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Work-Life Balancing: Tangible Steps to Ensure You Spend Your Time on the Right Things

Updated: Jan 29

A system to manage time, focus your attention, optimize energy, and work with the right people. Visit the "Quick Summary" at the bottom of this page for a quick overview...

Lack of Control

What are the three most important things in your life?

Imagine that somebody walks in right now and gives you an excel spreadsheet with a "Life Pie Chart" that details how you used your time in the last week, year, or decade, categorized down to the minute. Would your use of time see those "most important" items in the top three?

"I love spending time with my family, mentoring young people, and learning new things!"

"WRONG! Your pie chart indicates that your three favorite things are answering emails, endlessly pleasing others, and working on projects that had no lasting impact!"


So much of life is out of our control, but what if we could take back how we use our time? Instead of thinking "I don't have time for this", what if we take back control and decide "I choose to not have time for this."

The system outlined below doesn't necessarily reduce the amount of work we have. Instead, it focuses our attention on the truly important things, aims to reduce the feeling of disorganization, and mitigates the risk of "emergencies" that lead to a feeling of helplessness and lack of control.

To start, let's divide our time into three categories...

The 3 Priorities

Time for Your Profession/ Career/ Work

What you have to get done while "on the clock".

Time for Your Physical Well-Being

You know, taking care of your meat suit.

Time for What You Value Outside of Work

Friends, family, hobbies, etc.

Balancing these three priorities will not happen without purposeful action and "system refinement". We must have clearly defined priorities and be continually assessing them while making necessary adjustments.

The system you'll read about below is strongly rooted in David Allen's book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity. I touch on the basics, but the book is certainly worth a read. Full disclosure: I was not compensated in any way to recommend this book. I wish I was. (HMU, David.)


Running The System

Setting Up Home Base

The first thing that I do when I begin my work day is start at my "home base" with a notepad or note-taking device. I open my computer and have Google Chrome automatically open 3 tabs (you can set these as your homepage in settings). You can certainly use a different technology (or even a series of papers/ notepads) but make sure you have the following:

Tab #1: Calendar

Tab #2: Daily Schedule in a Google Doc

Tab #3: Next Actions/ Waiting for List on Google Keep

Notepad: Used to organize each day

Again, this is where I begin my work day every single morning. This is the expectation I have for myself in order to be able to trust the system. You must start at "Home Base" or the system will fail you!

Tab #1: Calendar- Keep it Clean

Never Miss a Deadline Again

Nothing can go on your calendar that isn't a hard deadline or something date specific. When you begin at Home Base, the calendar is the first thing you'll see. We need to have important things like "2:00 Appointment" pop out to us and not be lost in a list of minutia like "Clean the garage" and other things that aren't 100% necessary to get done by a specific date. (Those will go on the NA list!)

Keep Your Date Specific Goals from Becoming Lost

If your calendar stays clean, it also makes it easy for you to have a decent idea of what is coming up in the next few weeks. If it is the middle of December, a quick morning scan of my calendar reveals that I have a major deadline on January 1.

As you see deadlines approaching, you can make a decision if work needs to be added to your "Next Actions" list (more on this below). Whatever you see on your schedule, should be added to your Notepad for the day (more on this below, too).

Your "Daily Schedule" will help to guide you when you are deciding when to schedule meetings and appointments...

Tab #2: Daily Schedule

A Template for Everyday

Your Daily Schedule keeps you consistent from day-to-day and week-to-week. The Daily Schedule should only include items that happen consistently. This includes regular meetings, classes, and other items that you have decided require regularly scheduled time in your life.

I use a Google Doc for this with a simple table. For life in the academic world, you might create a new schedule at the beginning of every Fall, Spring, and Summer. As you create your schedule, build it in the following order and color code each activity.

1. RED: Permanent Events- Things you cannot miss: weekly meetings, class times, etc.

2. ORANGE: Setup/ Prep Time- Time to prepare, commute, "get in the zone" for the "red" times

3. YELLOW: Time for Physical Well-Being- Lunch, exercise, etc.

4. BLUE: Administrative Tasks- The necessary elements to keep things running: Email, planning, study, logistics, meetings, etc. Most of this will come from your "Next Actions" list.

5. GREEN: Time for what you Value Outside of "Work"- Time with your family (friends and pets included), reading, learning, watching TV, etc.

A quick pause here to highlight that scheduling green and yellow time is important, especially if you are having trouble making time for it. If you haven't heard, you need time to re-charge! An extra hour on an email at the end of the day might have only taken ten minutes if only it was saved if for a fresh brain the next morning or after a quick lunch break.

We often feel guilty taking care of ourselves when others are pressuring us to do what's on their to-do list. Actually scheduling this self-care time allows yourself the opportunity to say "no" to things that aren't worth your effort because: "I'm sorry, I have something in my schedule at that time already."

The most important people in our lives are often "rescheduled" due to work. They are often understanding, but nobody (especially the ones we love) should have to tolerate this forever. If these people are truly your priority, show them by blocking time in your schedule!

