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  • Writer's pictureDakota J.


Updated: Nov 5, 2021

How do you maintain sanity with such a busy life?

I started my first full-time post-higher education job in August 2015 and later started my full-time journey towards my Ph.D. in September of 2016.

I’ve been doing both full-time, and simultaneously, for nearly for years. Throughout this journey, I’ve learned a lot both academically and professionally, but most importantly, I’ve learned how to balance all of the different roles in my life.

A little background…

When I first accepted an offer for my full-time position at the University of Iowa, I was just finishing my second trimester studies at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. I had barely begun my master’s thesis, but I also knew that I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. Sure, I was ecstatic to receive the offer for my first full-time teaching gig, but I knew that accepting the position meant postponing one of my life goals.

After my first year of teaching, I returned to Europe for a few weeks at the beginning of the summer. I presented at the International Conference of Foreign and Second Language Acquisition in Szczyrk, Poland and then went to Barcelona for a couple of different workshops. Over the course of three weeks, I packed in three different workshops and picked up my printed master’s degree. (There’s a running joke in Spain that it takes a year to get your degree because it “has to be signed by the King”, but that’s a story for another time!)

Three weeks of professional development and networking at workshops and conferences about theoretical and applied linguistics really got me thinking that I wanted to start my Ph.D. as soon as possible. While in Poland, I because good friends with a few different people there that really encouraged me to begin researching the possibility of pursuing my doctorate in the next academic year. In Barcelona, I spoke with some of my closest friends in colleagues who also continued to encourage me and even helped me get started on a Ph.D. project proposal. These friends helped me connect with a potential Ph.D. advisor.

I was feeling so motivated and excited that I managed to get everything in motion before even leaving Europe. I vividly remembering sitting on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare on my British Airways flight that had just landed. I had just turned on my phone and had an email from a professor that I had been in contact with at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. She was very interested in the Ph.D. project proposal that I had sent her, but she wanted to read my master’s thesis, too. That made me very nervous, but I was happy to send it along. After jumping through a bunch of extra hoops, I was admitted into the Ph.D. program in English Philology at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona by mid-September.

Knowing that I wanted a career in academia, I specifically chose a Ph.D. program that I would be able to complete without giving up my full-time job.

How do I do it?

I try my best to set work-life-study boundaries. These boundaries include physical boundaries, mental boundaries, and some healthy habits.

Physical Boundaries

Maintaining a work-life balance is very important. While I have been working on this for the past four years, I would almost argue it is even more important in our new-but-slowly-becoming-regular remote working environment.

Over the past four years, I have been lucky enough to have physical boundaries for each my work, life, and study:

  1. an office and classrooms on campus for my teaching job

  2. my home where I can relax and spend time with my loved ones

  3. a home office in the lower-level (more private area) of my home for my Ph.D. studies

These separate spaces have been very nice and have made it very easy for me separate each of these parts of my life.

In the face of this pandemic, though, we are all working remotely until further notice. My partner had already been working from home on a bi-weekly basis, but now he uses our home office full-time. With that being said, my work office/classroom, home office/Ph.D. study space, and normal life have all converged at my dining table. This change was not welcome, but necessitated.

Simply, this means that I no longer have physical boundaries that separate my work, life, and study. I have to move books and papers to eat dinner. I find Ph.D. notes in some of my work folders and books. I’ve converted a drawer in my buffet to a new place to store things. This “new normal” is interesting to say the least.

Mental Boundaries

Since my physical spaces have all converged at my dining table, I’ve worked on setting some new mental boundaries to help maintain my sanity.

My typical teaching schedule includes teaching a 50-minute class at 8:30AM Monday through Thursday and a 2-or-3-hour block in the afternoons (1:30-3:20 on Monday & Wednesday, 12:30-3:15 on Tuesday & Thursday). In addition, I hold three separate office hours each week.

