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Balance can be defined as a state of equilibrium between all of the different elements in life (Brus, 2006) by using skills such as time management, efficiency, and self-care to achieve balance. However, realistically, balance is not as easily attainable as some people make it seem. Many people pursuing graduate programs are individuals that have already established a career, a family, and a life before re-entering academia. How does one juggle the multitude of responsibilities in their personal and professional lives while meeting the demands of a rigorous graduate program? There’s no good answer, but the honest answer is that you will survive. Survival may just mean waking up to a cup of coffee, re-reading inspirational quotes in your bathroom mirror, and pumping yourself up for the day by listening to your favorite music. It may also mean feeling incredibly exhausted, taking deep breaths, going through the motion, going to sleep, and waking up not clearly remembering all the details of the previous day. Often times you will find that your days fall somewhere within the middle and you’ll be proud that you persevered. During these times when balancing responsibilities seem nearly impossible, it’s important that you pat yourself on the back, congratulate yourself for surviving, and seek comfort in the little things like the comfy pillow on your bed you haven’t laid your head on in the past twelve hours.
Before I entered my graduate program, I thought I had readily prepared for the upcoming imbalances in my life, but little did I know what was coming for me. Thus far, in the two years I have been in graduate school, I have gotten married, purchased a home, maintained full time positions, completed 480 hours of an internship, participated in a fellowship, and gone to school at night. Simply typing that was exhausting so being able to say “I survived that,” feels victorious. With a child on the way and one more year of graduate school to go, I feel like I’m back to where I started, staring hopelessly at the tunnel and asking “where’s the light?”
Maintaining balance and sanity while living a normal life is difficult enough, but when you throw in the wrench of graduate school in there, you get yourself into quite a pickle. “How Do I know if Graduate School is Right For Me?” blog post on 8/11/17 stated it best when the author begged the question: “How can we ever feel ready for something we haven’t yet experienced?” We can do as much preparedness and school readiness as we can, but we don’t know what’s ahead until we’re down in the trenches doing the dirty work. With that being said, becoming mentally prepared for the struggles ahead (or devising plans when you’re already in the trenches) is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety regarding the chaos of juggling responsibilities and life’s curve balls. Below are some tips that I have found helpful in helping battle the inability to balance everything.
How does one juggle the multitude of responsibilities in their personal and professional lives while meeting the demands of a rigorous graduate program? There’s no good answer, but the honest answer is that you will survive.
When there’s too much on your plate, it’s easier to procrastinate and ruminate on all the things you need to do instead of actually doing them. However, thinking about doing the tasks doesn’t magically make them go away, in fact it may churn up more anxiety. Unlike being an undergraduate where we stayed up late and waited until the night before to complete our work, graduate school doesn’t provide you with the luxury of procrastinating on any of your assignments especially when you have other things going on in your life.
Spend some time at the beginning of the semester to look through your syllabi and document the due dates on a large visible calendar, like a desk or wall calendar, so you can reference it daily. I find that having a tangible way to visualize my upcoming tasks helps me better organize my lists of to-dos. Whether you live day-by-day, week-by-week, or month-by-month, you can create a list prioritizing which assignments are due by simply looking at your calendar. Another helpful tip is to set daily or weekly goals regarding your upcoming assignments. For example, if you have a thirty page paper due by the end of the month, choose days throughout the month and set a goal to complete at least two to five pages that day. Completing assignments in increments helps make the task feel less overwhelming.
Speaking of assignments, do you find it difficult to sit down and focus your full attention on completing your assignments? With the amount of distractions available to us like social media, video games, television, etc., it’s easy for our minds to wander off into another space and cause us to lose motivation. When it comes time to buckle down to do school work, set a timer on your phone for 45 minutes. Make sure to let everybody in the household know that this is your protected time to help you focus on what you need to do. During these 45 minutes, be diligent and practice self-control by not perusing through the internet on any of your available devices. Simply take this time to work. When the timer goes off, get up, walk around, and take a well-deserved break. After you’ve taken some time to stretch, return to your desk and reset the timer for 45 minutes and repeat this cycle until you’ve reached your goal of how many pages you planned on completing.
When there’s too much on your plate, it’s easier to procrastinate and ruminate on all the things you need to do instead of actually doing them.
Identifying a Positive Support System
Building a support system of people that can commiserate with you regarding the hardships and frustrations with the impossibility of juggling life’s tasks is a key tactic to battling the disparities in life (Schlemper, 2011). There’s nothing quite as cathartic as speaking with others that share similar life experiences with you and them giving you the soapbox to vent about every annoyance that’s plaguing your life. These interactions are not only helpful in the moment, but it reassures you that your support system is present even if you’ve gone dark for the past few months because graduate school has consumed your life.
If you’re like me where you’re maintaining a full-time professional career while attending classes at night and feel like you’re just going through the motions and don’t need to make friends, try to shift your mindset. Having friends in your graduate school cohort is incredibly important because there’s rarely anybody around you that understands the level of stress you’re under aside from your peers. Forming bonds with your cohort helps you get through those long, strenuous lectures and complain about the rigid professor that spits through their teeth while they speak. They’re who you can rely on when you have to complete those arduous group projects and presentations.
