For the benefit of the incoming graduate students, my department in college used to take surveys of everyone about what they would do if they were starting graduate school over again. (They called this “Starting Over,” and it was such a fantastic idea that I shamelessly ripped off the idea when I came here. Here are our results.) As interesting as all the comments were, I was always most fascinated by the clear difference between the current student responses and the faculty responses. The current students tended to dispense wisdom about academics, research, and the minutiae of navigating a Ph.D. A lot of “study hard for your quals” and “start writing your dissertation early.” The faculty, though, rarely mentioned such details. Rather, they focused on…..well, how to stay human. They tended to submit entreaties to go outside and exercise, to make time for family and friends, to stay healthy, and so on. Not exactly what we’d expect from a profession that is notorious for its workaholism (which also seems to have led to a serious case of caffeine addiction).
So what’s going on? These faculty members are presumably the successful ones, so an interpretation of their advice is that they’re (1) expressing regret they didn’t live better when they were younger, or (2) telling us the secret of their success. The aforementioned study on the working habits of scientists might make us doubt the latter interpretation. So if you’re looking for yet another reason to feel guilty for not working all the time, well, here you go. But I think this oversimplifies the situation. First, one’s optimal work-life balance is not static over time — one’s needs as a graduate student are different from those as a young professional which are different from a mid-career person. So what might seem workaholic now maybe will be more comfortable in 15 years, or vice versa. Second, work-life balance has a great deal of person-to-person heterogeneity. A lifestyle that is balanced for one person may be too overwhelming for another, and too freewheeling for a third. The effects of this balance on one’s actual productivity are also not as simple as we might think. I know some folks who seem to work almost all the time, and yet they don’t seem to accomplish a whole lot. On the other hand, I know someone who has more fun than almost everyone I know, and yet he’s reached a level of professional success most of us can only dream of. (I’m still talking about scientists, by the way!)
Perhaps the takeaway, then, is not only to take seriously the need for balance, but to consider seriously one’s very individualized needs for it, rather than letting it be determined by cultural or social norms. The work-life balance you strike should be the result of your deliberate choice, and not the inevitable consequence of external pressures or other choices you make. If faculty wisdom is to be believed, then it sounds like you won’t regret it.