Overview: The pressures of studying or working at university are real. I’ve been thinking a lot about the kinds of habits those of us at uni might need to develop to balance these pressures. In this post I explore the 12 habit areas I think are worth developing to build a better study/work experience. Reading time ~ 10 minutes.
Working at a university is awesome. There, I said it. 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.
Since arriving (back) at Flinders in 2017, I’ve been thinking about what we need, as individuals, to be doing in order to balance these pressures, to be productive, but also happy and contented.
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, but also better work-life balance/ study-life balance.
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.
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 (i.e Flinders). Whilst this post focuses on individual optimisations (that has been my interest since arriving here), that doesn’t render the organisation responsibility-free. 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 focusing on what we can do as individual 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 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 prioritising 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 and nervous system (the interface between you and the rest of the world) are working as well as they can.
5, 6, 7 and 8 are those activities that drive us forward. 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 and 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: Studyology.
Reading/learning/professional development are how we keep our knowledge and skills current and up-t0-date. As a student 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.
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 combatting 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. 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. Those will be areas I will seek to improve in the coming years.
Stay tuned for further discussion of these 12 areas.