Why you need to know your priorities to reach a work-life balance

I am often thinking and talking to other people about how to reach a balance in work-life; a balance that I sometimes reach, but often cannot hold for long. The reason is that I often lose track of what really matters, what brings me forward, and what I enjoy doing. I start to say ‘yes’ to all requests, start to work long hours, stop my exercise routine, and slowly find myself (again) fighting against the storm of work and obligations…

I am always happy and grateful when I receive feedback to my blogposts and one of them was recently sent by Anna Kurcikova who pointed me to an article on Cornerstone University where she talks about reaching a work-life balance. One of the things that stood out to me was the importance of setting priorities and that everything that comes up has to be evaluated against them:

It’s about establishing a general set of priorities in your life and committing the time you have outside of work toward improving and maintaining what’s important to you. – Lisa Link

And that’s when I realized what happens when I lose my work-life balance: I lose track of my priorities and goals.

Why knowing your priorities helps to say “no”

Knowing what exactly you want to reach, what you stand in for, and how you want to live your life is what you need to define your priorities. Knowing your priorities helps you to say “no” more often to things that you are asked to do, but that don’t really align with what you actually want to do or should be doing to reach your goals.

In a blogpost I’ve published about a year ago, I cited an example from Laura Vanderkam from her TED Talk about how busy and successful people manage their lives and how she learnt that saying “I don’t have time for that” is wrong and shouldn’t be used as an excuse. She makes the example of a super busy business woman whose waterpipe broke. Even though she has a day packed with meetings and has ‘no time’, she will find a spot of 1-2 hours where the plumber can come to her apartment and fix it, as it’s right now more important to her than having the 7th team-meeting discussing rescheduling the deadline for project X.

How can I find out what my priorities are?

I don’t think that listing example priorities is helpful, as everyone should have their own, personal priorities that they can pursue with all their heart. As a first step towards knowing your very own priorities I recommend starting journaling your life. Keep a daily journal that helps you understand how and where you spend your time, what activities you pursue add value to your life and which ones don’t. This should help you focus on activities that really bring you forward personally, as well as your career (if that’s something you want). Journaling and expressive writing has been shown to increase happiness, mood, reduce stress, and a performance increase. And if you do it regularly, it becomes a habit, a great habit that helps you never again lose sight of what your priorities and goals are!

In case you are a interested in getting more detailed insights into where you spend your time on the computer, you could use tools such as RescueTime or WorkAnalytics. The latter one is a tool we’ve built to study software developres’ expectations of and experience with a self-monitoring tool at work. One thing we’ve found (and published at the CSCW’18 conference) was that reflecting about how you’ve spent your time helps you a lot to be more aware of how efficient and productive you are – and may give you pointers towards optimizing how you spend your (work) days. And RescueTime is a freemium tool that helps you learn how you spend your time at work. Rob Rawson from Timedoctor wrote a comprehensive blogpost about setting up RescueTime.

How to plan your day with your priorities in mind

“It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau

This citation by Henry Thoreau, American author and philosophist, highlights another problem: Sometimes we are so busy doing something that is not valuable and not bringing us forward. One approach my dad taught me ~15yrs ago and that I find extremely helpful to plan my everyday work life is the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Eisenhower (43rd president of the USA) invented the principle that helps us prioritize by urgency and importance. For every request, task, invitation etc. that comes up, we briefly reflect about how important it is to pursue it (i.e., is it important with respect to our priorities?) and how urgent it is. If it’s urgent and aligns well with our goals/priorities, we do it first. Things that are not important but urgent, we delegate to others (if we can). Everything that is important, but not urgent is something we schedule to pursue in our task list (and we can forget about it for now). Finally, if it’s neither important, nor urgent, we reject it. I think this principle is a great way to quickly determine a couple of times a day whether you should work on that thing right now or not.

I want to end my post with another story from Amy Ko (Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle) whom I met at a productivity seminar last year – and her story of how she balances being a parent in her young family, building a successful startup and being a (very) successful and well-respected researcher (and mentor) at her university: She aims to not work for more than 45 hours a week, and not on weekends. But during these 45 hours, she “works out the hell of the time”. And to do that, you really need to have your priorities ready.