Regardless of who is part of your support system, ensure that it’s a healthy group of people (or animals) that can boast you up at your lowest point and not make you feel guilty for your lackluster involvement in their life. If you’re preparing to start a graduate program, initiate conversations with your closest family and friends and warn them ahead of time that you may not be able to answer their texts or phone calls the first or the tenth time. Remind them that you’re thinking of them even if you’re not reaching out as often. Helping them be prepared for the upcoming adjustments in your life will help reduce some of the guilt you feel for not being able to maintain consistent contact with them through your journey.
Allowing Others to Pick Up the Slack
We are strong, independent, goal-driven individuals that are pursuing graduate degrees to boast our postgraduate career trajectory. However, we are not superheroes and we cannot do everything we expect ourselves to do. As difficult as it may be, accepting help during this time of chaos is one of the simplest tasks towards self-care. Try not thinking of it as defeatist, instead, it’s your ability to be honest with yourself regarding what you are and are not able to handle.
After treacherous hours in the research lab, library, classroom, cubicle, home office, etc., you may forget what it feels like to stand on the still earth and feel the breeze on your face. Block off time during your day, whether it be five or thirty minutes, to step outside, walk around, and get some fresh air. Instead of eating the cold leftovers at your desk, take your food outside and find a bench or curb to eat and embrace the sounds of branches brushing against each other in the wind, leaves floating down, birds chirping, and car tires shrieking. If you’re able to, consider downloading a mindfulness application on your phone and use this time to take a breather and ground yourself before returning to the rigor of your responsibilities.
Use a Planner and Pen In Personal Time
Having a planner will be your savior. It’s practical, reliable, and helps you remember the things you scheduled two weeks ago. With the bevy of fun, creative, and colorful planners available these days, it’s pretty easy to find a relatively affordable planner to bring with you everywhere you go. Depending on your preference, there are planners that are daily, weekly, or monthly and provide you spaces to write to-do lists, grocery lists, goals for the week, inspirational quotes, etc. Planners are multipurpose in that you can also doodle, write a simple reminder to yourself, or use as a diary. Don’t forget to schedule yourself some personal time and make sure you write it in PEN so you can’t conveniently erase it from your plan.
I cannot emphasize the importance of taking a “Mental Health Day” enough. We are so reluctant to take care of ourselves especially when we’re extraordinarily busy.
Plan a "Mental Health" Day
I cannot emphasize the importance of taking a “Mental Health Day” enough. We are so reluctant to take care of ourselves especially when we’re extraordinarily busy. Unfortunately, the only time most of us will take time off is when we’re so ill that we’re unable to get out of bed. But I propose that we change this mentality. Taking a day off to take care of yourself is vital to sustaining your overall well-being and preventing yourself from burnout (Schlemper, 2011). Although it is terrifying to think about relinquishing all your responsibilities for a day, taking this time to yourself will replenish and revitalize you to start fresh and look at life through clearer lenses.
Find an Outlet and Feel Your Feelings
We often suppress our feelings when we’re under survival mode. Repressing our feelings will eventually come out as a wrath of fury and resentment if we don’t have an outlet to express them. Remember those hobbies you enjoyed doing? Instead of looking at the supplies or reminiscing on them, do them. Missing the sounds of rocks in the crevices of your shoes while you hike? Get out there and do a short trail. Instead of letting your mind wander through the cyberspaces of your phone, engage in some activity to exercise your mind in a different way. Lastly, allow yourself to feel your feelings. When you have the opportunity to express your feelings through whatever outlet you choose, it may feel overwhelming, relieving, upsetting, or confusing. Use this time and space to feel the things you’ve been suppressing all this time because you deserve this release.
This may be a controversial suggestion but it’s one of the best ones...
Take a Vacation From Your Email
This may be a controversial suggestion but it’s one of the best ones. Mental vacations are necessary but they’re impossible if you’re constantly hearing the ring of a new e-mail or being patronized by the red bubble on the upper left-hand corner of your e-mail icon that just keeps increasing in numbers. I would not suggest doing this during the school year; however, when winter, spring, and summer break roll in, take a week off and plug in an away message stating you’re not looking or answering any messages during the allotted timeframe. If it’s urgent, people will text you.
Graduate school is an all-encompassing, sacrificial, challenging, and rewarding experience. Not only does it help further your professional career goals, it also propels you towards becoming a well-rounded and functional multitasked individual. It shows you where your limits are but it also highlights all your hidden talents and strengths. Despite all the unforeseen challenges, you will have successfully navigated through all the loopholes and barriers thrown your way. You are not alone in this; the struggle does eventually lead you to your ultimate destination.
Brus, C. P. (2006). Seeking balance in graduate school: A realistic expectation or a dangerous dilemma? New Directions for Student Services, 2006(115), 31-45.
Schlemper, M. B. (2011). Challenges and coping in graduate school.Geographical Bulletin, 52(2), 67-73.