What is a work-life balance? 

Image reference: https://dadbloguk.com/dads-work-life-balance/

Firstly, I want to challenge the notion that it is a ‘balance’, and propose that a better term may be ‘work/life/family/friends/health fit’. Can you ever truly balance something that is inherently fluid and constantly changing? Will ‘work’ and ‘life’ ever truly be equally distributed? If you are doing something that you love and enjoy, I believe it is much more than just ‘work’. The very notion of trying to divide ‘work’ and ‘life’ implies work is a chore, an unenjoyable task that we must complete to then enjoy the ‘life’ part. I believe that this division is not constructive to leading a fulfilled and happy life, and promotes the mindset that ‘work’ is bad and ‘life’ is good. I for one love my ‘work’ – placements at medical school, recording podcasts, planning conferences are all things I really enjoy doing. Equally, I value spending time with my friends and family, exercising and exploring new places.

My life is not evenly split between ‘work’ and ‘life’. In fact, my work-life fit looks very different each month, evolving as my goals and objectives I change. For example, during March when I was revising for my exams, it was 95% work, 5% life. Then in May, when my exams were over, it shifted to 5% work, 95% life. Neither are sustainable in the long run, but this is where ‘knowing your seasons’ is so important. I knew March would be crazy work-wise, hence I was able to plan a relaxed May for down-time. I hope you are beginning to realise that a work-life fit is not ‘one-size fits all’. What works for me may not work for you. Equally, what works for you at A-Level may not work for you at University. I have made many mistakes on my path to figuring out what a ‘work-life fit’ is, and recommend that you read this post with an open mind and trial suggestions to see if they work for you. I highly recommend making mistakes, because if I hadn’t made the mistakes I did, I wouldn’t have had the much-needed prompts to address my less than ideal work-life situation. It is never too early to optimise your work-life fit, when you crack it, you will have a productive and fulfilled life and will thrive.

What is the ‘work’ part? 

One of the things I love most about medicine is the sheer volume and diversity of knowledge that I can immerse myself in. Not only is there so much existing knowledge to learn from, but the medical field is continually evolving and expanding every day with new ground-breaking research and collaborations. The sky truly is the limit. However, this is equally one of the hardest things about studying medicine – there is no end. There is no finite checklist. There are always more things to learn. This can make it incredibly challenging to know where to stop. 

How many more details do I need to know about this topic? Ooh, I’ll just read a bit more about this treatment as I’ve not heard about it before. Gosh, I would love to spend a bit more time looking into this!

It is SO easy to get sucked into a work-vortex, where it becomes difficult to justify any of the essential ‘life’ activities that make you happy. In my pre-clinical years, I felt the need to justify every small thing I did that wasn’t ‘work’. Writing this blog post and reflecting, I’m not sure where this attitude stemmed from – certainly not my parents or teachers. I think the extremely high talent and work ethics that I was/am surrounded by at medical school fed my fear of falling behind or not working hard enough. Little did I consider that the amount of studying and time spent working does not always translate to a happy and fulfilled life. It can do the opposite. It can isolate you. Whilst academically I was successful, placing second overall in Years 1 and 2 combined (in a cohort of approximately 350 students), I felt lonely and burnt out. I thought that to do well at something, I needed to devote all my waking hours to that single thing, which was the Medical course in my case. I would wake up at 7, have breakfast and then work from 7:15 to 8:30 completing tasks on my never ending to do list. Working for every waking moment is not sustainable, and I discourage you from doing it! A crucial part of achieving a good work-life fit is being self-aware, consciously recognising unhealthy working/life behaviours as they occur and taking action then and there to adjust. If you wait until you have burnt out to assess where you went wrong, you have wasted precious time where you could have been getting back on track sooner.

 Burnout: avoid! Image credits: https://neurotracker.net/2019/09/17/its-official-burnout-is-realand-its-on-the-rise/ 

What is the ‘life’ part?

Your ‘life’ part is going to be very different to what my ‘life’ part looks like. This should be activities that feed your soul. Things that bring you joy. It may include going for a walk in the evenings, baking, reading a book (because you WANT to, not because you have been set it in an assignment).

