One aspect of life that I’ve been focusing on this year is trying to find the right balance between work and everything else. (I won’t call it work and play because I think work can be play if you find the right type of work. And I won’t call it work and life because meaningful work that you’re passionate about should be a part of life and not separated from it.) Despite having gone through the trials and tribulations of high school, college, graduate school, and years of professional work, the struggle with finding the right balance continues to be real.
How can I find the time to do what I need to do for work, with all its responsibilities and deadlines? And how can I find the time for everything else? For the company of friends that gives me the chance to connect, kvetch, and laugh out loud? For the solo time that allows me to reflect on the day, process the highs and lows, and figure out what’s important to me? For the exercise that helps me decompress from stress and build up endorphins? For the sleep that gives me the chance to rest, recuperate, and re-energize for the next day?
While I’m in no way an economist, I always think in terms of costs and benefits, and I always advocate a cost-benefit analysis whenever I (or anyone else) am trying to make a decision or craft a strategy. In looking at this particular problem, I evaluate the priority of each piece relative to the others and make decisions based on costs and benefits, both short-term and long-term. The analysis gets complicated if I put too much thought into it, so at some point I need to trust my gut and accept what comes.
Work matters. Whether you’re a student doing coursework or a parent taking care of children or a professional engaging in professional tasks, work matters—or at least it should. While I understand that some people won’t prioritize work over personal matters, I believe that we should find meaningful work that drives us daily to add value to the world. And if we care about it, we should find it the time it deserves. Not only do we derive joy and satisfaction from work done and done well, but we also demonstrate competence and commitment to those we work with. This has short-term and long-term benefits, especially in terms of acknowledging that those we work with matter and setting ourselves up well for future opportunities.
If your work doesn’t matter, consider whether you’re in the right course or field or setting for you at this juncture. If not, is there a way to get out? If not, how much longer do you need to stay? Can you persist until you find something more fulfilling? More importantly, do you care enough about those you work with to find the necessary time to get the work done and done well? Even if you don’t like the immediate situation, consider the short-term and long-term costs to you and your colleagues before letting the work go by the wayside. Consider the impression and legacy you want to leave behind. Do you care at all? If so, think about the minimum amount of time you need to get the work done (if not necessarily done well). If not, think about where you want to re-direct your work time. Perhaps to your social time in talking through your situation with others who can offer direction and guidance. Perhaps to your solo time in finding work that’s more meaningful to your daily life.
Even for the most introverted of us (myself very much included), the opportunity to interact with others is critical to ensuring that we feel connected to family, friends, the community, and even strangers. You define how you socialize, whether it’s with one other person, three to five people, or an auditorium of people you know or don’t know. You also define where you socialize, whether it’s participating on an intramural sports team, volunteering at the local food bank, or making dinner together. In this age of technology, you can socialize with a phone call to your mom, a group chat with your friends overseas, or a video game session with players around the world.
Sometimes you have something to say; other times you simply want to be around people who care about the things that you do. Everyone varies in terms of how much social time they need. The key question is whether you’re getting the minimum amount you need to feel connected to others—to feel heard, supported, and understood. If you’re not, how do you feel? Are you negatively impacted in noticeable ways? From what area(s) are you willing to pull time to find more social time? Time is a zero-sum game, which means that a plus in one area is going to require a minus in another area. That said, consider where you’re willing to pull time from to devote to your social connections.
In contrast, even the most extroverted benefit from the opportunity to reflect on what’s going on in their lives—their priorities, their successes, their mistakes—without the critique and criticism of others. And with our daily lives inundated by real news, alternative news, and lots of content and information of varying interest and quality, it’s helpful and therapeutic to step away for some amount of time, just to be alone with our own thoughts. Whether it’s a long drive down the coast, a walk around the block with the dog (which means you don’t have to be completely alone), or a day camped out reading at the coffee shop, solo time can involve others being around, as long as it’s focused on you.
Similar to social time, everyone varies in terms of how much solo time they need. However, from the time that we’re young and in school, the world makes us feel like we ought to be with people. Consequently, solo time is often hard for a lot of people to appreciate and understand—and thereby get and give. I’ve had many a student, friend, and colleague say, “Why would you ever watch a movie or eat a meal by yourself?” My reply is usually that I value time to simply be me, rather than me relative to everyone else around me. Whether it’s a few minutes of meditation or a few hours in your room, consider how much solo time you need to get centered and motivated, and whether and how you can find it in your day or week.
HEALTH & WELLNESS TIME
While this time can easily overlap with social and solo time, I wanted to address it as a separate and unique category of time because I believe we don’t give it as much attention as we should. We often believe that our bodies will do the bidding of our minds—at least until our bodies get injured or break down. That’s usually when we perk up and consider changing our ways. Think about how you felt after that all-nighter or double-nighter. How you felt when that cold or flu hit you after not getting much sleep all week. How you felt when you ran after not running for weeks or months. If these examples don’t apply, I’m sure you can remember times when you felt awful from a lack of regular exercise, sufficient sleep, or both.
When we’re dealing with responsibilities and deadlines, this is the category of time where we generally pull time from. However, the reality is that the costs almost always outweigh the benefits when we pull too much time from health and wellness. That’s because we lose the clarity of mind that allows us to do our work better, to navigate our relationships better, and to focus and think better. Have you ever had a situation where you functioned better (in any sphere of life) with little sleep? How much better do you feel when you’ve been exercising regularly? Because we need our bodies to function at all (and hopefully for many years to come), think critically about whether you want to pull time from this category when you’re trying to make up a shortage elsewhere.
While I have no specific directive as to how you should manage or proportion your time (though I know many of you might think you want that), I think it’s critical that you assess how you currently use your time, and whether your current usage allows you the opportunity to offset your work time (however much you love your work) with social, solo, and health and wellness time. You know how you feel when you’re off-kilter, so it’s worth it to consider what makes a day or week feel balanced. Because it’s hard to find the right balance of time in the span of a day, it’s definitely more reasonable to consider the right balance in the span of a week, where you can shift allocations from day to day and still achieve overall balance at the end of the week.
Ultimately, your decisions will revolve around how much you value each category of time. For me, the priorities are generally work (because how I add value to the world through my work is most important to me) and health and wellness (because my ability to function well impacts how I do my work, interact with others, and treat myself). However, in times of difficulty and stress, I’ve often pulled from health and wellness and social time. To counter that, I’ve had to devote more hours to solo time to recalibrate and consider next steps.
That’s what life’s about really—this constant shift between different categories of time, all of which are important in some way, but vary in their level of importance as situations arise and priorities shift. Consider what your ideal balance is at this point (and other points) in your life, and what adjustments you need to make to achieve that ideal balance. And ask yourself why that’s the ideal balance. At the end of the day, that may be the most important question to answer.
Hoi Ning Ngai is currently the Dean of Academic Advising and Support at Kenyon College. Having been in academic affairs and advising for over a decade, and worked at institutions of higher education across the United States, she is committed to helping students find and become the best version of themselves in college/university—and craft and tell their stories over time.