When you Google the term “work-life balance”, the first Polish definition you see is the one presented on Wikipedia, which explains that work-life balance refers to the concept of time management and aiming to find a balance between “work” (career and ambition) and private life (health, entertainment, family, and spirituality).
I believe reducing work-life balance to just time management is a gross simplification. There are plenty of books and courses that train us to be more effective, to execute tasks in limited time and obtain our expected results (and sometimes even more). But the truth is, we cannot control everything. The most realistic and beneficial step towards achieving our own individual sense of balance is not about squeezing the most productivity out of every minute of the day, it is about identifying and prioritising our own values and the things most important to you. And yes, achieving good work-life balance will eventually necessitate the development of time management skills, but the purpose of those skills should ultimately be about planning your days, weeks, and months to ensure there the things most important to your sense of life fulfilment are prioritised.
Among thousands of time management tools that are available, there is one that best reflects this approach: The Eisenhower Matrix. This simple tool helps you to prioritise your tasks by urgency and importance. You can find a lot of materials presenting different versions of this matrix, but the following is my favourite and I have nicknamed it the “Four D Tasks”:
How can you use this tool?
1. First, decide if you would like to plan a day or, for example, a whole week. I prefer to have wider perspective so weekly planning is my favourite. It also helps me to be more realistic and flexible with my schedule.
2. On a separate piece of paper, prepare a list of tasks that you want and/or have to do in the period of time for which you are planning. Include every aspect of your life. Don’t make a separate list for your work life and your personal life—you have one life and only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. You are not just a professional. You are also a family member and friend, and those aspects of yourself are just as important as your professional life. Don’t forget yourself in your planning either and make sure to include activities that allow you time to rejuvenate your physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual energy.
3. Now, allocate each task from your list into the matrix quarter that best describes it. The first few times you attempt this can be challenging, but you will become better at prioritising tasks the more you do it. Here are some tips that might help you while you’re getting started:
A. Urgent and important – this should include everything that is connected with your core personal or professional objectives and values. It should also include tasks with impending deadlines or that are particularly urgent. An example of this type of task could be something health related, either for you or for someone else for whom you are responsible. These tasks cannot be delegated and the consequences of not doing them are harmful to you or others. Do these tasks immediately.
B. Not urgent but important – this should include tasks connected with your core objectives, dreams, and values, but which are not urgent in this moment. In this part, you should always plan the activities that sustain your good physical, intellectual, spiritual and social wellbeing. You also include things that help you to develop, become a better person, take care of family, and feel joy. In work, this might include your overall strategic goals. This is the most important quarter. Our aim should always be to spend as much time as possible on this quarter. It is here that you find balance. Schedule time for these tasks every day.
C. Urgent and not important – this should include everything that should be done as soon as possible but does not contribute to your core objectives and values. This is usually where we put tasks that have little to do with our overall goals, including interruptions that have to be dealt with, unimportant meetings, and administrative work. The best way to manage these tasks is to delegate it to someone else if possible. Remember, delegation can have a very positive effect on your team. It can allow less experienced colleagues to gain new skills. At home, delegation to other family members can build a sense of shared responsibility.
D. Not urgent and not important – this usually includes time-wasting activities. You may be tempted to include all unproductive tasks here, but remember; resting, spending time with your family or just watching movies is not a waste of time. These activities build your social and emotional capacity and rejuvenate your energy reserves. Therefore, tasks like this should be assigned to the second quarter: Not urgent but important. If you have doubts about whether an activity is restorative or time wasting, think of the result of this activity, or how you feel afterwards. If you feel relaxed and energised for other important activities, then it belongs in the second quarter. But if you feel guilty or even more tired afterwards, then you know the answer: It is time to eliminate these tasks from your daily plan.
Look carefully on your own matrix. In each quarter, you should not have no more than 7 tasks. Surveys shows that 7 is the maximum we can cope with at any given time. Now, you have all the information you need to plan your day or week. In doing this, remember to:
- Perform the tasks from the first quarter as soon as possible. Follow the rule: Eat the frog first!
- Each day reserve time for tasks from the second quarter. This approach guarantees that you will feel you are on the right path and are living in line with your values and objectives. And don’t forget about physical activity!
- Carefully estimate the time you need to execute each task. Plan only 60% of the time you have each day. The rest you need for unexpected but important issues and tasks that you didn’t manage to finish the previous day.
- Perform the tasks of the greatest importance for the part of the day in which you are most productive. Usually this is within a maximum 3-hour period. Treat this rule as something non-negotiable, even with yourself.
- After each hour of work, plan 10 minutes for energy recuperation. It will keep your body in good condition.
- Be realistic but also kind to yourself. Each day have at least one activity that brings you joy.
I wish you luck with your balanced plan! It is possible to be a very effective manager of your own life. If you are interested in this subject, I would recommend you two books: The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance by Catherine McCarthy, Jean Gomes, and Tony Schwartz and First Things First by Stephen R. Covey.
And if you want to improve your time management skills and foster a better sense of balance in your life, check out our work-life balance courses!