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You wear a lot of hats. You’ve got your student hat, your work hat, your family hat, and your fedora. No? OK, scratch that last one if you want.

But, for real, you may be trying to juggle school, work, family time, catching up on your favorite shows, and actually seeing your friends once in awhile—without letting any of the balls drop.

Some days (i.e., most) the struggle is really real.

So what’s the upshot here? Well, being busy can actually be a good thing—up to a point. When faced with a choice between business and idleness, college students tended to choose being idle but felt happier when they chose the busy option, according to a 2010 study published in Psychological Science. Interestingly—when they weren’t given a choice and were forced to be either busy or idle, the busy students still reported feeling happier.

However, drowning in a bottomless to-do list or berating ourselves for not excelling at every single thing we’ve signed up for is a different story.

“No one ever gets it all done,” says Mary LoVerde, work-life balance expert, speaker, blogger, and author of I Used to Have a Handle on Life, But It Broke: Six Power Solutions for Women With Too Much to Do (Touchstone, 2002). “It’s important to know that you are not failing in some way. There really is too much to do and not enough time to do it.”

Forty-five percent of graduate and professional students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do in the last two weeks, and nearly 80 percent said they felt overwhelmed at some point in the past year, according to the American College Health Association’s 2016 National College Health Assessment. For undergrads, the numbers were slightly higher. Nearly 56 percent felt overwhelmed in the past two weeks, and 86 percent felt overwhelmed at some point in the past year.

The strain of trying to do it all can stretch some students too thin. A 2009 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that more than half of students who dropped out of college did so because the stress of juggling both work and school got to be too much. Half of those who had dropped out also said that family commitments were one of the main reasons they weren’t able to go back.

Quitting your job, school, or personal life isn’t an ideal option—so how can you achieve that coveted goal of work-life balance? And what does that even mean, anyway?

Work-life balance: The gist

True balance means you don’t feel shortchanged in either work or life, says Dr. Catherine Pearlman, assistant professor of social work at Brandman University in California. For example, you’re able to make time for family and friends in your downtime between work and school, and then when you’re at work or school, you can participate without feeling like you’ve missed something important at home.

Creating balance means connecting with whom or what you need to each day, says LoVerde. “Balance is not about getting ‘it’ all done. It’s about connecting with what matters most,” she adds. 

Father balancing finances with young girl on lap

To find balance: First determine what you value

When you talk about values, you’re really exploring core priorities—for example, family, personal interests, work, and particular causes, says Dr. Randy Simon, a psychologist in New Jersey, who specializes in work-life balance. Determining what it is that you value can help you determine what to prioritize and what you can let go of, at least while you’re in this particularly busy point in life.

“I value the time I have with my violin, the time I have to work on my projects, time outdoors in nature, and my time with my boyfriend,” says Melanie C., a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. “I don’t know that I have a fixed balance; it is quite fluid and depends on what is in my schedule.”

Still, you’re always going to have to do some things that you don’t value highly. For these situations, it’s about reframing your thoughts. Look at what you get out of the experience and why it’s important. “It makes sense to look at your life as a whole—you may hate being a student, but the certificate or degree you obtain can help you move forward,” says Dr. Simon.

“I value my family and my close personal relationships the most,” says Jordan B., a second-year graduate student at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

That may be a prescription for a happier and healthier life, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed men and their families for over 75 years. The study’s biggest finding? “Social connections are really good for us,” says study director Dr. Robert Waldinger in his TED Talk. “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community are happier, physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well-connected.”

When we’re buried under deadlines and obligations, how do we make room for what matters? Try these tips from our experts.

Adult male studying in library

1. Use your energy wisely.

We have a limited supply of energy to get things done each day. Do your most difficult tasks when you have the most energy and save the easy stuff for when your energy is lower, suggests Dr. Patricia Raskin, psychologist and professor emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

What that might look like

Our window of peak productivity varies from person to person. For many of us, starting about two hours after we wake up, we get two and a half hours to be a human machine, says Dr. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and developer of the time-management app Timeful. For example, if you get up at 8:30 a.m., your peak productivity window may be 10:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m. Your own body clock may be different; do the math. “If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want,” said Dr. Ariely on Reddit (2014).

  • Use your most productive time of day for tasks requiring memory, concentration, and alertness (e.g., assignments).
  • Work in a low-distraction environment.
  • Turn off gadgets and avoid internet use that’s not related to your goal task.
  • Take 15- to 20-minute breaks every hour or so. Research has found that breaks are vital to maximizing our productivity.

2. Ask yourself: What can I delegate or skip?

Often, we think we have to do it all ourselves to be successful, but that’s usually not the case. “Being able to delegate is an important skill that is vital to the health and well-being of any worker/student/parent,” says Dr. Pearlman.

What that might look like

Ask family members to help out with housework. Ask friends and neighbors to carpool or share parenting tasks when possible. Have a roommate? Suggest you split the cost of groceries and cook a few big meals together that you can portion out throughout the week. Most people are genuinely happy to help, but often they don’t know it’s needed until you ask, says Dr. Pearlman.

How students make it work

“Just think, ‘What are the chances that this will really matter next week/month/year/decade?’ and ‘Are there other things that are more deserving of my time and attention?’” —Chad W., online student, Utah State University

3. Learn how and when to say “no.”

Don’t say “yes” to anything that isn’t required for work, school, or life if it doesn’t meet one of your goals, says Dr. Pearlman.

What that might look like

We sometimes say “yes” to avoid the difficulty and discomfort of saying “no,” according to Columbia psychologists Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008). Fortunately, there are ways to make our “no” feel more comfortable:

  • Create a concrete excuse: “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”
  • When you have your most important priorities already blocked off on your calendar, you’ll be able to see when you actually do have time to help out. Offering those times to help out can make saying “no” even easier.

How students make it work

“Learn to say ‘no’ so you can say ‘yes’ to other things more worth your time. Always ask yourself after an event or activity—was that worth it? Should I do it again? How should I do it differently?” —Hennie W., recent graduate, University of Toronto, Canada

Mom doing yoga with child on floor

4. Pencil in the fun stuff.

If you want to spend more time with family and friends, relaxing, or doing the things you love, actually set time aside in your schedule for them, says Dr. Pearlman.

What that might look like

Maybe you work nights, but you don’t want to miss time with your kids. Try making the mornings your bonding time by making their breakfast, packing the lunches, and walking to the bus stop with them, says Dr. Pearlman.

How students make it work

 “As a graduate student, I feel a constant pressure to spend my free time doing work. However, I find it helpful to schedule in time for myself to relax or socialize. If I don’t plan ahead for leisure time, I’m likely to fill it up with work and end up feeling burnt out.” —Taylor G., third-year graduate student, Saint Louis University, Missouri 

5. Prioritize your well-being.

“When we get stressed and feel balance slipping away, we stop doing what we know will support us,” LoVerde says. “We give up exercising and eating well. We cut back on sleep, skip breakfast, cancel dental appointments, or forget to call [family] as often as we did before.”

Try to prioritize self-care with these three things:

  • Sleep
    Not only do we feel better after a good night’s sleep, but also it helps us do better academically. A 2014 study in Social Science & Medicine found that students who got at least seven hours of sleep leading up to an exam scored 8.5 percent better than students who got six hours or less.
  • Exercise
    Exercise is good for your brain, improves learning, and can help fend off depression, says LoVerde. Regular physical activity is associated with a lower risk for depression, according to a 2013 review of 25 studies published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Even moderate exercise—such as walking for 20–30 minutes a day—may help prevent future depression, according to the study.
  • Meditation
    “Meditation lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol [and] improves sleep,” says LoVerde. Even five minutes a day can reset the mind, Dr. Simon adds.

“There is simply no substitute for stilling the mind and moving the body—every day,” says LoVerde.

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Article sources

Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW, assistant professor of social work, Brandman University, California.

Mary LoVerde, MS, ANP, work-life balance expert; speaker, blogger, and author of I Used to Have a Handle on Life, But It Broke: Six Power Solutions for Women With Too Much to Do, Colorado.

Patricia Raskin, PhD, psychologist and professor emerita, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.

Randy Simon, PhD, MBA, psychologist, New Jersey.

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