While professionals may feel in control of many aspects of their lives, their calendar isn’t often one of them. Work-life balance is the holy grail of maintaining a professional career. In 2014, Gallup found the average American workweek was 47 hours, with nearly four in 10 Americans working more than 50 hours per week. Bloomberg spotlighted automobile factories where 12-hour shifts were the norm, and Silicon Valley is notorious for its long hours.
With long workdays being the norm, personal priorities often don’t see the light of day. But research — particularly on deathbed conversations — shows that people don’t remember board meetings; they remember their kids’ baseball games. How can leaders, especially working parents — who have multiple calendars to juggle — make their calendars an ally in giving their personal lives a chance?
Burning the Candle at Both Ends
Consider the myriad responsibilities demanding working parents’ attention: often two careers, the kids’ activities, the kids’ appointments, the parents’ own appointments, second jobs, or side hustles. Cram all of that into working hours (and beyond), and it becomes apparent that this juggling act doesn’t leave working parents with much semblance of a personal life.
The best way to get a handle on this is to transform your calendar into your timekeeper. A calendar tool can be helpful, because it doesn’t just help you remember meetings or deadlines; it spotlights how you spend your time. [Disclosure: I co-founded Calendar.com, which is my answer to keeping your calendar organized.] When you clearly visualize the times when your priorities and your schedule don’t match up, it’s time to take action:
Outline your priorities first. The biggest culprit behind misspent time? Letting others set your priorities. Without guidelines, it’s easy to agree to head a project or take on any opportunity that falls into your lap. Those opportunities may boost your career — but they also may not.
It’s best to ask yourself some questions before others supply the answers. What would you regret not focusing on? It may be earning an executive title, running a marathon, attending most of your child’s games, or starting a side business. Work backwards: What will get you there? Taking on low-visibility projects or cramming your schedule so full that you can’t maximize creative outlets may be hurting you, not helping.
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Do you really want the things you feel you should want? This is worth asking as well. If your interest in daily yoga, the next promotion, or driving the school pick-up shuttle is waning, that’s a sign you could be using your time better.
Set limits. Time blocking (or timeboxing) is a godsend for working parents. By allocating blocks of time for specific activities, you limit how much energy those activities eat up and how much spillover they cause.
A good way to determine how big a block should be is by doing a week or two of time tracking. Time-tracking apps like Toggl or Timely can help analyze how you’re spending your time. Does email really deserve two hours of your day? Would it be smarter to delegate that time-consuming report to an early-stage employee who could use a stretch assignment?
I handle time blocking by marking “meeting days” so people who access my calendar can only request appointments on those days. That frees me up for lengthier tasks on the other days. I also use the “speedy meetings” option for Google Calendar that will limit 30 minute meetings to 25. This has allowed me to get miscellaneous items done in between meetings, which has allowed me to leave at 5 PM everyday instead of almost missing dinner because I’m working late.
Frontload your calendar. This sounds intimidating — nobody wants a packed calendar at the beginning of the month — but this technique ensures that you prioritize the things you deem most important. A couple days prior to a new month, place time blocks on your calendar for your non-negotiables: soccer practices, one-on-one meetings, conferences, a date night with your spouse, etc. This way, you — and everyone else — can truly see the time you have remaining after you put first things first. If something’s canceled or rescheduled, you get time back. With this system, you rarely find yourself scrambling to “make time” for things you’d really like to do, like hitting the gym or visiting your parents. One manager I know even blocks off time for sleep. For working parents, this can be a great trigger to go to bed, so tomorrow’s that much easier.
Create pockets of opportunity. Kids grow up fast. Miss one year of practices, and you may not even recognize your kid’s pitches. On the other hand, kids have plenty of breaks in their regular school routines — including teacher workdays, holidays, and half days of school — where you can look ahead at the school calendar and synch it with your own to take advantage of those pockets of time to surprise your kids with a stop for milkshakes or a trip to the zoo. While this may require you to use PTO (something most parents do sparingly, minus sick days), this allows you to create memories without the disruption of a two-week vacation. Last year, my kindergartener looked forward to our post-school trips for frozen custard — where she got all of my attention, even if it was just for 30 minutes.
The adage “If you need something done, give it to a busy person” is true, especially when it comes to working parents. But it’s incredibly hard to reclaim your life when you aren’t happy with how you’re spending it. Calendars can become your ally, ensuring that the most important things come first.