Achieving Work-Life Balance As a Student

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

12 November 2017

The Faculty of Science at McGill requires professors to give roughly 9 hours of work per 3 credit course. That’s lectures, (3 hours per week) assignments, quizzes, exams, labs all in one metric.

Doesn’t seem so bad, right? But then say you’re taking 5 courses…

That’s now 45 hours a week, still not so bad! Seems like a 9-6 job, with weekends off!


Take 5 hours for commute, 8 hours for exercise, 2 for laundry, 6 for meals, 3 for cleaning… Now throw in some part time work, personal projects, socializing, sleeping…

Good luck with your work-life balance.

It becomes painfully clear that it’s basically impossible to have any kind of relaxation time in there.

But! As someone who spends 4-6 hours a week researching and writing about productivity, I’m always looking for ways to make the most of the available hours.

But this post isn’t just about efficiency, it’s about how to “FEEL” like you’re working less, even though you’re more productive than ever. This is how to spend less time “feeling” like you’re working, and more time actually working, so you can fully enjoy the time that you’re not.


The usual disclaimer, I don’t have it all figured out, this is just what I’ve gathered, dreamed up and tested, and what works for me.

A Case Study:

Last weekend my family and I took a trip to Quebec. It was right after midterms, and all the work I’d pushed back (due to midterms) had piled onto that weekend. Multiple assignments, a quiz and the usual weekly blog post were all due during or just after that particular weekend.

It times like those, it’s easy to stress out, get resentful of the great times you’re about to have, and even think about cancelling.


Instead, organize yourself to do a full out sprint before and after the time-off so that you can fully unplug, and not even have to think about your work while you’re enjoying quality time with family, friends, or just relaxing.

I think it might be useful to do a full breakdown of my week before and after the trip, to get an idea of what I did differently, and how it worked out fine.

First, we need to look at what a “normal” week looks like. Super quick and oversimplified:

-Wake up at 6am

-At campus by 7:30am

-Work 1-2 hours until my first lecture (depending on the day)

-Go to lectures, work in-between, take 1 hour for lunch.

-On Monday/Wednesday/Friday, workout from 6:30-8:30

-Tuesday/Thursday, study until 7:30.

-Home by 8 or 9, in bed by 10pm.


Super boring, but that’s my typical week. But now we can compare to what a “heavy” week would look like.

Sleep is a big priority of mine, so that doesn’t get cut. Same goes for working out. So how to fit more work in?


Week’s Plan:

I started with an overview. What needs to be done by when, and how long do I expect it to take:

That week I had:

-Discrete structures assignment                                   ~8 hours

-Systems programming assignment                             ~8 hours

-Algorithms & data structures assignment                  ~10 hours

-Systems programming test coming soon                   ~15 hours

-Lecture material to catch-up (from midterms)         ~12 hours

-Going to lectures, new material                                   ~15 hours

-Blog post                                                                           ~6 hours

Okay well that’s 66 hours… and I don’t have that many… shit now what?


What is due when?

-Discrete structures assignment                       Due the next Thursday (Could push or do now)

-Systems programming assignment                    Due the day I got back (do as practice for test, priority)

-Algorithms & data structures assignment          Due one week after getting back (can push back)

-Systems programming test coming soon        On the next Wednesday  (priority)

-Lecture material to catch-up (from midterms)           No due date (push to later)

-Going to lectures, new material         9 hours mandatory, 6 hours are recorded (can catchup later)

Now it’s been reduced to roughly 40 hours, which is much more doable. Again, these are only estimates, and who knows how long they’ll take in reality.

This all seems obvious, and it’s not entirely clear how this is really helping save time in the long term, but there’s more to it.

While working I used the StayFocused chrome app to put a time limit on all my favorite time-wasting sites (Facebook, twitter, youtube…), so that I had a maximum of 5 minutes for the entire day. So, if I really needed to check a message or something important I could, but it was impossible to waste time scrolling through feeds.

Instead of working in the group study areas like I normally do, I moved to the quiet floors, popped in my noise isolating headphones (if you don’t have some already, I’m in love with my SE215’s ), and instead of listening to my usual jams, went onto and cranked the singing bowl (my favorite noise-generator site).

The difference between how I worked on this particular week and a regular week, is that normally I work at a comfortable jog pace. That week, I moved it up to a sprint.

What does it mean to work at a sprint?

Type faster.

Write faster.

Force yourself the think faster.

It’s all about focus and intensity. It’s hard to get into at first, but after a while there’s a flow that comes naturally, and it gets easier with practice.

I’m convinced that if we worked like that all the time we’d eventually get to that speed as a baseline.

The hardest part about working fast is recognizing time-sinks and distractions.

I find the best way to get rid of time sinks is to pretend you’re in an exam. In an exam, you don’t have time to stare off-into space, or get stuck on a problem for 20 minutes. You see a problem you can’t immediately solve so you jump to the next one, come back to it later once your mind has had time to work on it in the background. You write fast, because you don’t know if you’ll need more time to finish those hard problems than you expect.

Apart from the obvious distractions (internet, your phone, friends, the cute guy across the room), the hardest ones to eliminate are the distractions in your mind.

Sometimes it feels almost impossible to stop our minds from going off in all directions. It sucks, but really this just comes down to practice. Always be trying to think of what your mind is doing, and whether this is really what you want it do be thinking of. Maybe try practicing meditation in the morning to build up this “focus muscle”.

Speaking of the focus muscle, it needs rest. Working at a sprint means you’re exhausting it much faster than normal, so take breaks. When working fast, I find it’s better to take more breaks than if you were working slow, so you can really attack every 15-20-minute chunk with the same intensity as the last. As the day wears on, it’s hard to keep the same levels of energy, so do the hardest things first, and take lots and lots and lots and lots of breaks.

Okay great so you’ve managed to do more in less time, so you can have a weekend off. But how do you get rid of that feeling that you should be studying? How do you get rid of the guilt of relaxing when you know there’s piles of other things you could and should be working on?

The same way astronauts throw parties. They plan-et.

Seriously, it seems super lame, but planning specific times to have fun and not-work is the best way I’ve found to remove the guilt of taking time off. That way you know that you’re doing exactly what you should be doing, and not procrastinating. You’ve decided in advance that on this day at this time, you would be forgetting about school for a while.

It also allows you to do actually fun things, like go see a movie, go for a hike, play board games or whatever you really like to do, instead of spending that same amount of time (or more) trying to satisfy your fun-cravings with things that aren’t even fun. (Scrolling through feeds).

That’s it. It’s really that short. Two things. Work at a sprint, so you’ll have time to schedule fun time.

Work at a sprint on the most important things possible, and schedule things that truly bring you joy, not just give you shallow satisfaction.

That’s all for this week, keep chugging along 🙂



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