Since starting working at Flinders University in a student support role in 2017, I have been pondering the challenge of how to balance productivity and wellbeing. This isn’t just the challenge that students face, I see the same challenge for staff as well. I see the same challenge for a lot of people outside of university setting.
The crux of the challenge is that modern society demands a lot of us psychologically. Work long hours, juggle multiple demands, achieve, excel, innovate and grow. All of this in a complex information environment where everyone wants our attention.
The tool we need to keep sharp to manage this, our mind, is the same tool under pressure at all times. And what is good for our wellbeing isnt’ always what is good for our productivity. Focused, undistracted deep work might be good for our productivity, but play and connection with others is good for our wellbeing.
The first real articulation of this challenge that I remember hearing was the idea of work-life balance – the challenge of finding some harmony between our work lives and our personal lives. Operating at either extreme (overwork or unemployment) is generally associated with poor health and wellbeing outcomes. Thus a balance is needed and the challenge of each individual is finding out what balance of work/personal is optimal for them.
In my time at universities, the challenge appears to be, that left unconsidered, it is easy for students or academics to bury themselves in work which has some payoffs (academic outcomes, academic progression) but also many costs, one of which is sustainability. How long can a person realistically sustain states of overwork and underinvestment in other aspects of life?
To be clear, I find working at a university to be awesome There aren’t many other places where you’re encouraged to work at the cutting edge of a discipline AND provided with the knowledge of the world at your fingertips to do so.
But its also a very challenging environment. Whether you are a student starting your academic journey or a well-established academic pushing forward in your area of research, there is constant and unrelenting pressure to achieve, excel, innovate and grow. That pressure can take a toll, on your mental and physical health, as well as your capacity to build and grow other aspects of your life.
So I have been trying to understand how one engineers their days and weeks in order to increase the likelihood of finding balance between opportunities for productivity and the realities of what is needed to sustain health and wellbeing.
I’m not going to pretend like I have discovered the perfect formula. I doubt there is one. Once you take all the unique individual and work characteristics into consideration, there are too many situations and contexts to try and cater for. The more I learn however, I can see areas where personal optimisation can contribute to improved academic performance (i.e. productivity), but also better work-life balance/ study-life balance.
These areas aren’t singularly precise activities, but rather categories of activities that I think nudge our days and weeks to include processes necessary for constant adaptation and refinement. The underlying idea is that we processes in place that allow us to continually reconfigure our goals, tasks, time, resource allocation to meet the needs of the circumstances we find ourselves in. We need a system that adapts to the vicissitudes of life, rather than attempting to battle them with strict order.
I have identified 12 areas that those of us trying to achieve better work/study-life balance could optimise. 12 might sound like a lot, but an individual human life is complex, so is it really surprising that optimal performance would require attention to a number of things?
What do I mean by optimise? I don’t mean that we achieve perfection in these areas (perfection is virtually impossible to define or achieve), but that we can experience growth and improvement. For example, I can’t create the ‘perfect’ diet, but I can make improvements to my nutrition such as increased vegetable intake, eliminate processed meats etc. Those improvements then have downstream benefits in terms of energy, health, resistance to illness, vitality etc. Thus the focus is refinement and adaptation, not the achievement of some idealised outcome.
Before we kick off on the 12 areas, I want to make it clear that work/study-life balance constitutes a shared responsibility between us as individuals and the culture and practices of the organisation in which we work. Whilst this post focuses on individual optimisations, that doesn’t render the organisations in which we work responsibility-free. In addition to educating individuals on how to optimise, we need to build work environments, policies and practices that support people to achieve this balance, not just rely on individuals to activate these optimisations in their own lives.
But, for the time being, focusing on what we can do as individuals in this post, let’s kick off.
The 12 optimisation areas are as follows:
- Physical activity
- Time and task management
- Focused deep work
- Reading/learning/professional development
- Non sleep deep rest
- Contemplative practice
- Other connection
- Fun and play
The first four (sleep, nutrition, physical activity, breathing) aren’t particularly surprising. They constitute the basic ingredients of physical and mental health. Of course, that doesn’t mean we are all doing well on them. For example, over 50% of Australian adults don’t meet guidelines for physical activity. Most of us have capacity to do better on these domains.
The breathing one might be a surprise for some. Do I really need to pay attention to something I do automatically? A great book that might change your mind is breath by James Nestor. Turns out that small changes in breathing habits can have meaningful positive health impacts. An example is emphasizing nasal versus mouth breathing.
Investing in 1-4 is a great recipe for disease/illness prevention as well as the ongoing management and treatment of existing physical and mental health conditions (alongside prescribed medical therapies of course). Optimising in these domains ensures that your ‘meat suit’ (one for Supernatural fans) and nervous system (the interface between you and the rest of the world) are working as well as they can.
