Having kids really sharpened up my approach to academia. BC (Before Children), my nerdy scientist husband and I used to happily go into work together on the weekends, read and write in cafes, and generally take our sweet time about life.

As soon as kids came along, inefficiencies at work felt like time and energy stolen from our boys.

I’ve been an academic for more than 25 years; 18 years of those working half time and being the main parent at home with kids. Would I chart the same course now in balancing work and the rest of life? Probably not, but I’ve got no regrets. You do the best that you can at the time and I don’t see any point in wishing things were different.

1) Hit snooze if you need to.

Don’t get up at 4am to get that marking, class prep or paper corrections done. Ask for leeway when you need it. I’m surprised how understanding people are when they are given some context about why you can’t get work back when you said you would. Being tired makes everything 100% harder.

2) Talk it through.

Access counselling to help you sort through what you value in life and what you want with your career. Counselling isn’t just for emergencies. Talking to a trained counsellor is very different to talking things through with your partner, a colleague or a friend. Counsellors can help you negotiate the tricky conversations that you need to have to get a work – life balance that you are happy with and help you get clear about what you want and why you want it.

3) Declutter your ‘to do’ list.

Be careful when you get pitched work that is outside your negotiated workload. The big downside in cluttering up your ‘to do’ list means losing good quality time for tasks that require concentration. Also, additional work tends to vanish those small pauses and transition times. The overall result of saying ‘yes’ is a more frantic workplace and less patience at home.

4) Choose your collaborators very carefully.

This has probably been the one area that has had most effect on my ability to strike a good work-life balance. I know you can’t always choose colleagues, but knowing who you work well with makes a big difference in being able to seize opportunities to shift your workload to overlap with theirs. We all spend a lot of time at work, so finding people who you can trust and whose company you value is a gift that keeps on giving.

5) Figure out when to stop.

Figure out what’s appropriate to the task and stop when you have done enough. This comes with experience, but many academics have tendencies towards perfectionism and have a difficult time with letting something go when they know they could improve it. This is where a trusted collaborator is worth their weight in gold. Rather than pouring extra time in for diminishing returns, flick it to them for input.  

I constantly need to keep reminding myself about this list and just this past week have been up insanely early to finishing some writing. But being clear in my mind about what’s okay and not okay for me has made a big difference to my happiness at work and at home.

Dr Emma Pharo is a geographer and planner in Geography and Spatial Science, School of Technology, Environments and Design, and her husband is a senior research scientist at CSIRO. Their boys are 16 and 18 years old. (Banner image: Dr Pharo with her son Simon.)

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About Dr Emma Pharo

For the past 25 years Dr Pharo's work has been strongly aligned with the University of Tasmania's research theme of Environment, Resources and Sustainability. Her current work focuses on liveable cities and urban planning under the Better Health theme. She specialises in planning for improving walking and cycling as a means of moving around our towns and cities. With the assistance of PhD, master's and undergraduate research students, she bridges the action-practice gap between government strategies around active transport and getting changes to our roads and paths. Dr Pharo is a founding member of the multi-award winning Sustainability Integration Program for Students) that aligns student work with the operations side of the University.

View Dr Emma Pharo's full researcher profile