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Are you following the right to-do list?

3 April 2017

For today’s academics, balancing personal and professional demands can be a difficult, often futile task. Roel Snieder and Jen Schneider, authors of the recent book The Joy of Science, reveal the seven principles that scientists should adhere to if they want to be happy and successful

The 2015 film Waffle Street is based on the true story of finance manager James Adams. After losing his job for being involved in unethical financial transactions, Adams decides he wants a more hands-on job and finds employment in a diner, which is part of a chain. He soon learns that employees who have worked for 1000 hours are entitled to buy a restaurant from the chain.

Despite his change in career, Adams cannot rein in his entrepreneurial self and works hard to be able to purchase a restaurant. He faces many humiliations, sells his house to free up capital and finds his marriage under severe stress. Just when he is almost able to buy a restaurant, doubts arise. While talking with the restaurant’s cook, who questions if Adams really wants to be a restaurant owner, he comes to the conclusion that he does not – he was merely caught up in the game. Adams switches plans yet again, in search of a more meaningful livelihood.

Better balance
Adams’ story may resonate with many of us, whether we are hedge fund managers or scientists. As academics, how often do we find ourselves racing to complete certain tasks that we aren’t really committed to in the long term? Indeed, there are times when you reach an important goal, only to find it leaves you feeling unfulfilled and chasing after the next sign of success. To what extent are our professional choices and career trajectories influenced by external pressures, or by our perception of what we “should” do?

The answers to these questions are diverse. But, as we wrote our book The Joy of Science: Seven Principles for Scientists Seeking Happiness, Harmony and Success (Cambridge University Press, 2016), we had the opportunity to reflect on our choices and listen to colleagues struggling with similar issues. A common thread was the issue surrounding work–life balance, with colleagues worrying over how to prioritize their personal and professional commitments. Such tensions are partly caused by external pressures, but part of the burden is self-inflicted. Whether you have taken on one too many tasks, or feel that you must attend every single conference in your field, or are urgently trying to boost your publication rate, being a scientist in today’s fast-paced academic workplace seems to involve significant stress.

Rule of seven
This raises some fundamental but crucial questions. How do you identify what is most important to you? How do you make choices about what kinds of work are most significant? How do you develop a healthy and sustainable lifestyle while also being productive at work? Coming up with the formula to achieve a happy and productive life is no mean feat. But we believe that the solution involves tapping into seven traits for those seeking success.

1. Move away from the unattainable ideal of “balance”. Rather than aiming for equilibrium while trying to juggle all our various personal and professional commitments, we suggest trying to aim for harmony instead. In music, harmony is achieved when individual chords and tones come together to create a well-rounded sound. An enriching personal life can fuel creativity at work, while professional successes can foster a feeling of contentment in general. Building enjoyment and beauty should be central to our lifestyle, rather than peripheral to it.
2. It may seem that the path of least resistance is to yield to the pressures of overworking. You may, for example, drown in thousands of e-mails rather than prioritize a pending project. It may take courage to explore how to follow your own priorities. It also may take courage to recognize when you are out of harmony with your goals and with those around you, and to make corrections.
3. Of course, this means knowing what your priorities are and how to achieve them. To do this, you should develop a vision for your personal and professional life and then make choices that support it. In practice, we may not spend enough time coming up with a plan, and this can leave us feeling directionless. Spending time strategically planning what you want for your life, and refining that vision from time to time, is a key step toward joy and success.
4. Channel and develop your curiosity. Scientists are naturally curious, but we frequently resist being curious about our personal lives. Curiosity encourages you to ask important questions about your choices. Are you curious about your own motivations, habits and patterns? Are you curious about the lives you impact? Cultivate an introspective and inquisitive mindset and don’t be afraid to jump into something new.
5. Each one of us sees ourselves in a certain way, but it is also important to note how others view us. Listening helps us to take things in. What, and who, do you listen to? And when should you ignore others’ voices and listen to yourself and your own needs? The day-to-day demands of life may overwhelm our internal dialogue. Take the time to process your thoughts.
6. Do you have compassion for those around you as well as yourself? Do you frequently find yourself sick, tired, run down or angry? Modern work ethics promote a ceaseless drive to push on and do more. When unchecked by compassion this can lead us to push others, and ourselves, in ways that are unhealthy and detrimental for creative research.
7. Integrity is often equated with honesty, but we argue that integrity means much more. Personal integrity means that the different aspects of our professional and personal life are integrated – we bring our whole selves to our work, and make space for our humanity. We lead an undivided life.

Given the frantic pace and demands of modern life, embodying these characteristics may be a challenge. In The Joy of Science we offer tools and exercises that help integrate these characteristics into our lives as modern scientists, so that we can have more fulfilling careers.

Roel Snieder is the W M Keck Distinguished Professor of Basic Exploration Science at the Colorado School of Mines, US, e-mail rsnieder@mines.edu. Jen Schneider is associate professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University, US and director of the PhD programme in public policy and administration, e-mail jenschneider@boisestate.edu