Why Work-Life Boundaries Don’t Work


While there are no shortage of books, blog posts and courses offering advice on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of this advice is not particularly well-suited to PhD students. There are a few reasons for this.

When it comes to completing a PhD, there is no denying that the boundaries between work and home life are particularly prone to becoming blurred. Apart from the fact that these projects can feel incredibly personal to us, the time commitment and dedication it requires to complete a PhD is quite unlike most other pursuits.

For those who can approach the PhD like a conventional job and turn their minds off when the clock strikes 5pm, they are lucky. But from my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, the PhD doesn’t quite work like that. It’s a rigorous process, but also a creative one, and as it is with any creative endeavour, we can’t always schedule our creativity into ‘normal’ working hours. Consequently, techniques for achieving an optimal work-life balance are not always suitable to the unique circumstances of PhD life.

A second reason why some work-life balance techniques may not be particularly appropriate for doctoral students relates to the difference between physically bringing work home and mentally holding on to it. During my time as a doctoral student, what I noticed is that as much as I physically left my work behind on weekends or holidays, I couldn’t quite escape the mental weight of it. As much as I would decide to take time off, my mind was still very much focused on it, and not in a positive way. I would either worry about the particulars of the project or feel general stress about whether I would ever finish it.

Allowing work to creep into our downtime, in either a physical or mental capacity, is often a symptom of deeper anxieties and insecurities. Moving beyond this requires us to investigate the thoughts and internal chatter that arise in relation to our work. Since most work-life balance strategies deal primarily with the symptoms of the imbalance –  instead of the deeper roots of it – they can only go so far.

Moreover, the notion of drawing boundaries between work and life is limited by its starkness. Choosing between work and free-time can often lead to feelings of guilt, or the nagging sense that we ‘should’ be working. In this regard, constantly placing our downtime in opposition to our work, tends to facilitate an either/or choice in regards to how we spend our time. So instead of ‘drawing boundaries’ it may be more appropriate to adopt the terminology of cultivating space – space for something other than work in our lives. Not only does this subtle shift in terminology create room for other projects, interests, passions which are distinct from our PhD projects to emerge, it ensures that we do not take our work too seriously, too personally or allow the process to become all-consuming. This is perhaps the most important step we can take in achieving a healthy work-life balance.