Tab #3: Next Actions/ Waiting For List (To-do List)

Next Actions

This is your "to-do" list. Don't rely on your memory. Write EVERYTHING down and have access to this list at all times. You can use a physical pen and paper but I have opted for Google Keep, which I can access via the app on my phone as well as through my homepage on Google Chrome.

If you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because you just remembered you really need to email a colleague, you can simply turn over, type it in to the list, and know that it is waiting for you at "home base" tomorrow morning.

A lot of our stress can arise from our worry that we are going to forget completely about the task itself. Being able to immediately eliminate this fear can be a major factor in reducing our anxiety. It also allows us to see things in an organized way. What needs action right now and what can wait for another day?

Waiting For...

This is where you keep track of tasks that are out of your hands but need follow-up. It can be unnerving to send an email and hope that the recipient gets back to you in a timely manner. But when you are reviewing your "Waiting for" list every day, you can decide if this needs a follow-up "nudge" or can wait another day. It can be helpful to mark a date (see picture above) that you last acted on this item to ensure you've waited long enough between reminders.

BONUS- Alarmed Reminders

Alarmed reminders should compliment "Home Base". At times, it is helpful to make use of your cell phone alarms/ reminder function, like if you normally head straight home after a class but need to remember a last minute task:

"Hey nameless-virtual-assistant-cuz-Apple-Google-and-Amazon-won't-sponsor-my-blog, remind me at 4:45pm to pick up keys."

This is only for time-sensitive "emergencies". Stick to the "home base" system in all other situations to make sure that you don't fall into the trap of having your tasks in too many different places.

Bringing it all together in 10 minutes a day

The Notepad

Protect (schedule) a time at the beginning of your day (10 minutes or so) to sit down with a notepad (digital or physical) and your "home base". You will move from left to right on your 3 tabs.

Step 1 - Add items from the "Calendar"

Look at your calendar. Is there anything happening today that requires your attention?

A 3:00 meeting is out of the ordinary (if this were a weekly meeting, it would be in our "Daily Schedule".)

Let's go ahead and put that on our notepad.

Step 2 - Add items from your "Daily Schedule"

Once you have everything from your "calendar", start to copy your "daily schedule" over to the "notepad". Not only will this help you to see your calendar items in context with a typical day, it also helps you do a quick mental run of what lies ahead. Let's put your Monday schedule on the notepad.

Now we have a general guideline for the day and can quickly see everything in one place. While you are moving through, you can write any reminders like "Upload Lecture #5 Notes" that you think of while you do a mental run of the day.

Step 3 - Add items from your "Next Actions/ Waiting for..." List

The blue times are where we add items from our NA/ WF list. In reviewing your list, what will be the best thing for you to tackle today? If nothing stands out, you can wait until you sit down at 3:30 (in this example) and start to work on this part of your day.

This time is also a great time to bump your "emergencies". When something inevitably comes up during the day, there is no need to panic! You have a scheduled time to deal with things like this and can easily push it to this time block with out blowing up your day!

You'll also notice that this is the time to designate your emails. Email can easily derail your entire day. It is crucial to schedule a time to check your email and then ignore it the rest of the time. Remember, the goal of this entire system is to spend your time on the right things, not whatever the people in your email inbox think is important.

So now you're ready to efficiently move through the day. Every time you finish a class or a meeting there is no question of “What should I work on next?” Instead, it is always a quick check of your notepad and easily making any adjustments as things come up during the day.

Final Thoughts and Sticking to the System

"Bad Days"

Give it some time, but don't be afraid to change your Daily Schedule. Take some time every now and again to pause and assess if you are truly spending your time on the right things. There are weeks where our hair is on fire and we have to stray from our schedule! That is ok! We can have "emergency" days. Stray, but do not abandon!

If you are constantly "off" from your schedule, you need to re-assess. Remember, you cannot "trust the system" if you never follow it!

Take a Break!

Personally, I do not have a schedule for the weekends. Being on a schedule at all times, or being on a schedule that is TOO detailed can be annoying or even paralyzing. Be sure that you are running the system, not letting the system run you!

Respect and Trust the System!

When you design your schedule, you are doing so outside of the pressures of a stressful day. When your schedule says "work until 5pm", trust it. Save that last meeting for another day. That last task seems so important in the moment, but remember that your system was made by "Calm and Thoughtful You" telling "Future Stressed You" that you need to spend your energy and time elsewhere.


Quick Summary of the System

1. Start each day at "Home Base" with your notepad

2. Write down any items from your calendar

Calendar items are only time-specific deadlines

3. Write down your Daily Schedule

Make sure that your daily schedule properly reflects your priorities. Give it some time and then make adjustments as your year progresses!

4. Write down any Next Actions/ Waiting For... items that need to be taken care of

Be sure to review this list everyday. Pull items from the list that you have time for that day. Leave the rest for another day and go home for dinner!


Kevin Poelking is an award-winning composer, conductor, and educator. His music has been performed throughout the world and he is regularly commissioned for new works. He serves on the faculty at Colorado State University where he teaches courses for music students and future educators. More...

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