The Secret to Time Management and Work-Life Balance
Somewhat ironically, I've been sitting in front of my computer displaying a blank page and the title above for the last half hour, while gazing out the window. The window in question happens to be revealing a constantly changing gorgeous autumn landscape aboard the epic Trans-Manchurian train from Moscow to Beijing; which is part of the Ultimate Train Challenge — a 30 day trip from Lisbon to Saigon, all by train.
As so often happens, I'm trying to multitask “life” and “work” in a precarious — and frequently unsuccessful — balancing act. (See also: The Fallacy of Multitasking)
The idea of delineating between “work” and “life” unto itself creates an unhealthy divide in our lives. Some people would say that if you love what you do for a living, it shouldn't be considered “work”. I disagree with this philosophy; I need to earn money to live, and although I love my location-independent writing career, it also impedes on the other things I love to do in life (for example, hiking, cooking, volunteering, conversing, and of course, traveling).
What's important about this (almost cliché) concept of “work-life balance” is that we need to consciously understand the choices we make and how we manage our time.
Here's another cliché that is so often used but so rarely understood or applied. We have software programs that analyze the time we spend on our computers, day planners to manage our busy schedules, and sometimes assistants to handle the work we just don't have time for.
Even with these tools, do you get everything done in a day that you need to? Do you go to sleep at night feeling satisfied with the work you got done, as well as all the “non-work” activities you wanted to do?
I know I rarely do.
And I believe it's this feeling of constant self-dissatisfaction that perpetuates the continued pattern of work-life balance and time management issues dominating our lives.
Another View: The Three Pillars of Life
There's a school of thought that says there are three pillars of life, and that we can only excel at two of them at a time. These pillars are career, relationships with family and friends, and health and fitness.
This makes sense. If you are focused on your career and your health, you'll spend 8-10 hours a day at the office (and commuting to and fro), and another 2-4 hours a day training for that marathon. Your family and friends will consequently fade into obscurity.
If family and friends and career are important, your exercise regime will likely take a back seat. And so on.
So already, with this philosophy, we are forced to make decisions in our lives about which two of the three pillars in life we want to excel at (or the one pillar we're prepared to slack on).
But I wonder if it really has to be that way.
Juggling It All
So back to my Trans-Siberian window-gazing (I mean, working) experience.
As a full-time traveler for five years, I have the simultaneously enviable and almost-impossible task of balancing my location-independent writing career with a life lived fully on the road. Contrary to popular opinion, I don't sit on the beach every day drinking girly drinks and lapping up the sunshine. In fact, I put in almost as many work hours as most other people do — I just happen to be doing it from varying far-flung locations around the world. In my “spare time,” I learn to live life (shop, cook, socialize, etc) in the way of the local culture I'm visiting.
I also juggle staying in touch with family and friends, researching and booking onward travel arrangements, and regular volunteering.
In fact, despite my having traded in the “rat race” for what was supposed to be an “early retirement” of sorts, I recently found myself in an entirely different rat race — volunteering 30 hours per week in trade for my accommodation and food, and working almost another 30 hours per week on my writing.
When I realized this predicament in a stress-induced frenzy one day, I reduced my volunteer obligation to 18 hours a week. This, I figured, would buy me the down-time I craved for socializing, relaxing, and hiking.
Instead, to my confounded surprise, after creating space in my day, my time filled up with things I can't even account for. And I was still going to bed every night feeling tired, scattered, and frustrated that I hadn't gotten everything done that I wanted to.
A Solution: Managing Expectations
But maybe it's in the expectations I had set that I blundered. As efficient as we can be at times, maybe we can't do everything we want to. Maybe it's in the concept of excelling at the pillars in life (a very North American tendency — to want to be the best of the best or nothing at all) that we err.
What if we were to shoot for the stars, but be happy when we hit the moon? What if we forgive ourselves just a bit for not being the superstars we know we are, instead allowing ourselves to gaze out the window of an amazing train ride and simply appreciate the beauty around us?
I had intended to write three articles today. Instead, I'm finding myself gazing out the window, and I'll be lucky to complete one article between day-dreaming sessions.
And you know what? That's okay.
My time management and work-life balance comes from within, is controlled from within, and whether I go to bed tonight feeling satisfied — or not — is entirely up to me.
How well will you sleep tonight?