  • It is essential to take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
  • You can be busy, but does business = happiness? Is being busy 24/7 sustainable? 

How to make a better work-life fit:

Step 1. RECOGNISE an imbalance. This is step 1. You cannot change something if you are not aware it needs changing. If you haven’t already, reflect on the past couple of years. Do you wish you took more down time? Did you feel happy, comfortable, stressed or anxious? Do you think that your work-life fit would be sustainable moving forwards

Step 2. ASSESS what YOU want in your life.Write down the things that matter most to you. Once you have got your list (make it as long as you want!), rank the things you’ve listed in order of priority. You will probably find that if you enjoy your ‘work’, some of your things that matter most will involve your ‘work’. This could include ‘to keep on top of all my lectures’, ‘to do well in my final exams’ to name some examples. Your list of priorities will also likely include some ‘life’ things, such as ‘spending time with family’, ‘exploring the outdoors, ‘trying new things’. These are the things on the list that we are often told, and know, are important for a happy and healthy life. However, these are also usually the first to go out of the window in favour of squeezing in more ‘work’ things. This is where self-advocacy comes in.

When times get stressful and work-load ramps up, it is all to easy to tell yourself that you ‘haven’t got time to go for a quick walk’ or ‘should be working more’. Self-advocacy means you stand up to those thoughts and advocate for the ‘life’ activities to make sure they are not neglected. _Realistically_, you are likely to work MUCH better following a short walk. You cannot be productive if you are not putting your own mental, physical and emotional wellbeing first. 

Make A Plan 

Image credit: http://mehelpme.com/

Look at the list you wrote for step 2. Highlight the top 5 things on your list. These are your non-negotiables, the things you will make sure you do if nothing else gets done. It could be FaceTiming your family every evening, making a cake on Sundays, spending two hours every Saturday reading medical journals – whatever it is, make sure you do it.

How are you going to make sure you do it? Schedule it in. Write them on a to-do list to check off each week. I want you to look at the week ahead and plan when you are going to spend time on the most important things to you. Writing it down will keep you accountable. The hard part of ‘finding time’ is done, so now you can go about your week knowing that the plan is in place and you have plenty of time for everything because it is scheduled. 

I personally began to schedule my morning exercise into my calendar. This helped me visualise that I DO have time for it, that I could take 30 minutes to do something I really enjoy before diving straight into my Uni work. Then, after I did this for a couple of weeks, it formed an ingrained habit, and now exercise is an integral part of my week. I no longer feel guilty for spending 30 minutes not working, because I know that a) it is important for my physical and mental health and b) it actually makes me more productive for the rest of the day. 

REFLECT 

Is what you are doing working for you? Are you spending too much time with friends? Are you studying too much? It is NOT a bad thing to realise you are not using your time in the way that works best for you. The only bad thing would be continuing on in this vein without making necessary tweaks to optimise your work-life fit.

Key Takeaway Messages 

  • Know your season. It is okay to work really hard for one month, it is not okay to work 95% of the time indefinitely and will likely lead to burn out.
  • Plan. You’re much more likely to fit in all your work AND life tasks if you plan your days. You can take control of how you spend your time.
  • You have a CHOICE. No-one else can decide how you spend your free time – it’s up to you whether you want to work flat out in your room, or enjoy a film with friends.
  • Don’t neglect spending time with friends and family. At the end of the day, working without any down-time may help you score 1st decile in your exams, but it is unlikely to make you a happy, fulfilled and well-rounded doctor.
  • There is more to life than studying. Medical school is challenging, and you need resilience to thrive. Resilience often comes from having a good support network and healthy coping strategies to deal with stress and pressure. You are unlikely to have these things if you study 24/7.

Finding a work-life fit isn’t easy and you will get it wrong many times. Through the four steps outlined above, you can take control of your work-life fit and find what works for you. Let me know how you manage your work-life ‘fit’ in the comments below!

Written By Ciara Irwin

If you enjoyed this article by Ciara, make sure to check out her podcast, How to Become a Doctor, where she talks with guests all about the application process, different medical schools, how to survive and thrive at medical school, different careers in medicine and more.

Here are links for you to access the podcast: