Zarin Chowdhury is a student at Essex studying in the Department of Psychology.
The decision to start delivering all lectures online ultimately meant no longer sitting in lecture halls and using campus study spaces as we once did. Thus, began the working-from-home pandemonium, where breakfast during 9am lectures became the ‘new norm’ and nosy siblings appearing at the back of zoom meetings was a common occurrence. But what does one do when the lines blur between work and home? No one wants to bring the stresses of lecture halls into their home-life and vice versa. Having a work-life balance allows you to make a clear distinction between work and home, which lowers stress levels, makes you less susceptible to burnout, thus leading you to be more productive in the long run. Here are a few tips that may help you out with that.
A one-size-fits-all model may not always work for everyone – your daily routine should really be as unique as your DNA. What works for others, may not necessarily work for you. Take the time to experiment with different schedules and figure out what works optimally for YOU. Do this by keeping a journal of all your daily time expenditure and see what takes most of your time and what your natural patterns in a day look like. For example, do you work best during the evening? Do you feel sluggish after 2pm, when it becomes harder to focus? Also, write down your periods of down-time, where you aren’t being ‘productive’. Once you’ve noticed consistent patterns and reoccurrences in your daily activities, consider whether these actions give you or drain your energy? If you notice you are doing less of one thing than the other, it’s important to ask why and what could you change to even things out?
Breaking down large tasks into smaller ones and identifying levels of highest to lowest priority, can help take the load off. Even delegating tasks, such as asking your sibling to do your share of the dishes the week of a deadline, can give you more time to focus on an assignment. Although, there should be a limit to how much time you allow yourself to work, according to Parkinson’s law: work expands to fill the amount of time available for its completion, so when you give yourself too much time to complete a task, you end up more distracted because you know you have a lot of time to fill.
You may have heard of contextual cues before, but they play a vital role in memory recall. When you associate a certain space with revising, and you take the exam in the same space, memory is recalled more efficiently, in comparison to taking the exam in a different location. Likewise, making a clear workspace area, can help you get into the flow of work much easier. Setting clear boundaries, between your workspace vs areas of your home that you use for anything else, is crucial – this means no taking online classes from bed! This also means getting rid of any distractions from your designated workspace, for example moving your phone to the other side of your room. You can also try using free plug-ins which block any distracting websites for a certain period of time whilst you work. Make sure that any time you do need to use your phone you physically get up and move away from your workspace, to clearly make that association.
Cues will signal to your brain that ‘it’s time to work now’ and will allow you to prep yourself for the work-flow, but to make productivity a habit, you need rewards. A standard case of Operant Conditioning will help make you more likely to repeat constructive behaviour of working on assignments, getting into a state of work-flow and creating healthy boundaries. Good study and work habits are formed by the combination of contextual cues, followed by the desired action (university work), followed by a reward. Unlike the animals in Skinner’s experiment, these rewards don’t just have to be food, but can be anything you view as something to look forward to – whether that’s a long catch-up session on the phone to your friend or watching an episode of your favourite series.
Scheduling breaks gives your brain a rest from the mental gymnastics, as rest is just as important for the longevity of your workload and preventing you from doing too much all at once and burning out. Breaks are beneficial when consisting of some physical action (like going on a walk or making a snack), rather than just scrolling through digital screens. Engaging in activities for yourself is just as valid as spending time on university work.
Is it possible to do countless things and do them all at a 100%? Trying to attain a perfectly optimal student and home life is a fallacy. It might seem strange to say this after writing a blog post about it, but a perfect work-life balance is impossible to attain, because everything worth doing will at one point or another unbalance your life. Different areas of your life will demand different things from you at different times and that’s to be expected! If the past year has taught us anything, is that unpredictable variables take place and we will often shift our focus and priorities in the moment. Sometimes, our work deadlines will need our attention, whilst other times our home life will. Spreading ourselves thin will only cause all aspects to suffer. In life, you win some, you lose some, and that’s okay.
It is important to recognise when you feel things are getting too heavy on either sides of the scales and reaching out for support when you feel you need it. This can mean applying for extenuating circumstances, working with your mentor to work on early deadlines and even looking into counselling – whatever support looks like for you.