Compartmentalizing your life

These last five weeks I have been traveling every week while trying to juggle my teaching, research, and family responsibilities. Thankfully I have successfully fulfilled all my teaching and service responsibilities! Even if this meant almost no sleep, I was able to devote 2-3 hours of fun activities to my kids every weekend (in addition to my regular parental responsibilities) and one date night with my husband. Hey, I even got to stop by and drop off a gift at my friend’s baby shower and go shopping for dresses with my 4-year old daughter to an upcoming baby shower this weekend where we are required to dress alike. From the outside, it may seem like I have an incredibly balanced life even when 3-4 days per week have been spent away in meetings, giving talks, and meeting individuals all day. But the balance is far from ideal. Why? Unfortunately, I have neglected two things that are also very important to my life – my personal needs and my research. In every travel engagement I literally had a full schedule each day, starting early in the morning and ending very late and with no breaks. Thus every time I got back I had a pile of work waiting for me. I had the best intentions of taking care of my research and myself but unfortunately I could not get more than a couple of hours of research and a couple of brief text messages with my best friend during these five weeks. While these might seem like some consolation, they are puny and shameful efforts, in both cases.

Ironically, as I mentored various individuals, in particular women in STEM from graduate students to senior faculty members during my travels, I realized that most of these women and I are all guilty of the same charge. In the midst of my hectic life, I forgot to apply to myself some key advice that I am giving them. I usually try to follow my own advice but when I get extremely busy with travel I forget everything and only focus on two things – my teaching and preparing what is needed for these meetings and talks.

My advice to many women in academia is to make sure that you compartmentalize your life, including a compartment for your personal (individual) needs as well as research, and spend your time in accord with these compartments. For example, if it has been pre-determined by your goals, objectives and responsibilities, that from 8:00-9:00 am you teach Calculus and from 10:10 am-12:00 noon you do research every Tuesday and Thursday, this is what you should do on these two days and time slots. Only in a big emergency should you break away from doing these tasks but you should get back to them, as soon as possible. Do not make excuses for not living in accord to certain compartments or ignoring them. Adopting the idea of my colleague and friend Ricardo Cortez, you must “respect” these compartments.

I must follow my own advice and most important, “respect [my] research time” as advised by Ricardo, and respect my personal time. As Ricardo pointed out in his e-mentoring blog some time ago, if you have to teach you don’t cancel your class unless it is a very big emergency. If you have an appointment with yourself to do research or spend some quality and essential time doing something for yourself, then you should also not cancel these appointments either. I must respect my research and my personal time, always! How can I give my best, if I am neglecting the number one person responsible for keeping things running and getting them done in my life? I cannot! I must take care of me as well as everything that makes my life happy (including fulfilling my responsibilities). I must compartmentalize the personal aspects of my life too, just like I have done with my work and profession, according to the value and importance they play in my life and in my long-term goals. If I want to fulfill my professional goals, I cannot ignore my research compartment. If I want to optimize my productivity each day, I must make sure I am rested and not running myself down by going into overdrive mode in certain aspects of my life while ignoring others. I must reorganize the proportion of time I spend in the various aspects of my life.

I am revamping the compartments of my life to include my personal “me time”. I am starting by clarifying my goals, determining what I need to do to get there, and setting realistic parameters for myself. The latter is extremely important, if I am to truly stick to my plan. Setting parameters will require a careful inventory of my life and re-prioritizing. I will prioritize according to what I need to do in order to be successful in both my personal and professional life. I will not compromise things at the top of my priority list for other things. I will make sure that what I am doing and how much effort I am spending in service, teaching, and research are aligned with my institution’s expectations. I will be more selective on my service and travel commitments and not allow myself to feel guilty for not accepting invitations from friends (in the profession) or organizations with very good causes if I am already oversubscribed with service engagements or if there is a risk of me neglecting my priorities (during these invitation engagements). From now on, I will make sure that any invitation to speak or travel includes plenty of time for me to address my top priorities. Even though it is great to meet, mentor, and interact with many individuals for an entire day, I will not accept a full schedule from 8am -10+pm with no time, (say, at least 4 hours) to spend on research and on my personal needs. This block of time will not be negotiable.

If we women are to be successful in academia and happy, regardless of the stage in our life, we must require from ourselves and everyone else to respect our research and personal time. This should never be negotiable. To avoid the pitfall of neglecting important things in our life we must compartmentalize our life and live in accord with these compartments. Our efforts and time spent in these efforts should reflect our proprieties and what is expected to advance in our careers and personal lives. In order to have full control of our lives we need to make sure that we prioritize according to what is important and essential in our development and growth. I encourage all of you to reorganize your life, if necessary, just as I am about to do.

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1 Response to Compartmentalizing your life

  1. Ken Millett says:

    Very well put, Erika. I believe we all face these issues. My goal was a minimum of 2 research hours a day. To make sure I did this I set aside, roughly, 4:30 to 6:30 am every day to make sure I did not “cheat” and say I would find the time later in the day (when I was too tired to thing straight). Then, sometimes in a bit of a panic, came class preparation and time with students (undergraduate and graduate). During the day, family became a priority while children were in school (including mandatory contributions to the cooperative nursery school) over departmental and university “service.” Sure, it was all a bit of a juggling experience but, at least, at the end of the day I was sure I had given my best time and energy to my research, if only for a couple of hours. After some 40 years of this strategy, I now allow myself to “sleep in” until 5:00 or even later if I am feeling a bit tired. But, at the start, I was so desperate to have a method that would insure I did not neglect my own research and professional growth that I started my day at 4:30 am. Perhaps this is not quite what Erika has in mind by changing one’s life but that is what it felt to me.

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