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Preventing Occupational Imbalance

by Madi Douglas
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I’m a current graduate student studying occupational therapy at the University of Pittsburgh. My coursework is centered around “occupations” and the how important they are in leading a balanced and meaningful life. Occupations are the things that we want to do, need to do, or expected to do in our lives. For example, my occupations include being a student, a daughter, a caregiver, and a runner. These occupations make us who we are and add meaning to our lives. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people, including myself, are not engaging in their usual occupations, causing occupational imbalance. This occurs when your psychological, physiological, or social needs are not being met in a healthy way. Although I am still a student, I’m not able to engage in classes like I did just 3 months ago. And although I’m still a runner, my routine has been turned upside down and the healthy habits I once participated in are not as easy to do. 

Now, more than ever, it is so important to engage in these meaningful activities to prevent occupational imbalance. It can be as simple as reading a book or as physically demanding as running a marathon (the Pittsburgh Marathon, of course). One of my occupations is running. Continuing to run during this quarantine keeps me engaged, healthy, and social. However, because I no longer have my usual routine, it’s been difficult to find ways to stay motivated. Based on my own experience, and some tips I’ve learned as a graduate student in occupational therapy school, I’ve compiled a list of ways to stay motivated. 

Tips for staying motivated:

1. Set your own goals
Whatever meaningful activity you choose, it’s so important to set goals. A lot of runners base their goals on upcoming races. But if you’re no longer able to participate in your planned race, it’s important to keep setting realistic goals for yourself. Don’t try to go to hard or overreach right now, this could result in burn out or an injury. Keep the goal attainable. Some examples include; go for a walk every evening, run 20 miles in a week, break a 5k PR within the next month

2. Schedule your activity 
Come up with a plan that allows for flexibility. Set aside a block of time each day to focus on your activity. For example, I plan to run within a 2 hour block each evening, but I allow flexibility with the actual activity. Some days I feel so much better than others and I’ll base my mileage off of this. If I’m feeling great and full of energy, I’ll bust out a 10 mile + long run, but if I’m feeling down and fatigued, I don’t force the miles. 

3. Reward yourself 
When you reach one of your goals, reward yourself with something. If you reach a running goal, reward yourself with new running shorts or shoes. If you reach a reading goal, reward yourself with a new book. This will keep you motivated to work toward your goals and set new ones.  


4. Find a group
Finding a group of people who share a common interest can help increase socialization and help you stay motivated. For example, I am in the P3R ambassadors’ group, where we can all come together and share our similar running experiences. It’s very helpful to see how fellow runners are adapting their usual routines and staying on track. There are also a lot of virtual race options at the moment that you can use to connect with others. 


I would like to thank a fellow runner and occupational therapist, Jennifer White, CScD, MOT, OTR/L, for helping me articulate my ideas!

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