Stay-at-home orders are blurring the line between work and free time, which is often already blurred for many graduate students. Now that classes and research are all conducted from your kitchen table and laptop, putting work away for the day can be difficult. The pressure to stay productive during this time means that many people are actually overworking, feeling as if they are surrounded by endless tasks and long to-do lists that they cannot escape. While working from home, it is important to create some kind of separation, both physical and mental, from your work and your home life - your time to relax, to socialize, to invest in your hobbies. Below are some popular tactics to improve that work-life balance.
Set up a distinct work space at home. Most graduate students probably do not have a full home office, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to build some semblance of a workstation. For some, this is accomplished more easily by having a desk at home, but not everyone has the space or budget for a nice desk setup. If you’re without a desk, try to reserve some other spot in your home for work that is as separate from your relaxation space as possible. If possible, a spot that gets ample natural light during the day is best. Ideally, work somewhere that allows you to be seated in front of your laptop as if you were at a desk in order to avoid potential back pain from being seated uncomfortably and hunched over your laptop all day. Build a schedule for yourself that dictates what hours of the day you’ll be working. When you are scheduled to work, be in your work space. When your work is up, physically change your location and stay away from the work space for the duration of your non-work time. You want to create a sense of separation from your work space and your relaxation space.
Create some physical display of the work that needs to be done. A lot is unfolding in the world every day, and anxiety is high for everyone. The news can seem overwhelming. Keeping up with family and friends can even seem hectic sometimes - who can Facetime which nights and at what times? Staying organized at home has been difficult for many people, so you should not beat yourself up over feeling as if your responsibilities are slipping through your fingertips. To stay on track, create some physical display of what you need to get done and when your deadlines are. Think of this as a manifestation of your mental to-do list. If you have a white board at home, use it to map out all your projects and the progress you need to make on them. Seeing everything physically organized in front of you can help calm the whirlwind of “must do now” in your head. If you don’t have a white board, placing sticky notes on your wall can be a great alternative. If you can coordinate different sticky note colors for different projects, even better. When you complete something, you can physically move the sticky note from a “to-do” side of the wall to a “completed” side of the wall. When people are stressed, they often become more forgetful and disorganized. All those things you think you will remember to write down later are probably not going to make it on a to-do list. Take the time to sit down and map out all that you need to get done before the end of the semester so that all your responsibilities are physically recorded in a place that you can go back to instead of flying around in your head.
Make time to be active. When you’re making your schedule for work time, carve out time in your days for some kind of exercise. Try an online yoga workout, take a virtual exercise class from the Rec Center, go for a jog around the block (remember to take a mask and stay at least six feet away from other joggers!). Being confined to home for a long period of time means that we are all moving far less than we usually do, even if you are not somebody who exercises regularly. Think about all the time you usually spend walking from the parking lot to your office or riding your bike to campus. Now that we are staying home, we need to be more mindful of our activity levels. Physical health aside, making time in your day for exercise can also benefit your mental health. A good workout can be great stress relief, and it also gives you a break from that seemingly endless to-do list, even if for an hour or so. Try to make your time for exercise be consistent, such as right after you get out of bed every morning or during that mid-afternoon slump. The structure of a workout schedule will prevent you from sitting in front of your laptop all day.
Try to make your weekends feel different from your weekdays. Most graduate students cannot take a whole weekend off from classwork or research, but your weekends probably still felt different from your weekdays before stay-at-home orders. Maybe you stayed away from campus on the weekends and worked at a coffee shop instead. Maybe you put away work after noon on Saturday and Sunday. Whatever your work habits were, you probably spend your Saturdays and Sundays in a distinct way. Now that everyone is home all week, it can be hard to keep track of the days. Saturday does not feel so different from Tuesday anymore. This sameness perpetuates overworking, because most of us have lost that feeling of a set work week followed by the reward of two days off, and so we have stopped taking the time off that we really need. Even if you still cannot afford to take a whole weekend off from research, try to lighten the load during the weekend. Limit the hours you commit to research. Schedule Zoom happy hours with friends. Let yourself watch too many episodes of your favorite show in one sitting. Sleep in. Let your Saturday and Sunday feel like a breather from the rest of the week.
Prioritize getting eight hours of sleep each night. Grad school is often not kind to the sleep schedule. While many grad students do not necessarily have less work now that they are staying home, schedules are a bit more flexible now. If you weren’t getting a full night’s sleep before this new normal, try to think of stay-at-home orders as a great time to reset your sleep schedule for the better. If you find yourself awake past midnight because you just cannot put the work down, you are not doing your mental health or your immune system any favors. Feeling as if you can only afford a few hours of sleep a night is likely an indicator that you may be seriously overworking yourself or seriously mismanaging your time during the day — or perhaps even both. Sleep should be a priority, not a reward or a short break from work. Set a bedtime, and don’t allow yourself to work past that time. Even better, put work away at least an hour before bed. Spend that hour doing something to unwind: read a (non-academic) book, do some yoga, try a meditation session. Getting a full night’s sleep can improve your focus and productivity, your physical health, your immune system, and may even provide more specific benefits like healthy weight management and clear skin. So, don’t skimp out on sleep!
Working from home can sometimes feel as if you should always be “on” and productive, but it is just as important, if not more important, to practice a healthy work-life balance right now. Creating physical and mental separation between work and relaxation can help achieve this balance even when we are confined to the same living space all day. If you can commit yourself to taking care of your work-life balance during this abnormal period, you may find that you want to continue these good habits even when stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions begin to lift.
About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a second-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.
Image: Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash