The Myth of Work-Life Balance, and the Healthy Way Students Can Achieve It

Breaking down the myth of the work-life balance, with tips and examples for how students can plan for and achieve a truly healthy and personal life.

Writing in a diary on desk

A lot of my friends used to laugh over the common university saying about the mythical work-life balance: “Study, social life, health. Pick two.” 

I’ve seen every kind of student on every side of that win-win-lose triangle. The one who studies and excels at self-care, but graduates having never really made any friends. The overachiever with a wide circle of friends and phenomenal grades, who runs themselves into the ground because they didn’t have time to look after their body – both physically and mentally . The socialite who gets nine hours of sleep and is at every party, but is just about failing all their classes. 

None of these situations are ideal. 

Work Life Balance Triad

The concept of work-life balance refers to the practice of equally splitting your time between your study and personal life. But when most students these days also have to maintain part-time jobs, look after their minds and bodies, study outside of school hours and cut out time for their family, friends and extracurriculars, the idea of work-life balance seems somewhat preposterous. 

Perhaps a little controversially, I’m going to – somewhat – agree. I don’t think it’s possible to have a completely even split between every aspect of your life, and if you try, you’re only going to exhaust yourself and burn out very quickly. Case in point: me. 

My first semester of university, every day I would wake up at 8am to go to my classes – about 4 hours; go to the gym and call my family in between – about 1 hour each; spend time with friends – about 2 hours; go to work – about 6 hours; come home to study – about 4 hours; and if you’ve done the math, you’d see I was only sleeping about 6 hours per night. And that’s without counting the time spent on my phone browsing through social media and texting friends. If I dropped the job, I didn’t have money. If I dropped my friends, I was lonely. If I lagged on my studies, my grades would slip.

Needless to say, after the first semester I was sick all the time, didn’t socialise nearly enough, didn’t have time to run basic errands like shop for groceries or do my laundry, and my grades were suffering anyway because I wasn’t getting any sleep. I was spreading myself too thin, trying to do absolutely everything, and it was no good to try and prioritise because all of those activities were important.

Was I crazy? Absolutely. 

Students face a lot of societal pressure to do everything, to achieve that perfect balance between every aspect of their life, and that is neither realistic or fair.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. 

Just because there aren’t enough hours in the day to do absolutely everything, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a little bit of everything. You just need to find the best way to split your time between all your responsibilities in the best way that works for you. Think of it like a pie chart – not all the quadrants will be equal size, but you’ll be able to complete all your tasks and necessities while remaining happy and relaxed. 

There’s no such thing as a perfect balance. But there is such a thing as a healthy balance.

Balancing on a skateboard

General Tips To Help You Balance Your Work and Social Life

#1 Get organised early

In your first week of classes, you’ll receive your syllabus,  you’ll be able to ascertain when your assessments and exams will be, so you can plan accordingly. You don’t need to study 30 hours a week during a more relaxed academic period – save that commitment for midterms and finals. On the other side of the spectrum, just follow along with the course from week to week, so you’re not cramming at the end or doing an assignment at the last minute. Your course load will be cyclical. This makes it easier to manage.

#2 Get a minimum of eight hours sleep per night

As an insomniac night owl who believed she was invincible, I guarantee that staying up to study will not take you far. Your body will catch up with you, no matter how much caffeine you consume, and you will burn out eventually. You can’t study if you can’t keep your eyes open in a lecture, and you can’t go to work or the gym if you’re damn near biting everyone’s heads off because you’re so exhausted. If your health suffers, so will your grades and personal life. When you’re not looking after yourself, it’s highly possible your immune system could weaken, making you sick and forcing you to take time off university.

#3 Workout to maintain health and fitness, and don’t make definitive goals

You don’t have to hit the gym every day or wake up at 6 AM to stay healthy, which is all you should really be aiming for if you already have a full plate. Go to a gym class between your actual classes. Go for a walk as a study break. Incorporate your social life, and bring a friend to a yoga or Zumba session. Keep moving, keep active, keep healthy – but don’t knock yourself out. If your weeks are too busy, you can find ways to exercise just from walking to class instead of taking the bus, taking stairs instead of the lift.

#4 Make studying the new socialising

Speaking of incorporating your social life into an existing schedule, start a study group with your friends! That way, you’re hitting two birds with one stone, and get the benefits of being able to stay on top of your work as well as getting your daily dose of socialising. No matter whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, people need people, in whatever helping you like. We as humans crave social interaction, and it should be just as important to you as everything else.

#5 Shut out distractions

Procrastinating is completely normal and part of human behaviour, so you should forgive yourself if your mind wanders while you study. That being said, you can eliminate the temptation and give yourself a fighting chance. There are all kinds of apps that help you focus, from temporarily blocking certain websites to sending gentle reminders to get back to work. Check out this list and test out which app works for you.

#6 Give your brain a rest

If you live on campus or close to campus, and commuting doesn’t play a big role in your schedule, then try and split up your timetable across several days. This will give you time to breathe and focus on each of your subjects, and allow you time in each day for different activities. Your brain needs to rest, and your brain needs variety. Overloading it with information isn’t productive or conducive to your study. If you’re able to spread out your schedule, you’ll be able to take in information, go to work, see your friends, do a little bit of study or homework for the subject you attended that day, and get a full night of sleep. Seems like a sweet deal to me.

#7 Become a list maker

If you feel swamped, list out everything you have to do and break it down into little tasks. This makes everything seem a lot less scary and a lot more manageable.

Studying with friends

The Push-Pull Between Work-Life

If you prioritise your studies…

In university, grades are not everything. When all is said and done, chances are high that your future employers will be more interested in you as a candidate if you have a B average but a whole array of extracurriculars, social connections and stories, over an A student who never left the library or gained life experience. It’s important to get the best grades you can get, but academic success doesn’t always ensure wisdom, empathy, ability to work with others or problem-solving skills… all of which are necessary traits required not just in the office, but in everyday life too. 

There’s a great movie opening scene that exemplifies this idea – 21 (2008). A mathematics major at MIT is applying for a scholarship at Harvard Med School, but is told that despite having perfect grades and an impeccable resume, the dean of admissions is looking for someone who has rich ‘life experience,’ who ‘jumps off the page,’ who ‘dazzles’ him. Watch the scene for yourself! 

Now, the protagonist ends up getting involved in a card-counting scheme, so I don’t at all advise following in his footsteps. 

What I do advise is to push for academic achievement and do your best, but not at the expense of your dreams, your friends or your university experience, just to make a grade – a grade that will be a distant memory  five years into the future. What you will care about is that trip to the beach you took with your friends, the nights you spent just chatting until the sun came up, going to trivia nights and silly dress-up events and making memories to carry with you for life.

Academia is important, but so is living.

Work and play neon sign

If you prioritise your social life…

Hey there, rockstar. Trust me, I get it. You’re about to be twenty-something, living out of home in a new amazing city, and you’re not going to live with regrets. 

The thing is, you may end up having those regrets when you graduate in three years with a report card that only shows you did the bare minimum to scrape by without getting expelled… especially when you know very well you could have done better if only you didn’t hit the club every Sunday night. 

You’re at university to study, and while I told your work-heavy counterpart above that you need life experience just as much as you need grades, the reverse goes for you. You could be everyone’s best friend and the life of every party, but as much as you can charm your way through a job interview, they still need someone who can actually do the job. Your crazy college stories aren’t so interesting when they’re the only thing you talk about. There’s a whole world out there that trying just a little harder in class can help take you to, and so many things you can achieve.

I know you’re bored in your commerce class, or you don’t understand why the periodic table is going to help you live a meaningful life, but they are merely stepping stones towards one day chasing a greater passion or making a difference in the world. You’re already a social animal – now get the grades that will let you use that charisma to make an impact. 

Hit the books Monday – Friday. You can go crazy once Saturday rolls around.

Hands up at a nightclub

A Happy Ending

So, how did my work-life disaster end? How did I switch things up? Well, I spread out my classes throughout the week, as well as my work roster so I was only working in increments of 4 hours. I didn’t push myself too hard to study several hours a day, because I grew to learn that if I was tired, exhausted, or just straight-up not in the mood, I wasn’t going to absorb information anyway. I downloaded my lectures and listened to them while I went swimming or walking around the neighbourhood. I threw myself into extracurriculars to meet as many people as I could, and formed several study groups with the amazing people I met there. Plus we’d always go grab a beer after we were done with hitting the books. I allowed myself to slack when I needed it, and pushed myself when deadlines approached, and always made sure I was in bed by 11pm.

Sometimes, I would think – maybe I should have studied harder for that exam. I really wanted to go to that party. I really want to make more cash this week to buy that new outfit. But I always would know that if I’d pushed myself too hard, another area of my life would have suffered as a result. 

It’s like I said before – I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect work-life balance, unless you have more than 24 hours in the day or have a photographic memory or eight arms like an octopus. 

But a healthy work-life balance? Yeah, I’ve definitely heard of that.  

I’ll leave you with some great advice I once received: “Sleep more than you study. Study more than you party. Party as much as you possibly can.”