Creating Space For Balance
The simplest ideas sometimes hide in the obvious. I spoke recently on work-life balance and was asked for a time management session, too. Some wanted hints on the spot. Searching for the most powerful, central solution, I thought about the most valuable things I’d learned for managing my own time, things that actually work.
Having to answer quickly, reminded me that having to do things quickly is often a great time-saver. I found myself telling people the most important skill to develop is to make sure you set aside time for personal interests first. Then we need to fit work into smaller spaces so it isn’t inclined to take over.
1. Squeeze Your Work!
We all know Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands to fill the time allotted.” After the First World War, the British Navy mothballed eighty percent of its fleet, yet increased headquarters staff dramatically. Parkinson found each manager “needed” more support to get the paperwork done. Hiring more people increased the need for assistant managers, who in turn needed staff… who in turn generated more paper and so forth. Saving big money taking many ships out of service seemed to leave dollars to add staff. It seems that everyone needs more staff all the time to build up their functions and do more things they imagine will produce better results. If they’re able to do this rather than strategize for simplicity, there’s no end.
Our own schedules work this way in miniature. Each thing we do, every email we send, is likely to result in more things arriving on our desks. If we have time, we fill it. There’s no end to work because there’s no end to our creativity and eagerness to do just a bit more to fix or improve things. Yet perfection may never be reached.
What’s the solution? As usual simplest is best. Just don’t leave yourself as much time to fill with work. Experience confirms what Parkinson didn’t go on to state – an obvious corollary to his Law – Work contracts to fill the space allotted. Remember what happens when you get ready to go on vacation – scurrying to pack up projects, tidy the desk, get brief last minute memos and notes out to people to get stuff off your plate. It’s terrible if you leave it to the last day because you can rarely get out early as promised, but if you start a few days ahead, you will amaze yourself with what gets pushed out rather unceremoniously all week long if you try.
Is “short and fast” your best quality work? In my own situation it’s almost always as good and often better than what I’d produce if I sat and worried or tried to collect more information. We’re professionals. We carry lots of judgment capacity in our heads. We can fire off a pretty good answer if we “just do it.” In fact, a rested mind typically makes better decisions.
Knowing vacation is looming gives us a push and also an excuse that seems to make it OK to hustle more. There’s no reason we can’t keep this pace most of the time when working, but without a reason to do it with each task, we hesitate. We feel we might be shortchanging things. Women in particular are prone to feel driven for that extra bit of perfection.
I’ve started to look at tasks differently. If I have ten minutes and it seems too short a time to start something, I start anyway. Remarkably I find, I can do most of something in just those ten or fifteen minutes. What’s left is easier later on because I made a good start. If the key outline took only ten minutes, I now have a vision for polishing the final product in maybe another twenty. Without that insight, I’d have looked for a two-hour time slot to work on “the project” and then I’d be up against deadlines and not in the right frame of mind.
Try it; I think you’ll find it is useful. At the very least you’ll enjoy those personal activities you didn’t think you had time for, but which you fit into your schedule – the ones that shorten your work times more often into those valuable ten minute slots.
2. Traditional Time-Management Is Helpful, Too
Most of the usual suggestions can help, but beware – they don’t work as well unless you’ve limited the time you allow yourself to spend. Typical advice includes: Scribble a “to do” list the evening or morning before starting each day. Then tackle the three top priorities or most difficult items first, breaking them into smaller tasks that are easily done. Put trigger dates in your calendar for future tasks or steps so you can forget them till then – but make sure you set dates early enough to begin the first steps. Group phone calls you have to return and do them all at once; same with email – turn off the beeping since each separate interruption delays you an additional seven minutes in mentally getting back to what you were doing. Those delays can add up to serious lost time. Don’t let random calls and emails set your agenda. Set aside a couple of times during the day to run through each new group of calls or emails and don’t linger over them. Clear the easy ones rapidly, skipping the longer ones to focus on when the rest are out of the way.
Ultimately these helpful “how to’s” don’t answer the burning question we all face: can we find more hours in the day or somehow reduce total workload? The answer to the first part is no, of course not. But productivity can also mean doing what you normally do, just doing it in less time. That way you’ll get to the main points faster, keep memos, outlines and reports shorter and become more succinct with practice. This will help others, too, as they will have less to read. Who knows, you may start a trend where you work.
3. Books That Help
Jim Loehr is an expert who’s co-authored several books in this area. The latest is The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. (See it here.) His prescription to work hard while you’re working, but take frequent recovery breaks mirrors the ideas I promote quite closely.