What do we mean when we talk about work-life balance? Usually a feeling that things are off-kilter between career and the other domains in life, particularly family time. Many of us face what the research calls a “time bind” caused by the simultaneous time and energy demands of family life and the workplace.

Americans are working longer hours. In dual-income homes, both spouses are pressed by choices between family, career, self-care and personal fulfillment. Not always, but often, women become default chore-doers and child-tenders, even in relationships that strive for equality.
The quest for balance often begins when people reach a point of being completely overwhelmed. They’re frazzled, stressed and have reached a tipping point. Or, they’re doing OK, but not really advancing coupled with a lack of focus about direction. While the first type experiences life as a whirlwind, the second is in more of a rut, trudging along, feeling like the song, “Is that all there is?”

Time management is a misnomer because we all get the same allotment—168 hours a week—but how we harness it varies wildly. Self-management is a more apt description and it starts with figuring out what’s important to you, in your life and then guarding against the things that get in the way.

What Is Important to You?

“The reality of priorities is that you actually can’t have that many of them.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Pennsylvania Conference for Women, 2019.

You’ve heard the cliché about having it all and here’s the thing—you can’t be, do and have everything there is, but you can arrange your life so the things most important to YOU are happening on a regular basis

The first steps in gaining more control of your time are assessment of where the time is going and what you value most. It may be helpful to do a values clarification exercise to determine which, of the many interesting and important things there are to do in life, are most important to you. Here is a link to one.

This is especially useful if you are unhappy with something in your life—perhaps you don’t like your job or you feel trapped by obligations in your personal life. Chances are, you’re spending time in ways not aligned with some important value you cherish.

Michelle Obama found herself an unhappy corporate lawyer who had never stopped to think about what she really wanted to do. “I was a box checker—marching to the resolute beat of effort/result, effort/result—a devoted follower of the established path, if only because nobody in my family (aside from my brother Craig) had ever set foot on the path before.”

Where Does the Time Go?

Track it. Tracking time provides insight on what you’re prioritizing in your life right now. It’s a snapshot of your daily rounds where precious moments, minutes and hours can be recaptured for something important to you. Clients who track time find “aha moments” in the exercise. One client, who said he valued family over all else, found a different story when he tracked his time for two weeks. Laura Vanderkam, author of several time management and productivity books, writes, “time tracking is tremendously useful to the cause of time management. After all, how can you spend your time better if you don’t know how you’re spending it now? We all have blind spots on time.”

Evaluate it. Stephen Covey created a model that breaks time down into four categories (referred to as quadrants) in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Everything we do in life falls into one of these quadrants and it’s helpful to evaluate whether what you’re doing is important. Then, you can make choices.

Quadrant I represents the urgent and important matters. These are things you are going to do no matter what because they are both urgent and important.

Quadrant II is important, but not urgent activities. This is a place where most people need to spend more time because the activities are important. But, they don’t because they’re not urgent. But they could become urgent over time. Activities such as developing relationships, marketing, financial planning, routine medical and dental examinations, self-care and estate planning, fall into this quadrant.

Quadrant III is urgent but unimportant activities. They are not really important, but someone wants something immediately. During my career as a lawyer, the ability to discern between the urgent and important saved my sanity.

Quadrant IV is nonimportant, nonurgent pursuits such as mindless web browsing and aimless TV channel surfing.

As little time as possible should be spent in quadrants III and IV because they’re unimportant.

Reducing the Unimportant

Once you have figured out where your time is going and what’s important to you, elimination of unimportant things from your life will open up space for what you really want.

Say no. This works better in your personal life than at work. Someone has asked you to do something, you don’t want to, and you’re driven to say yes. One of my clients was invited to the destination wedding of a friend and really struggled with the decision. She didn’t want to spend her vacation time or money on the wedding and didn’t want to disappoint her friend. People will incur debt to please others. There is always a choice.

Negotiate. This works well in the workplace. One of my attorney clients was doing work where the client didn’t pay unless he chased down the money. Collecting is not a billable event and it was eating into his productivity, so he offered a compromise—I will continue to do this work if: I can hand it off when the legal work is done; or hire a collection company; or get ample retainers at the beginning of each engagement. It worked and helped him find time for marketing, an important goal and quadrant II activity.

Curb your perfectionism. Do some things less well. If you are a perfectionist, you spend too much time on things that aren’t important. We tend to think that if we fiddle with something more, it will be perfect. Push against tinkering. Tell yourself that’s good enough.

Delegate. When you look at your docket, how much of it requires your specific expertise and what can be delegated? Clients often resist delegation because of perfectionism (no one will do it the way YOU would) or they’re people pleasers or they think it will take less time to do it themselves. None are good reasons to avoid delegation.

Perfection is not a destination you will see on any map because it doesn’t exist.

Pleasing others while denying yourself will always stand in the way of getting what you want. And it’s not helpful in the workplace because competent people are denied the opportunity to develop their skills if you don’t give them that chance.

Investing in training others is like investing financially. The best time to do it was yesterday, the second best time is now. Think about the math. It if takes you five hours a week to do a task, you will spend about 250 hours a year on it. Subtract the time spent training and, even if it’s 20 hours, you are still the proud owner of 230 new hours per year. That’s more than a week. What might you do with that?

Always be automating. Having efficient systems is essential to reducing unimportant tasks. Like delegation, it will require an investment of time to determine what can be systematized and automated in your field and to identify software or other methods to streamline it. Consider how recurring activities can be converted to processes, which could in turn be taught and delegated.

When you find yourself wishing there were more hours in a day, try wishing instead for the discipline to design your life in a way that delivers what matters most to you. Make the most of the time you do have. It really is enough.

Reprinted with permission from the October 30, 2019 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2019 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.