Productivity, planning, and self-care: work-life balance requires planning ahead

As I’ve done work related to Michigan’s Grad Student Mental Health task force, and done my own “regular” work this semester, I’ve realized that discussions related to self-care and work/life balance often focus on things like making sure you get enough sleep or leaving time to go for a run or do yoga or things like that, but they leave out something important: if you want to do all those things (and I think they’re extremely important) and still submit manuscripts and proposals with deadlines, get feedback to lab folks in a timely manner, etc., you need to plan ahead. 

I’d been thinking about this for a while, but then had a really great conversation with a colleague about this that led to me coming up with this framework:

Top axis is "work-life balance/self care", right axis is "Plan ahead?" and left axis is "highly deadline motivated"

(Clearly none of these axes is actually dichotomous, but I think it helps to consider the extremes.) At first, I didn’t have the right axis about how deadline oriented someone is, but I added it to try to give more of an indication of what I had in mind with the “Plan Ahead?” axis. For planning ahead, I wasn’t thinking so much “make your lunch the night before”, but, rather, whether someone says “hmmm, I want to submit a proposal in a couple of months, let me finish analyzing that preliminary data now”. In my thinking, people who submit proposals a month before the deadline are at one extreme on the deadline motivated axis (the “no” box on that right axis), whereas people who have the grants person on the phone as they do the final edits so they can click the “submit” button 30 seconds before the deadline are at the other (the “yes” box).

Part of why I was thinking about this was I realized that, during discussions of work-life balance, I was omitting an important part of the equation related to productivity, planning, & self-care*, focusing mainly on talking about self-care and work-life balance, but ignoring the parts about productivity & planning. If you just focus on work-life balance, but don’t also plan ahead, the end result is missing deadlines, submitting sloppy or not really finished stuff, or leaning heavily on others (likely knocking their work-life balance out of whack in the process). 

I am someone who is pretty far to one side of the plan ahead spectrum, generally submitting things well ahead of a deadline. But, even with planning ahead, it doesn’t take a lot to knock things out of whack. When my mother talks about doing something at or by a certain date in the future, she often tacks “Lord willing and the tide don’t rise” on to the end (e.g., “I’ll pick those up next week, Lord willing and the tide don’t rise”). Her mother did the same, so I suppose it’s a family quirk, but it’s also an acknowledgment that our best laid plans can fall apart due to things out of our control. Lately, when I tell someone I’ll do something by a certain date (say, telling a collaborator I’ll get edits done by a certain date), I’m always tempted to add on “Lord willing & a daycare plague doesn’t move through the house”, because I am keenly aware of how precarious my work-life balance is. But, to me, that’s even more of a reason to try to be working ahead: I don’t know exactly when we’ll have a snow day or daycare plague or some other emergency will rear its head, but it’s going to come at some point, and that point may be the week that a proposal is due.

(I also feel like it’s important to note that my work-life balance and self-care are definitely not perfect, even in the absence of things like daycare plagues and snow days! But it’s something I prioritize and actively work at.)

This raises an important question, to which I don’t have a good answer. I’m hoping one or more readers do! I know multiple people who are very deadline-motivated and who find it hard to get stuff done without a deadline looming, but who want to begin prioritizing self-care and work-life balance. The problem then becomes how to find the motivation to work far enough ahead of the deadline that things don’t fall apart as the deadline nears. How can people who are very deadline-motivated shift towards working further ahead? For some people, the adrenaline of a looming deadline is really powerful but, for me, it’s mainly anxiety-provoking, so I never feel like I have useful advice for folks who ask me about this. If you’ve managed to make that shift, or you’ve seen others do it, please let us know in the comments how that happened! (Other thoughts on the topic are definitely welcome in the comments, too!)


*Phrasing this as a triumvirate of productivity, planning, and self-care came out of a wonderful conversation with Jorden Cummings of the University of Saskatchewan, who, in addition to being a psych prof, runs Teach Me Self-Care.

3 thoughts on “Productivity, planning, and self-care: work-life balance requires planning ahead

  1. I’m not faculty & I don’t have some of the “life” commitments (eg, kids) that many do. But one of the first things I did after being promoted recently was to literally schedule my commutes & workouts in my Outlook calendar. I don’t always hit the times on the nose. But that keeps people from scheduling meetings that might bleed over into that time, and I turn on the reminders so I have a prompt on when I need to get going that helps hold me accountable.

    Tl;dr: Schedule self-care. Put it on your calendar & treat it the way you would other appointments.

    Aside: We inlanders had a slight mod for your mom’s phrase—“lord willing and the creek don’t rise” 🙂

  2. Set your own personal deadlines! Break tasks into smaller portions to achieve a sense of progress. Give yourself breaks and cut yourself some slack. Also, avoid multitasking!

    The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steels is a recommended read

  3. Pingback: Pick & Mix 43 – more snippets from the web | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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