Work/Life Balance in Library School

by Laura Sanders

While graduate students in any field are prime candidates for burnout, it is my belief that library students face special challenges where work/life balance is concerned. We must pay tuition, but we are rarely offered the teaching assistantships or other forms of financial aid that our counterparts in other fields would receive. In addition to our schoolwork, we must obtain as much library experience as possible prior to graduation so that we can maximize our job prospects. Even those of us who are fortunate enough to land paying part-time library work find it necessary to broaden our CVs through volunteer positions or unpaid internships – often more than one! In order to sell ourselves to potential employers, we participate in conferences, blog, tweet, network, maintain digital portfolios, and try to find time for a beer once in a while. Such overextension can quickly lead to exhaustion and burnout…but in this economic climate where jobs are scarce, we’re all anxious to set ourselves apart from the hundreds of other candidates out there. So, how can we be successful librarians and lead balanced lives?

This is a question I’ve been grappling with throughout my first semester. I came to library school after several years in the workforce, in a position that I adored but that also demanded my every waking moment. After three years of seventy hour work weeks and a personal life that was in complete limbo, I finally admitted that my lifestyle was not sustainable. When I started library school in the fall, I wondered what changes I could make that would allow me to downshift. I still wanted to work hard, but I also wanted to enjoy my life.

So I decided to be systematic about how I spent my time in library school. I asked myself what achievements and skills potential employers would seek in me after graduation. I knew that varied work experiences and French language abilities would be high on the list, so I took a part-time job at a public library as soon as I could. I enrolled in a French class (I hope to find work in Montreal so bilingualism is important). I also signed up for two student committees, took volunteer opportunities when possible, and committed to presenting at one conference at least this year.

Although these activities have spread me pretty thin, probably too thin to downshift successfully, I feel I’ve made a good decision about how to allot my time. Happily, I also find that I am devoting a great deal more time to my relationship, family, and friends, leading to a much greater sense of well-being in my personal life. I do have more balance than I did before.

Even so, I still struggle. Letting go of my own perfectionism has been a major hurdle for me this semester. Sometimes I find myself thinking thoughts like, If I didn’t have so much to do, I would have a perfect GPA. Then I berate myself for not being good enough to do it all and have a perfect GPA. I continually have to remind myself that being well-rounded is not only important, but healthy.

The ACRLog has an interesting post on this subject. According to them, many libraries are experiencing difficulties attracting solid candidates in the Gen X and Gen Y age brackets to directorship positions, as the younger librarians prefer to devote more energy to their families and friends than to a stressful, demanding position that is not perceived as rewarding. While I am not sure that Gen X and Gen Y are really that easy to pigeonhole, for me the main point of the article was that the younger librarians are not pursuing advancement simply for the sake of advancement. They want their lives to be fulfilled in every context.

As librarians-in-training with many demands on our time, how can we avoid exhaustion and burnout? The website LIScareer has a list of articles that deal with these issues in a library setting. I can also share with you some time management techniques that have kept me sane this semester:

Limit your available time

I had a professor who always said, “Work expands to fill all available time.” I didn’t understand what she meant back then, but now I realize how true this statement is. Since I don’t want my work to dominate my life, I try to limit my available time. For example, just because I have all Saturday to complete a homework assignment doesn’t mean I have to take all Saturday to do it. I ask myself, could I finish it in five hours? If the answer is yes, I work as efficiently as I can to get it done in that five hour block. Ironically, I’ve found that the work I produce in these limited chunks of time is usually better than it would be if I dragged it out for days.

Ask yourself where your time really goes

In the same way it’s easy to lose track of how much money you spend if you don’t record every purchase, it’s easy to lose track of how you actually spend your time. I might tell myself that I worked on my essay until 3AM, but if I was checking Facebook every few minutes then that’s not really true. I want to exercise but keep telling myself I don’t have the time, when I could easily scrap the TV I watch before bed to get up early for a swim. Being aware of where your time really goes can make a huge difference in your efficiency.

Give your work all you’ve got – then leave

It used to be that the boundaries between work life and home life were a lot more distinct. You just left the office and that was it. These days, the onus is on you to set those boundaries. This requires some planning and communication, but a few simple changes can help a lot. Do schoolwork on campus or in a coffee shop, not at home. Tell your coworkers that you don’t check your work e-mail on weekends. Try to have an established routine even on days when you don’t have classes so that you don’t unintentionally end up wasting the whole day. Above all, work as hard as you can while you’re working – then get out of there and stop thinking about it!

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