As you might be aware, discussions of things like ‘optimal diet’ attract a lot of controversy and argument. As a sensible starting point, I recommend people start with national guidelines first (e.g. Eat For Health in Australia) and then shift to professionally guided advice (i.e. registered dietitians) if modifications required.
5, 6, 7 and 8 are those processes that set our life goals and drive us towards those goals. I think of them as the accelerator pedals of life. They are the primary drivers of “getting stuff done”. Self-reflection leads the group. It is the capacity to observe one’s experiences, memories, thoughts, feelings, goals, desires, values, strengths, performance and actions, extract self-insights from these and utilise these insights to make better decisions and choices, particularly about the second part: how to use one’s time and what tasks to focus on. We have finite time but potentially infinite possibilities, so it is important to be able to allocate time and focus on tasks that are best suited to our goals, values and strengths.
Focused deep work is where those tasks get done. Focused deep work is being able to set aside distractions, harness one’s stress response, focus one’s attention and concentrate for extended periods of time to work meaningfully on the things that are most important to you. A great writer in the area of focused deep work is Cal Newport. Procrastination is the enemy of deep work, is very common, and is the reason we have a tackling procrastination program at Flinders: Studyology.
Reading/learning/professional development are how we keep our knowledge and skills current and up-to-date. For those that are studying full-time this may be less relevant as you are already actively accumulating knowledge and skills in your degree. But once we are out working in our discipline, we need to invest time to ongoing learning, given how fast many fields develop. For example, I need to continue reading and learning in my field of psychology because there are always new knowledge, skills and insights to be gained. I do a lot of this learning on my morning walk, listening to interviews with people in my field.
It is important to note that processes 5-8 don’t just reflect activities for our work. They reflect activities relevant to any domain in which we wish to move forward and achieve specific goals. This could include hobbies, sports, parenting or other areas of self-development. These processes become particularly important when we are interested in pursuing many goals at the same time. Self-reflection helps us prioritise, time and task management helps us quantify resource allocation, focused deep work helps us make real progress towards those goals, and ongoing reading keeps our knowledge from stagnating.
9 & 10
If 5-8 are life’s accelerator pedals, then 9 and 10 are a bit more like the brakes. Non sleep deep rest (a term I took from Andrew Huberman) includes those activities that slow us down, rest us, relax us. They switch off the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) and switch on the rest/repair response (parasympathetic). Activities include relaxation training, gentle yoga, self hypnosis, time in nature, tai chi. They give our nervous system (activated by activities 5-8) time to rest, time to recuperate, preventing a life spent in a constant state of stress activation. 20 minutes per day (along with good sleep) might be enough to get started. This can happen in one hit or perhaps spread throughout the day.
Contemplative practice is being still and looking inwards. It shares many similarities with self-reflection (i.e. gaining self-insights) but generally done with a greater focus on gentle self-discovery and transcendence of the self, rather than specifically informing productive action. That being said, spending time getting to know one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions can often yield insights that inform many aspects of life. Meditation practice would be the most common example of a type of contemplative practice. Start with an app like Ten Percent which has guided sessions by expert teachers.
11 & 12
11 and 12 are like changing gears, out of productivity/individual mode and into the other spaces of life. Other connection is central to combating the tendency to become very ego-centric. It is about nurturing the bonds we form with the people in our lives, the places we live, our pets, our plants, our prized objects, our spirituality, our ancestry. Indigenous psychology has a strong emphasis on these connections and sees them as critical for good wellbeing. ‘Other connection’ is about reminding ourselves that we are a critical piece of a rich latticework of connections, binding everything in the universe together. It isn’t us vs the world. It is us intricately woven into the world.
Fun and play are our chance to not be driven by outcomes, by goals, by constant striving. Rather it is about finding those activities that bring you happiness and joy in the moment, without the requirement that engaging in those activities leads to growth or improvement or increased productivity. Studying and working at university can leave us viewing everything as achievement-based, whilst play and fun remind us that humans sometimes just want to enjoy the moment, without it being connected to achievement of any type. These are the activities that you do, just because you can and because they are fun. Fun and play can often be social as well, enhancing other connection.
Pick one and start optimising
Reading a list of 12 areas of life to improve is likely overwhelming.
Don’t focus on all 12. Pick one and think about something simple you can do to progress yourself a little further in that area. In future posts I will look at each of these areas and suggest starting points for action. As an example, I decided the other day to utilise my standing desk at home specifically when I had meetings (of which there tend to be at least 1 per day). This is a very simple modification but contributes to improving the physical activity domain through a reduction in sedentary behaviour.
In the meantime, if you aren’t sure where to get started, maybe just contemplate which of these areas you think you are doing well in, and which might be sensible to focus your attention on. For me, I can see that in the last couple of years I have prioritised 1-8 and neglected 11 and 12. Thus 11 and 12 will be areas I will seek to improve in the coming years.