Study-life balance and work-life balance are phrases that are thrown around a lot, with many of us wanting to achieve this holy grail of perfect balance between all our responsibilities.
But how realistic is it? How often do we achieve the kind of study-life balance where everything runs smoothly and you feel at peace with your to do list and progress? Is this even possible?
In this episode, I dive into the misconceptions around study-life balance and walk you through what you need to do to feel more balanced in your university studies.
Using real-life examples, I share 5 strategies to help you implement these ideas so you can achieve and maintain a healthy study-life balance. You’ll learn how to prioritise your study tasks as well as your commitments in your work, home and personal life so as to make more progress, achieve better grades AND feel a lot less stressed.
This post originated as a podcast episode which you can listen to below or search for episode 19 of the Chloe Made Me Study podcast. Or, if you’re more of a learn-by-reading student, carry on for the rough-and-ready blog version based on the podcast script.
Ways to listen:
- Listen in the player above
- Click to listen on Apple Podcasts.
- Click to listen on Spotify.
- Click to listen on Google Podcasts.
Work-life balance or study-life balance is like the holy grail, right? Something so many of us seek. This beautiful paradise where your attention and focus is split perfectly between all your responsibilities, where everything runs smoothly and, although you’re working hard, you feel at peace, balanced.
But how often does that happen? How often do we collapse onto our sofas and think, “everything’s running smoothly, I’m operating at my prime in every single area.”
Me? Not bloody often, if at all.
So I think we need to change our perspective here, shift the goalposts and learn a few strategies to achieve, if not balance, a bit more acceptance and progress in the areas that are most important.
The idea of study-life balance can be damaging
Because, I truly believe that we can do and have everything we want in life. An exciting career, successful studying, fulfilling relationships and friendships, fun hobbies and social life. But it’s just not possible to excel in every aspect of every area at once.
And I think it’s damaging to imply that work-life or study-life balance is even achievable. Or it is in the sense that so many of us aspire to. Referring to balance implies that there’s some art or science to balancing the different areas of your life and that if you haven’t found it yet, you’re not trying hard enough or there’s something wrong with you.
Study-life balance can be like spinning plates
Now, in my book I talk about study-life balance using the idea of the circus act of spinning plates on sticks. The idea that each plate represents an area of your life and the difficulty in keeping all of them spinning at once with no breakages.
But I’ve found a better analogy – still a circus act but a different one. Which is also a lesson in itself. My learning in this area has deepened, my thoughts are changing, so I’m updating my ideas.
Nora Roberts on study-life balance
Earlier this year, a series of tweets by writer, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, went viral. She shared some advice that Nora Roberts, the powerhouse author of more than 200 books, shared at a Q&A event.
“Someone asked Nora how to balance writing and kids, and she said that the key to juggling is to know that some of the balls you have in the air are made of plastic and some are made of glass. And if you drop a plastic ball, it bounces, no harm done. If you drop a glass ball, it shatters, so you have to know which balls are glass and which are plastic and prioritize catching the glass ones.”
I LOVE this analogy so much. Achieving quote unquote balance is not about learning how to juggle faster or how to juggle more balls, it’s not about running yourself into the ground to keep up. It’s about prioritising your tasks and responsibilities so you don’t drop the more important ones.
Jennifer clarified that the balls don’t represent areas of your life, but individual elements. It’s not that you have a ball each for studying, work, health, family, friends…etc. Nora wasn’t talking about juggling 5 balls, she was talking about juggling FIFTY FIVE balls. You’ll likely have 10 different balls or tasks for studying, 10 for work, 10 more for your homelife and so on.
Nora said “the point isn’t to prioritise kids over work.” She said, “some kid stuff is glass and some is plastic, and sometimes, to catch a glass work ball, you have to drop a plastic family one, and that is okay.”
5 key lessons to improve your study-life balance
1. Not all tasks are created equal
Let’s take our health for example. There could be 10 balls or tasks that you have floating in your mind at the moment – some are plastic, some are glass. Ordering some new vitamins might be plastic but booking that appointment for that thing you’ve been worried about would be glass.
Then let’s take your studying – tons of balls there (there are so many that’s what she said jokes in this episode so let’s just run with it!). Obviously the essay due next week that you haven’t even looked at is more important than that interesting journal article you bookmarked to read at some point.
All too often, we write to do lists by taking the contents of our brain and dumping it on a page. Then we try to tackle the list in the order we wrote the tasks down, or in the order in which we find easiest…rather than order of priority. I’m all about picking a quick win to get started, but focusing on tasks that are important is what helps you achieve this ‘balance.’ Which tasks will lessen your stress? Which tasks will help you make the most progress?
2. Your priorities will shift
Let’s say you prioritise finishing the first draft of essays 3 days before they’re due, to give you time to edit them thoroughly and increase your marks. This is a glass ball to you as you understand the benefits to your stress levels and grades. But your priorities will shift and are dictated by other areas of your life, right? If your child or someone in your family is sick…the priorities shift and that glass essay ball may become plastic, and the task is then to simply submit what you can.
In my last job I remember prepping for a very important meeting at work. I spent hours working on the presentation and I woke up early the day of to get ready – very much a glass ball. Until I got a notification that my nan had a fall and needed immediate assistance. Suddenly I couldn’t give a crap about the work meeting, that glass ball turned to plastic instantly and a new, precious glass ball representing getting to my nan’s house immediately was thrown into the mix. Luckily she was fine and the fall was minor.
So it’s important to remember that your priorities aren’t fixed. They will likely shift and change depending on everything else that’s going on. So don’t beat yourself up and fixate on tasks that would often be a priority but can’t be in this moment. Things will change again soon enough.
3. You WILL drop some balls (lol)
Remember what I said about how you can’t do everything? This is SUCH a tough one for me as I feel like I’m constantly letting people down. I want to be the best girlfriend, sister, daughter, friend, citizen ever. My negative self-talk comes out and starts measuring my accomplishment in these areas and identifying the areas where I’m falling short. I have to remind myself CONSTANTLY to give myself a damn break, and that these measurements aren’t even real.
So we have to accept that we’re going to drop the ball or balls over and over. In the same way it’s not possible to equally prioritise a number of things, it’s not possible to keep 55 balls in the air at once without some slips. The focus then can change to keeping the right ones in the air.
4. Prioritise glass (even when it’s uncomfortable)
Doing hard things sucks, right? How easy is it to just tick off the easy tasks, or even to add tasks to your list you’ve already done just so you can tick them off? I’m very much guilty of that at times. Now the important stuff isn’t always hard, some of our priorities are wonderful – nailing that work presentation, visiting or calling a friend who’s been having a tough time to cheer them up. But some are harder. Let’s say your last essay didn’t come with much tutor feedback, or the feedback wasn’t clear to you. It’s kinda a glass ball to contact them, right? And ask for more or more detailed comments so you can improve your skills and writing and increase your grades. This could be uncomfortable as hell for you. But once you recognise it’s glass, that task should be your focus.
Maybe you’re not sure how to work out what study tasks are a priority? My rule of thumb is this. Priority study tasks or glass balls or priority tasks are assessment related, they will directly or indirectly help you achieve better marks. So writing an essay but also breaking it down to make sure you understand the question or task. Emailing your tutor with questions about an upcoming assignment, or asking them for more feedback. Reviewing your feedback, improving your study skills, creating revision material, testing your knowledge…all priority tasks.
5. Be OK with plastic
I shared on Instagram that last week’s episode on increasing your attention span was late. Creating it was a glass ball to me at the beginning of the week. But then other things happened, in my work and personal life that were also glass balls. And you can’t prioritise everything. There’s always going to be an order of what’s the most important in each moment. So suddenly, my podcast which has been a priority since I started in June, had to shift down to plastic for a few days. I was so annoyed at myself at first! All those fun thoughts came out which were hard to shift – “what’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you more organised? Why did you leave it to the last minute?” and my personal favourite, “you’re not capable of running a business”
This was until I remembered Nora’s analogy. If we want to achieve that balance feeling, we need to be OK with dropping plastic balls. This may take setting some boundaries. Because everyone’s glass and plastic balls are different. Your plastic balls may be glass to someone else so there’s the possibility of some negative opinions. Rarely is cleaning my house a glass ball. Would I like it to be? In an ideal world yes. I love having a clean house. But out of everything else I have going on it just doesn’t make it far up the list very often. The times it does become a glass ball is when people are coming round. But, even when I do clean my home, I’ve gotten comments and judgement as to the standard. While these comments make me angry, they no longer make me feel ashamed, because I’ve accepted that I’m prioritising what’s most important to ME. So in this step you may need to set some boundaries or expectations with some people. And if you need some help with that, check out episode 8.
So, how do we achieve study-life balance?
OK, let’s distill those lessons.
Firstly, we need to accept that we can’t do everything. It’s simply not possible. The longer we cling to this ideal, the notion that things will be better once the task list is completed, or the ridiculous idea that life will ever quieten down in a few weeks, the more stress we’re causing ourselves. Once we accept that we can’t do everything, we free ourselves up AND we put ourselves in the state of mind to take action to make sure the most important stuff gets done.
So then we need self-awareness to categorise our tasks and responsibilities so we can work out what’s glass and what’s plastic right now. We have to accept that this is an ever-changing process and we’ll likely have to reprioritise daily, or sometimes hourly. Then we need some self-kindness to give ourselves a break, and to pat ourselves on the back for doing our best in the moment.
When does this balance feeling actually happen? I think it happens when we draw our attention and direct our energy to our glass balls first. If we’re making progress in these glass ball areas…THAT’S when the elusive, magic, “I’m doing alright at this life thing” feelings happen.
Next steps to improve your study-life balance
OK, so I’ve outlined the steps involved in achieving study-life balance, but I’m also giving you the opportunity to get my support as you work towards it.
Because, in my membership, The Kickbutt Students Club, you’ll get:
– a private community full of students who want to achieve awesome grades AND balance. So you can go on this journey with them
– weekly accountability prompts to help you identify those glass balls, and steps you can take to make progress on them. I’ll be around and checking in on you to help unstick you if you get stuck. Because I’ve definitely been in that position of wasting time focusing only on the easy stuff that’s not helping me make progress
– there’s virtual study sessions where you’ll study alongside me and other students on Zoom. These will boost your focus and productivity so you can tick off those glass ball tasks faster
– mini-trainings to uplevel your study skills, mindset and habit to make it easier to prioritise, overcome challenges and achieve balance
– and you’ll be able to ask me any and all your studying questions and get my personalised advice on your situation to help you make progress on the things that matter.
So whether you’re part-way through a degree or you’re just about to start, the Kickbutt Students Club is the place to be. Enrolment for the 23/24 academic year opens in early October. For early access and a waitlist only-offer, click here to join the waitlist.
Resources and links:
- Check out my membership, the Kickbutt Students Club.
- Check out my range of study skills trainings.
- Sign up to my awesome email newsletter – Students Who Graduate.
- Grab a copy of my book – The Return to Study Handbook.