Julie Gould: 00:08
Hi everyone, it’s Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. And welcome back to the Muddle of the Middle.
Now this mid-career “muddle of the middle” comes with a lot of demands on your time. And learning to manage this time can help you get through the muddle.
So in this episode we’re going to hear about how some people manage their time to find some balance in their careers, whilst avoiding crumbling under all the pressure.
And we're also going to find out how changing your perspective on this ever-elusive work-life balance can bring feelings of fulfillment and joy to your life.
As you move into the mid career you might find that a lot more opportunities come your way.
Andrea Armani: 01:06
And every new opportunity is going to seem like a shiny new car, right? It’s something you want to do and something you want to have. But you’ve also already made commitments to past opportunities. So it’s very hard to say no to these new things that you want to have, the new shiny toys.
Julie Gould: 01:31
This is Andrea Armani. And she is the Vice Dean and a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Southern California in the US.
And for Andrea, the mid career has been really, really busy. And she spends about half of her time on administrative work.
Andrea Armani: 01:47
I look fondly back on my early career days. And when I was an early career researcher, I never thought I would say that.
That’s the big change. Shifting from being able to hang out with students in the lab, you know, travel with my students to conferences, to now really doing more of, politely speaking, thought leadership.
But it’s, you know, it’s a lot of committee work, task forces, behind-the-scenes work that has to get done. Somebody has to do it.
And, you know, that somebody ends up being the mid career faculty.
It was over a span of three years. I went from having, like, a few committees, to suddenly having 30. Because I counted at one point. So it was a lot of time.
Julie Gould: 02:41
When she first started in the mid career, Andrea was only one of two female full professors in her department, which meant that she got asked to join a lot of committees.
Now, not everyone is going to sit on 30 committees, but the mid career does become rather busy. So how do you manage your time? And how do you make sure you don't burn out?
For Andrea, it was two things. The first was to learn to say no to some of the opportunities that came her way.
When these opportunities come to you, think about whether or not you actually have the mental capacity to take them on.
And also, whether or not this opportunity will really benefit you and your career. Now the other thing that she did was to make sure that she carved out some personal time to spend with loved ones.
Andrea Armani: 03:25
You know, I have date night, every Friday with my husband. That’s our deal, super important. And I make sure I get home and time to have dinner with my husband every night.
Because that is super important to have a healthy relationship with your spouse.
Julie Gould: 03:41
Managing your time, says Inger Mewburn, Director of Research Development at the Australian National University, is all about learning about yourself.
Collecting data about how you work and what you spend your time on can help you see where you’re being efficient, and where there’s some room for improvement.
Inger Mewburn 03:58
I measure every second of the day that I work.
Julie Gould: 04:00
To do this Inger uses a program called Timing, which you can use on a Mac, or the equivalent for PC users is called Rescue Time.
And this kind of software can be installed on your computers. And it basically observes how you spend your time and then learns your working patterns.
Inger Mewburn 03:10
That data is critical. And I think scientists will appreciate the data to see “How long am I spending on email actually? How long am I spending in meetings? When I have to write a paper how long does it actually take me?”
And then using that data to thoughtfully plan ahead. That is the biggest tool in my arsenal. It’s the collecting of that data that's really tricky, but these programs make it easy.
Now if you’re aware of your practice while you’re a mid career researcher, and you really watch what's happening, you can start to find the ways to sort of finesse that.
And I must say I’m quite obsessed with it. It becomes an end in itself the old productivity thing. But well worth doing.
Julie Gould 05:00
Do you have any flexibility in that time management?
Inger Mewburn 05:09
You know, no, I don’t. I build I build in ambiguity, which is, I think, different from flexibility.
So what I do is I try to put buffers spaces in to my diary. And I have an ongoing list of things that need to be done with time estimates against them.
And so when I get to a buffer space, it is a bit of a mood thing. I look at my list. I go, “Okay, there’s a two hour job, let’s just do this in the next two hours, right?”
So I don’t necessarily say this two hour piece of work has to happen at this time, because there is a certain mood thing to do that.
But then, also, the other thing that you look at that list, it’s either the time it's going to take, how you feel about it in terms of your energy, and how urgent it is.
And so boring, urgent things for me get done at the last minute. Fun things get done way, way ahead.
And then the boring urgent stuff is squeezed, but there's no flexibility,
Julie Gould: 06:02
I’m fairly certain I can say that most of us have done this before, getting the really good and exciting stuff done really quickly, and at the very first thing, and leaving the really boring stuff until the last minute.
As she is someone who schedules every minute of her day, I asked Inger what she puts into her calendar as fun. You know, the work life balance stuff. It turns out, it is a climate crisis activist, and she spends her weekends going around the community to talk about this.
Inger Mewburn 06:31
This is what I do for for fun in my 50s. To not die from environmental catastrophe,
Julie Gould: 06:39
This is something that really motivates her. So she makes room for it in her diary. And it often includes meetings as well as lunches. So they get scheduled in too.
Inger Mewburn 06:48
Family stuff goes. Friend stuff goes in. And then the rest of it has got to be fitting that toothpaste of work back into that tube. And how that happens day by day is a little ad hoc. So that's the only flexibility I allow in it. There’s a bit of mood. I think creative work needs the right mood.
Julie Gould: 07:09
Quick side note here. Inger says that the data she collects can also come in really handy when she has a dispute with her management about how she spends her time.
Inger Mewburn 07:18
I could actually pull out these graphs from my computer and slap them on the table and say, “What would you like me to stop doing in order to do that other thing? Because this is already more hours than you pay me for.”
Julie Gould: 07:34
Now, to backtrack a little I found it really interesting to find out why she measures every second of every day in her working life. And it's because it’s part of her protocols, to stop her having another mental breakdown.
Inger Mewburn 07:46
I’ve had two breakdowns in my mid career stage.
And the second one really taught me. The first one I recovered from and I thought “Oh, well, so that was bad, don't want that to happen again, luckily I’m fit now.”
And I had vulnerabilities and then two years later it happened again. First time I was out for about six weeks. Second time I was out for about two weeks. I got better at it. And I vowed that the second one that wasn’t going to happen to me again.
And so then I've put some very, very strict protocols in place to try and manage that
Julie Gould: 07:50
Inger saw a therapist to help her get out of these breakdowns.
Inger Mewburn: 08:00
Therapy is great because you’re not burdening your partner with some of these stresses and issues. Therapy can really help you get clear on what’s important to you. People go to therapy like I did the first time in a crisis. And that’s like going to the doctor when someone's cut off your leg and saying “Grab a Band Aid.” Like, it’s better to go early, set up that sort of support network.
Julie Gould: 08:49
So we heard from Inger about how she makes sure she has time for fun friends and family in her week, that ever elusive work life balance. And this for many academics is the holy grail, something that everyone strives for.
But on reflection, and I’m sorry to put a dampener on this, I believe that work life balance is misguided.
I don’t think this metaphor fits with how we see working and all the other stuff that we do.
To me, it brings to mind that work and life are in a constant battle with each other and ignores our reality.
Jen Heemstra: 09:25
The goal should never be to achieve balance because balance doesn't exist, right? The goal is to avoid imbalance for too long.
Julie Gould: 09:33
This is Jen Heemstra and she's a chemistry professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. And she has a really good way of visualizing this.
Have you ever been to the gym or had a baby or backache and have you ever used or seen a Swiss ball?
It's one of those giant, often blue, bouncy balls that you can sit on.
Now imagine one of those cut in half and over the top you put a circular plastic board that you can stand on, so that the half Swiss ball is underneath. This is called a balance ball.
Jen Heemstra: 10:03
And you’re supposed to like stand on it and try and balance right? Like, you’re always constantly adjusting.
You know, you never hit a point where you're like, “Oh, I’m perfectly balanced.” And if you do, then you like, flinch, and then you’re back, you know, trying to adjust again,
Julie Gould: 10:17
This is true for every career stage. But I think more so with the mid career. And as there are more dimensions in your life, you need to split your time in more and more ways. The balance ball shifts in more and more directions,
Jen Heemstra: 10:29
You know, you’re like, “I have this, I need to get this done.” And everything’s going you're working late for a few nights or for a week, but then you’re thinking “I need to be spending more time with my kids.” So you're like, “Alright, how do I carve out more time to spend with my family next week?”
And oh, “Wait, no, I didn’t get to exercise, I want to, I want to take a few months, and really, you know, train for a marathon or, or something like that.”
Or, you know, “Oh, my goodness, something is happening with my parents and drop everything and go do that. But then how am I gonna make up that work later on?”
Julie Gould: 10:56
I think the key is not to achieve perfect balance every single day, or even every single week, or month or year. But to look at the bigger picture
Jen Heemstra: 11:05
Over the long term is this all evening out? You know, over the long term, am I achieving kind of the mix? Am I able to allocate my time in ways that I’m happy with?
I think we pretend like there’s some right answer, like we think hard enough will be like 73.82% like, that’s the answer.
That’s how much percentage I should spend on this. And 43.68. That's how many hours I should work every week or something.
And it’s like, that just doesn't exist. And so I think it’s just constantly saying, “I can’t do it all. I wish I could do everything all the time, and I can’t, but am I happy with the ways that I am balancing it right now?”
Julie Gould: 11:49
Cara Tannenbaum, a clinical researcher and professor at Montreal University in Canada agrees. She doesn’t believe in this concept of balance either.
Cara Tannenbaum 11:57
But what you can seek is fulfillment. In the pizza pie of life, there's going to be one slice that just is always going to be missing. Some people get it all and I'm happy for them. And, you know, good for them.
But for me, I had to accept that in the pizza pie of life where you have your family and your career and your health and your friends and your loved one and your hobbies.
There’s going to be different moments where you're going to have to prioritize. And for me that’s about quality and fulfillment, not necessarily perfect balance.
Julie Gould: 12:32
Now seeking joy and fulfillment in your career and life is something I can totally get on board with.
For many mid career researchers, despite the challenges that they face, they can find it.
But the middle of the middle for some coincides with a mid career crisis. And it’s difficult to find this joy and fulfillment when you're stuck in a crisis.
So in the next episode, I’m having a conversation with MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya, who shared some advice on how to reframe that mid career crisis.
Thanks as always for listening. I'm Julie Gould.