When I was on campus, this wasn’t too bad. I would arrive to work around 8:00AM and leave around 4:00PM each day. It was wonderful. In between my morning and afternoon classes, I would get my course prep and grading done so that I didn’t have to take anything home.

That doesn’t happen anymore. Everything is at home now and online. That’s a lot of screen time. To start to give myself a break and set some boundaries, I’ve taken to logging out of my university email and Zoom after my afternoon classes, so that I can try to maintain some sanity and “disconnect” from my work a little bit.

I’ve also started putting my phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode starting at 8:00AM. This silences all texts messages and notifications, and it only allows phone calls to come through if the same person calls you twice, consecutively. This helps keep me from getting sucked into my social media and spending hours scrolling through pictures, posts, and news headlines.

It’s still difficult. Even with these boundaries set, I still find myself answering questions at all hours of the day and night via Zoom chats and emails. While it is important to set these boundaries, my students are also in a very precarious position currently. I do what I can to help them when I can.

Healthy Habits

In addition to attempting to set physical and mental boundaries, I’ve also taken up / continued some healthy habits to maintain some work-life-study balance and sanity. Here’s a short list of some of the things I’m doing regularly:

1. “Bus Book” Reading & “Commute Podcast” Listening

In order to maintain some structure to my day, I’ve tried to take a few minutes before and after my workday to either read my “bus book” or listen to my “commute podcast”. My “bus book” and “commute podcast” are a book and podcast that I typically read or listen to for fun while I’m on my commute to and from work every day. That fifteen minutes of leisure reading or podcast listening does wonders for my mental health.

My bookshelves downstairs are full of novels that I’ve purchased over the past two or three years that I really want to read. I’ve spent so much time reading academic work or listening to academic talks, that this provides a little fun and escape for me each day. My current bus book is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyBook #2: The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. As for my current “commute podcast”, I am listening to Welcome to Night Vale. If you haven’t read or listened to either of these, you’re really missing out!

2. Practicing Tarot Readings

When I used to commute to work, I used to do a daily tarot reading to become familiar with the cards and learn how to apply them to my everyday life. That was a nice 10-15 minutes that I used to spend each morning. I’ve started doing this again, and I really enjoy it. Again, this just provides some structure to my day, even though my longest commute is from my bedroom down the hallway to the dining room.

If you are interested in reading more about my recent discover and experience with tarot, feel free to check out my post Recharge, Realign & Refocus: A note on tarot.

3. Physical Activity

Dog walks, dog walks, and more dog walks.

Whether it be mid-morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon, or after dinner, dog walks have been a lifesaver in our home. When either myself or my partner is feeling stressed, we take a 15 and walk the dogs around the block. It’s been great. We get some fresh air and exercise, and the dogs get to see more than the backyard.

‘This is a healthy habit that can also provide a physical break between tasks. For instance, if I’ve just finished my workday, but I’m not quite in the headspace to start working on my Ph.D., I can take the dogs on a walk to clear my head and collect my thoughts before starting a different stressful activity.

In addition to dog walks, we’ve also been doing an at-home workout program. We’ve been doing Insanity thought Beach Body on Demand recently, but I also occasionally enjoy just putting on a yoga video from YouTube. When I do a more high-intensity workout after sitting at my “desk” all day, it can give me some energy to complete some of my other tasks, Ph.D. or otherwise!

Prior to this pandemic, I was going to them gym regularly every morning. I would get up around 5:30 or 6:00AM and go to the gym for 30 to 60 minutes. It was a great way to start my day! I’ve found that regular physical activity can do wonders for my mental health. When I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed with my walk, I find that taking a short walk or completing a full at-home workout program can really relax me.

These are a few of the things that I’ve been doing to set physical boundaries, mental boundaries, and healthy habits between my work-life, Ph.D.-life, and life-life. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading! In the comments below, share some of the things that you do regularly to maintain your sanity–during a pandemic or otherwise!

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