January 7, 2014

The Science of Work-life Balance

By Stella Hartono

 I always consider New Year's Day as a great time for self-introspection: to look back into what I have accomplished in the previous year and think of ways to improve myself. One of the consistent subject for assessment is how I divide my time among my myriad of responsibilities, and that is why I chose this topic for the blog.

As an MD/PhD student and a single mother to a 14 year old girl, people often ask if I have work-life balance. I assume the question refers to how I juggle the demands of being a medical/graduate student and the responsibilities of being a mother. My response was that “I do not believe in work-life balance. I take each day as it comes and make it work.”

I have a problem with the term “work-life balance.” First used in the late 1970s, “work-life balance” is defined as “the achievement of equality between times spent working and one’s personal life.” So, let’s do some math on how we should spend our time. All of us have 24 hours per day to spend. If we assume eight of those hours are spent for sleeping and grooming (shower, bathroom breaks), that leave us with 16 hours to divide between work and personal life. If you have a full time job, you spend eight hours/day at your job, leaving you with eight hours to spend with your family. Great! Balance had been achieved.


Work Life Balance Infographics, courtesy of Captivate.com. Click to enlarge.

Work Life Balance Infographics, courtesy of Captivate.com. Click to enlarge.

If only it is that easy. There are quite a few problems with trying to solve the “work-life balance” this way. For instance, I have been known to spend excessive amounts of time doing experiments in lab. However, I absolutely love what I do and derived great personal enjoyment out of it. On the other hand, despite my insistence on having a clean house, I detest doing housework. So, does the time I spent in lab get filed under “work time” while the time I spent cleaning my house fall under the heading of  “personal time” or vice versa?

So how should one achieved this elusive state called “work-life balance?” Some people argued that to be able to be successful in both work and personal life, you need to be able to multi-task. For instance, I can write my research paper at home while at the same time watch my daughter paint her latest art masterpiece. I personally never able to get that to work, since I will either end up focusing on the paper and never realize my daughter managed to spill paint all over the floor, or – more often than not – find myself painting with my daughter and not getting the paper done. In my defense, a very smart man called Albert Einstein said that “any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” I am glad that Albert and I agreed on that score.

As I stated earlier, I decided that I am not going to worry about having “work-life balance” and just make things work one day at a time. That means some days I will stay in the lab for 14-15 hours because I have a long experiment, while at other days, I will stay home sewing Halloween costume for my daughter. At the end of the day, I know I have achieved “balance” in my life since the last time I spent a couple hours with my daughter watching the latest episode of her favorite Japanese anime, she turned to me and said, “Mommy, don’t you have homework to do or something?” Well, I take that as a sign that my daughter does not feel deprived of my company.


I do would like to know how everyone out there handles the multiple responsibilities in their life. Please share your comments and suggestions!

Tags: children, research, student, Uncategorized, work life balance

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