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)

Work-Life Balance

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.

Time Management

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?

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Guest's picture

Great article. This is exactly how I have been feeling. I have so many ideas and things I want to do and love to do, but not enough time to do it. Then at the end of the day I feel that I never accomplished what I wanted because I was just doing a little but of this and that and the feeling exhausted by the end of it all. This is a good reminder to appreciate the ride and appreciate yourself with everything you do. Thanks!

Nora Dunn's picture

I've often done the same thing.....flitting between a myriad of largely inconsequential tasks, and not truly getting anything substantial done after hours on end. That boils down to discipline, I think (at least for me it does). Get the big things done first; it will leave you feeling way more satisfied, then the small tasks will work their way in as well.

Guest's picture

I think it's important to come to the realization that you don't have to be a "master" at everything. I fell into the trap of trying to be the best at everything and wound up being good at nothing. When you spread yourself too thin, no one gets what they need.

Nora Dunn's picture

I think when you try to be the best at everything you end up being a "jack of all trades, master of none". And that's none to satisfying for anybody!

Nora Dunn's picture

I think when you try to be the best at everything you end up being a "jack of all trades, master of none". And that's none too satisfying for anybody!

Guest's picture

Good article, Nora! But I wish you'd spent some time discussing one of the biggest time-eaters in most of my days -- the manufactured crisis or sudden shift of priorities that makes a mockery out of most to-do lists and scheduled plans. I think these are somewhat easier to deal with when you're (essentially) your own boss, but how do you handle them in organizations and businesses?

Nora Dunn's picture

Actually, I'd wager that the number of manufactured crises or priority shifts when you're your own boss can be even worse - there isn't even anybody to blame! (ha ha)

I think within orgs and businesses, efficient communication and a very clear set of priorities that everybody is on board with is important for productivity.

Guest's picture

Contentment is the key to a life well lived. Learning to master your frustrations, learning to live and enjoy each moment and learning to cherish your successes are, in my mind, milestones on the road to contentment.

Nora Dunn's picture

....and all of that ultimately comes from within. Thanks for the wise words!

Guest's picture

What a great blog. The bit about managing expectations means so much. I think this is a core issue for so many people. You might not accomplish a whole lot if you don't set really high goals, but that doesn't mean you are a failure if you don't get all the way there. You have to reward yourself for what you can accomplish. As long as you are true to yourself and know that you are giving your all, you are doing yourself a diservice by not being proud of your accomplishments, no matter what size they are.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

I agree that you need to set high goals (and sometimes ones that you won't achieve) in order to push yourself, learn, and grow.
But also, it's important to set expectations that are realistic.
Which brings up the question: what is the difference between goals and expectations?

Guest's picture

Thanks Nora. I think the secret is an open secret. Pick your passions carefully (prioritize) and learn to deeply let go of the rest. This one is anchored to what we already know as fact: our time is limited (which is reminiscent of the late Steve Jobs).

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

I really like the idea of deeply letting go of the things that aren't priorities in our life. How often do we hang on to things for one reason or another? I think deeply letting go is important, and yet - a great challenge for most of us.

Guest's picture

As part of my resolution to make better use of my time, I have tried to stick to my schedule but already ran into different work (and life) obstacles. I think it's something where it's not going to hurt to be organized and have things scheduled, but you have to be flexible and not get too worried if your schedule gets overtaken by real life.

Guest's picture

I have had a hard time of late with this. I often feel like my "free" time shouldn't be spent just enjoying the little things, but should be spent on my freelance assignments since I so badly want to be back on the road. It is hard, but I am trying to be OK with just drawing a line, taking a night to just turn on the television and veg. Thanks for this!

Guest's picture

Thank you so much for reiterating this point. It definitely is up to the person. As a single mom finishing up my masters, studying for the CPA exam, working full-time and chasing around my three-year-old, I often feel like there is no balance. I'm learning balance is what you make it and some things just aren't that important. Thanks for the reminder!

Guest's picture

Thanks for the story Nora, you truly put things in perspective when you talk about the three pillars. Furthermore, refocusing your expectations is the key to finding inner peace. We recently posted a piece where we provide a few tips on prioritizing, and most importantly, how to say no to the things or people that distract you from achieving your objectives - even your own boss. I hope it's useful. - Erich

Guest's picture
Matt Tewes

Thanks for your article. As a busy college students these helpful tips will greatly help in my productivity.

Guest's picture

I often find myself saying I don't have the time. Recently I have found that using a task list and time management software is the most useful technique to manage proper schedule and priorities.

Then, I started to try those techniques. I review my task list and recorded time details on every night as I need to prepare for the next day. I have found by doing this I free up most of my time to catch up on other tasks. Also I will find more time to look into other projects as well. I prefer using Replicon ( ) for both task and time management.