All Work and No Play: Even College Students Need a Work-Life Balance
June 27th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
There’s no doubt about it – going to college demands a significant investment of time and energy. You have to be focused, engaged, and have a well-developed time management plan. It’s easy to feel up for the challenge at the start of a new term but the intensity of a demanding schedule can cause stress over time. The pressure of keeping up with classes, assignments, and other responsibilities can feel overwhelming and eventually lead to burnout. When that happens, something has to give and that may be your ability to cope, your performance in class, your grades, or worse, your health.
So what can you do when it seems that the only option you have available is to stay focused on your school work and sacrifice your personal life, interests, and responsibilities? The answer is to develop a strategy that will create a work-life balance, and it doesn’t have to be a complex plan either. Whether you include some “me” time during the week or schedule a longer break, you will likely find that there are immediate benefits for your school work and your overall well-being.
Work Life Balance Matters
College students understand the importance of a work-life balance for their career. A survey was conducted this year by the AfterCollege career network, of over 1,100 college students and graduates from 800 colleges. Participants were asked about factors they valued most when evaluating potential employers and work-life balance was the highest ranking factor – scoring higher than salary, benefits, and location. A more extensive survey was conducted by Universum, an international employer branding company that also helps job seekers learn more about potential employers. The survey gathered 59,000 responses from undergraduates at 318 universities and colleges and the results found that students (and graduates) held job security and work-life balance as a top priority for their job search.
While it is easy to point to a need for having a work-life balance, developing a standard definition is not so simple because individual needs vary. Some college students are going to school and working, and others are only going to school. Online students often have jobs and other responsibilities that demand their time and attention. The Gallup Business Journal, an international news publication, has conducted extensive research about this topic and found that work-life balance is often a matter of individual preferences and what person holds as being most important for their life. Regardless of what your priorities may be, it comes down to a matter of well-being as the primary definition of a work-life balance.
As a result of Gallup’s research, five forms of well-being have been identified as an individual trait across numerous countries and cultures:
Career Well-being: If you enjoy your job you are likely to devote more of your time to it. The same is true for college students and their studies.
Social Well-being: If the relationships in your life are most important then you will want to make time necessary to be involved in those relationships.
Financial Well-being: Some people are driven by the pursuit of financial well-being, which is often directly related to the time spent in their career.
Physical Well-being: If this is a priority for you, you will make certain it is included in your time management plan.
Community Well-being: This is another social aspect that may be a priority and is related to participation in community events.
When you consider work-life balance from a well-being perspective, it then becomes possible to identify what’s most important to you. It will also explain why there can’t be a standard definition or one-size-fits all approach to work-life balance. Some students are focused on the completion of their degree and starting a new career, which drives them to work hard. Other students may value their school work and career plans, and still want to devote time to their personal relationships. What can happen over time is that you can become so focused on one particular aspect of your life that this imbalance causes stress, frustration, anxiety, and even health-related issues. Regardless of what you value most, you also need to devote time to your mental and emotional well-being.
Why You Need a Break from School Work
Having a purpose for your school work and being driven to complete it is certainly necessary if you want to do well in college and complete your degree. However, you cannot keep up a frantic or demanding pace for an extended period of time. At some point you need to think about giving yourself a break. What I’ve discovered as an educator, which further confirmed what I learned as a student, is that a mental break – for a time period ranging from a few minutes each day to several hours or days – can result in a sense of renewal and helps bring improved clarity.
Taking a mental break is especially helpful when you are struggling to come up with new ideas or solutions. A short time off can help to produce some “aha” moments, which will greatly benefit your school work. In Creating the AHA moment, it reminds us that these moments do not come about intentionally and when “you are using the logical left side of your cognitive brain to solve an on-going problem, you are more than likely to get stuck and frustrated.” Mark Beeman, a neuroscience researcher, has found that 60% of the problems we need to solve are actually done with the “aha” moments. Your work as a student often involves developing original ideas, especially for written assignments, and moments that provide new insights may be just what you need.
Creating a Work-Life Balance
The first step to the development of a work-life plan is to assess your priorities. Consider what aspect of well-being you have been the most focused on and what other aspects of your life are also important, especially those areas or responsibilities that you have set aside. The purpose is to identify your core commitments and determine how you can make the most of your time. Dave Logan, a University of Southern California faculty member and management consultant, doesn’t believe a true work-life balance can be attained and provided the following alternative perspective:
“The only question is how will you make your 168 hours each week matter? The C- answer is you'll respond to things as they come up — this makes you reactive. The B answer is that you'll balance life and work — because you'll end up sacrificing one for the other and never really do either very well. The A answer is you'll express your core commitments, constantly discussing the tradeoffs with everyone in your work and your life.”
What this indicates is that you can remain focused on what’s important and make decisions that keep you on track, even if this results in a plan that doesn’t equally balance everything you do each week. For example, you may need to devote 40 hours to your job and 10 hours to your school work and classes. An effective work-life balance is not about creating an even amount of time for each of these areas; it is meant for you to include other important priorities into your weekly plan.
This approach is important for college students as you have made a commitment to an improved future by starting your degree program and you want to maintain that momentum. To accomplish this goal you’ll also need a flexible mindset as your work-life balance is likely to change on a regular basis. If you find that you have been focused strictly on your school work for any length of time and you are struggling to come up with new ideas or you feel stressed out, then you may need to include a short break for renewal. Development of a work-life plan will help you remain focused and adjust imbalances that become unproductive or unhealthy.
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