I began to set specific parameters around my work hours each week. How many times have you tried to force yourself to work on your dissertation, only to end up browsing Facebook or YouTube? You know yourself best and the hours and times of day you are most productive and have minimal distractions. Let that work to your advantage, so you can be more efficient during working hours and maintain balance. Once you have set your hours, stick to them. When your designated hours are done, turn off the computer and shut the books. Allow yourself the necessary time to decompress, unwind, and wake up restored.

Take a break

You may think of yourself as a superhero and are willing to sacrifice essential needs to “read a few more articles” or “outline the next section” (we’ve all said those phrases while writing a dissertation). Giving up fuel, sleep, and coffee breaks with peers may seem like a small price to pay in order to maximize progress on your dissertation, but that is far from the truth. The reality of skipping meals, reducing sleep, and missing out on time with friends actually means less energy, less focus, and less productivity.

Give yourself permission to take 15-minute breaks here and there, eat a proper meal, and engage in conversations with others. Each break is important and helps to improve mental clarity, engagement, alertness, and energy levels.

Find a non-academic hobby

In graduate school, academics become the center of your universe. Up until you reach the dissertation, your focus is coursework, assistantships, and research. Once you’re in the dissertation phase, your schedule opens a bit and allows for more flexibility.

To remain balanced, find hobbies that bring you joy that are unrelated to academia. For me, happiness was found in cooking and taking dance classes. These hobbies allowed me to enjoy something unique and exert myself into different environments that challenged and exposed other sides of me. I was able to take my mind off research, writing, and the feedback from my advisor to just have fun. Engaging in hobbies left me refreshed and was invaluable in the improvement of the quality of my work.

Assess and prioritize your values

A major key to achieving work-life balance is to recognize your values and prioritize them accordingly. Although writing and completing your dissertation is an important academic achievement, everyone has other values, whether it be health and nutrition, family, friends, getting outdoors, or enhancing a skill, that they should make time for. Assess what is important to you, and do not be afraid to say “no” to things that do not bring you contentment. It is okay to set boundaries, especially when you are in a stressful phase of your academic career.

If getting home by 5:00 pm in order to cook dinner and spend quality time with your family is important to you, make the conscious effort to make that happen. Maybe that means you decide to get to the office a little earlier, so you can accomplish the goals set for the day and leave at a reasonable time guilt-free, or maybe that means a few days a week you work on your dissertation from home to eliminate time spent commuting and maximize working hours.

Decide what you value outside of your PhD and actively make it a priority. The accumulation of consistent engagement in what brings you happiness will lead to increased motivation and productivity towards your dissertation.

The bottom line

Balancing the expectations of completing a dissertation and having a healthy personal life can be tough, especially after having invested so much of yourself into the graduate school process and being so close the finish line. The assumption that writing a dissertation must be all work and no play can be detrimental to its completion. If you can find ways to manage your time and energy such that it creates an achievable balance, you will see enhanced productivity, motivation, energy, happiness, and clarity – all key components to successfully writing your dissertation.

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