In yesterday's discussion, I finally got a partial glimpse of the issue when NatC observed:
Discussions about how to manage and plan protected pockets of time OUTSIDE work to do whatever - walk the bulldog, play music, train for a triathlon, watch baseball, play with your kids or nieces/nephews ir travel - would be extremely valuable work/life balance discussions to have early in this sometimes crazy career.
In full disclosure this has rarely been a problem for me. I've managed to get to where I am today (such as it is) with what I think is a healthy balance of work-to-life. Obviously some, including my spouse, might disagree but the important thing is that I think this is the case. We're talking personal, subjective "balance" here and nobody can define it for you. If you have reached it, you are going to be relatively happier and if you feel imbalanced you are going to feel sad* about it.
Yes, I for damn sure wish for more hours in the day. Yes. Of course. And at each and every major stage there were things being neglected so that I could pursue some other thing. Either in the proximal, days to weeks, or in the long-haul, years to decades(!), perspective. But I have never been an obsessive and any fair read would fail to find any major imbalance.
How did I do it?
I think the most useful and general approach is that you have to be willing to fail.
Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!
I was not, I think, willing to fail at getting the PhD. This was a defined, obtainable target for which the steps were mostly clear to me. Do the research, write that shit up into a dissertation and bob's your uncle.
After that? Well, yes, of course I wanted to succeed career-wise. In one of the professorial paths preferably. But I was willing to...not. To fail.
There have been several defined choice points at which I did the considerably sub-optimal career move for the sake of issues that we shall encompass under "life". (Also career moves which might have in the long run been suboptimal but looked great** at the time. Some of this initial appearance was influenced by "life".) Sometimes I did this out of unthinking ignorance, I will admit. I didn't perhaps realize the magnitude of the risk I was running. But I for damn sure knew there was risk. Risk of not making it in some way. Of not getting on the independent research track. Of not getting funding...or not keeping it. Of letting the lab and research program crash down to nonviability.
This hasn't stopped and it continues to this day.
Is my virtue untested? Some might observe that. From the perspective of some it looks like I have a pretty schweet gig***. From above the waterline it looks okay. Something a disgruntled postdoc or Year 3 faculty member might think is pretty much IT. As in "career accomplished"...all it takes now is running it out like you always wanted to. No risk.
I don't see it that way. I still risk failures of various sorts. Mostly the big axe is the grant funding....and it is a big one, hanging over my head more often than it is not.
So much like the disgruntled postdoc and the terrified junior faculty member...I could always work harder. More. Put in more grants. Squeeze out more papers. Refine my lab efficiency to maximize the data. Chase small project funds. Woo more trainees. Hit the seminar circuit harder. Go to more meetings.
All of this would probably benefit my career. It would make things go better professionally. We'd be more productive, no doubt.
I choose not to. That's it. There's no secret. There's no special case of insulation from the risks of choosing not to work harder than the next person. You risk paying a price.
Balance implies tradeoffs. I've certainly found it to be so. There are costs to go with every benefit. Costs that may be "just" stress, may be health issues (mental or otherwise), may be definable career failures. Having "life" balance makes this inevitable. There will be tradeoffs****, people.
This is my answer to NatC's question. Choose. Choose to take the time. Make room for what is important to you. Realize that by doing so you might fail. You might.
I know for damn sure they've failed at life.
And that I was never willing to risk.
*don't get a puppy to cheer yourself up.
**so we won't count these, at the time they seemed really pro-career.
***and I do, I do.
****of course it goes both ways. you may be choosing a career path that really isn't compatible with your desire to tour Europe with an opera group every summer. You may have to give up some of the "life" stuff