To start, note which of the four p’s holds the most opportunity for development. Find that section and pick one strategy (or more) to implement. Be willing to experiment. Make adjustments until you determine the strategies that really help you claim your time. And don’t give up — you owe it to yourself to have the time and energy for the activities and people that matter most.
Planning is about using structure and rituals to stay organized. Consider how you relate to structure and ritual in general. Do you enjoy processes? If so, you’ll be excited to try new ideas. Or do you cringe at the thought of too much routinization? If that’s the case, then find the balance of just enough structure without feeling bogged down in it. Below are organizing strategies and rituals that can yield fast, tangible results.
• Schedule power hours. Align your energy with things that require focus. Are you a morning person? A night owl? Block out two to three 90-minute blocks (“power hours”) on your calendar each week during your most productive times. You may end up scheduling over these blocks, but you have a better shot at keeping them if you’ve consciously put them on your calendar. If you work on weekends to catch up, use the same idea of power hours to set up guardrails between the personal and the professional. Go to a private room or close your door during power hours.
• Use look-ahead rituals. As your role gets bigger or your life gets more complex, it gets harder to work and live without more intentional planning. Looking-ahead rituals can build space into your schedule. On an annual basis, populate your calendar with future vacation blocks, key events, doctor’s appointments, etc. Get in the habit of scanning for upcoming travel, key deliverables, or especially intense periods every month or every week. For a daily scan, look ahead and pick one meeting for which a little prep work will go a long way.
• Be explicit about white space. When a free hour emerges, all too often we fritter it away or we’re paralyzed by all the possibilities of what we could do — and then we kick ourselves later for not using the time well. So decide in advance how you want to use free time. Create two lists of free-time activities: a “Productive White Space” list and a “Restorative White Space” list. When choosing an activity from the list, ask yourself: How much time do I have? What is realistic to accomplish? What would be most satisfying?
People is about how you relate to others. Are the people in your life a source of positive energy, motivation, and support? Or do they drain your time and energy? Below are some tools for increasing the support you receive from others while also setting clear boundaries and reducing the amount of energy you spend on interpersonal issues.
• Create a delegation table. Explicitly map out who owns what on your team, since job titles don’t always make it obvious. Have a one-page snapshot you can look at so you’re less tempted to jump in and do things yourself. Let go of the need to control, and work to shift accountability to others. Your delegation table can include activities and requests both at work and at home.
• Know your confidants. The old adage “it’s lonely at the top” is true. Who acts as a sounding board when you need to think out loud? Who is the best cheerleader when you need a pep talk? Build a network of support, and your daily life will be a lot easier. Read more about finding the right people to help you achieve your goals here.
• Say no, but enforce boundaries with grace. As you grow in your career, things you once agreed to do (or even enjoyed doing) may become interruptions or drags on your time. Don’t put up a wall when saying no. Be gracious and acknowledge the person asking. Say something like, “I appreciate you reaching out,” “It’s so good to see you,” or “I hear your sense of urgency.” Be clear about your boundaries while showing that you want to find the best solution to the problem: “It would be better for Steve to resolve this, as he’s closer to the issue” or “You’ll get a speedier outcome by going to Kate on my team.”
Priorities is about intentionally deciding how to spend your time. Consider how you feel about prioritization in general: Are you ruthless about what matters most? Or do you love keeping your options open? The tough thing about time is that it is finite. Accept that you have to make choices.
• Take a trend-line view. The phrase “work-life balance” inherently sets us up to fail because no day can be perfectly balanced. So take a trend-line view. Reflect on the past six months or the past year. Rather than thinking of things as being in competition with each other, look at all the parts of yourself that you’ve gotten to express. Do you feel satisfied with the way you’ve allocated time to different areas of your life? Perhaps you’re doing pretty well but need to work on accepting the peaks and valleys. Or maybe something is wildly off and it’s time to name the issue and do something about it. A quick way to get an overview of time allocation is to color-code your calendar. Assign a different color to the 3–5 domains you want to track. Conduct periodic reviews to see if the colors are distributed the way you think they should be to achieve satisfaction and performance.
• Use a snapshot or scorecard. Write down what matters most to you. Laminate your list, and then carry it in your bag or post it next to your computer as a reminder of your priorities. Engaging in a lot of activity does not always mean doing work that is meaningful and adding value Speaker and author Pat Lencioni talks about having a “rallying cry”: a thematic goal that answers the question, “What is most important right now?” Within the context of an organization’s goals, it’s usually the one at the top of the list. Check out The Advantage for work and The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family for home.
• Name the trade-off you’ve chosen. Once you’ve made a decision to say yes to something, name the trade-off that inevitably comes with that choice. Owning when you say yes and no will make you feel less like a victim and give you a greater sense of personal power and choice.
Being Present means paying attention to the people in front of us, focusing on the tasks at hand, and managing our emotions in the moment. It requires us to notice and tolerate feelings of discomfort so that we don’t engage in reactive patterns of distraction, perfectionism, procrastination, or rumination. Mindfulness is a popular strategy that I support. Other tips for increasing your ability to be present include the following.
• Accept and then act. Having trouble doing the less enjoyable things on your to-do list? Write down one thing you are resisting or procrastinating on. Now, accept that you need to do it. Say to yourself: “I know I don’t like to do this, but I am wasting energy resisting it. I accept the discomfort and the responsibility.” As with exercising — a challenge for many of us — the first 15 minutes are the hardest and require that we tolerate discomfort before getting into a flow. Acceptance does not mean being complacent. It’s exactly the opposite: Accepting the difficulty diffuses our angst and frees up our energy to do something about it.
• Give yourself permission. Have you finally gotten to the gym or done something nice for yourself, only to find that you couldn’t enjoy it because of the guilt you felt from being away from the office or your family? It’s important to recognize, name, and tolerate the discomfort of guilt. Notice it and remind yourself that your own self-care is important. As you give yourself permission more often, you may need to renegotiate with others. Let them know when you are or are not available or ask explicitly for their support.
• Set a statute of limitations on people frustrations. Ruminating, fuming, or burning energy on tension with others? Set an explicit time limit for being frustrated. When the time is up, stop and shift to a more constructive action. Having negative conversations with yourself in your head, gossiping with others, or venting only drains precious energy. Go have a direct conversation, make a request, or make the conscious choice that it’s not a battle worth fighting right now.