The Great Balancing Act
You have a blog, you’re writing a book, you own your own business, you have kids, you have a home, you have a life, and they all seem to run like a well rusted machine. How do you do it? What is the secret to keeping a balance between all of life’s obligations? The crank shaft in life is seizing up and you don’t know how to get the oil between the gears. I have asked many professionals throughout my career, “How do I find a balance that keeps everyone happy?” The answer is simple: set your priorities, make a schedule, and learn to say “no”.
Yeah, right. It might be so simple for all of “them” but for me? My life changes hour to hour moment to moment. How the heck am I going to do a schedule of any kind when I can’t even get a shower every morning? My three year old went dancing through the house one day singing, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiiitttt!” to music she composed in her head on her way through the room, and you think I’m going to put any priority higher than my daughter? HA! You were crazier than I thought.
This is how I went through business and family life for more than twenty years. Bouncing from one fire to the next and never really getting anything done. The gears just got rustier. Over and over I asked the same question, “How do I balance everything and still keep my sanity?” Over and over I heard that same answer, “Set priorities, make a calendar, and learn to say no.” Then one day I actually did it.
I had to take a look at balancing my children, my business, my social life, and my creative self (which is writing). I found a simple grid to be the key for success, and it takes the lowest amount of brain power to produce. You can even do it as you read along. First get a sheet of blank printer paper and a pencil (no pens for this exercise). Draw three or four columns and head each column with the things you are trying to balance. Some of you may only be balancing three aspects of life and some four, and there are even those balancing eight or ten. For the sake of simplicity, keep it at four for now. Examples of the types of headings could be: Writing, Family, Business, Social. Be sure one of those headings is: ME. You (that’s who the “me” heading is for) need to take care of yourself as much as you need to take care of the rest of your life’s obligations.
The next step requires you to have part of your brain turned off. As they say in the writing business, “Just puke this part out.” Don’t pass judgement on anything you write, and don’t quantify anything at this point either. Under each heading list every aspect that is important to that part of your life. Let’s say you want to write everyday, call on customers for your glow in the dark paper clip business, play bingo with your buddies, and go ice skating with your kids. List each of these under their appropriate heading. Keep listing everything until you can’t think of any more. Remember, no judgements no quantifying. Now, for each of the items listed under each heading, decide what is the number one most important aspect of that area, the second, and the third, until all of the items are numbered. Take the first five items under each category and consider these the top priorities in your life at the moment. Of course these priorities change second to second, but these are at the top of the list right now. Cross everything else off your list until next week.
You are allowed pass judgement and quantify each of these items now. As you do, be honest with yourself as to how much time you really need to spend on each activity. If you think you need to spend ten hours a day on building a better paperclip then you better expect only fourteen left to sleep, ice skate, and play bingo. Be realistic with your time. You need to sleep at least 8 hours which leaves only 16 hours to divide up between everything that is left on your list. There are, obviously, only 7 days in a week so, again, be realistic with your time. If your top five priorities need to be done this week then choose a day and put it on your calendar doing the number one most important thing first. If that number one thing needs two days to complete then be sure to allow enough days for the rest. Continue this process until you either run out of time, or you run out of tasks. If you have spare time then pull in something you left on the list that fell lower on the priorities. If you get everything done early then reward yourself with a day of ice skating.
So, what kind of calendar? I experimented with every type of calendar under the sun from the most complex, (complete with a rainbow of highlighters) to the most basic, (sticky notes were all over my desk). After this not so scientific experiment, I found that my my favorite calendar wasn’t very complex (I hate to think too hard on this stuff), and each day did need enough room for notes and alternative plans. I am also proud to say that I have graduated from sticky notes into the computer age, my Smartphone is attached to my Gmail that has my main calendar. This is the heart of everything in my life. It makes sure that I’m not meeting with my publisher at the same time that my son has a guitar performance. It also makes sure that I am spending the time I need (and want) for myself and my Bingo parties.
When setting time limits for each task you may want to question whether the time you have allotted is on the best day and time. Do you really need to spend ten hours a day developing a clip color, or is it more that you think you should be doing this because you are trying to develope the best red clip before the other clip builders out there? Yes or No? There are only two answers and the easiest choice is yes, but the right one might be no.
“No? Really? Are you crazy? They really want an awesome red clip and I have to get it done now. I can’t say NO to my number one paperclip customer!” Oh, yes you can! If you are serious about making a calendar and setting priorities, and getting your life under control, then you better be serious about saying “No” right to the bitter/sweet end. “No” is a very difficult word to cultivate into our business life. Many of us were raised to believe the customer is always right and whatever they need we try to make happen whether it interferes with our private life or not. “No” is also the first, and most hated word we learn as a child. “No” is the term that denies us of something we want and as adults we don’t want to deny a want to others so we just say yes. It’s easier.
Let’s say your best paperclip customer calls you and asks to meet at the last minute. Your knee jerk reaction might be to say, “YES, I’d love to meet you for a drink tonight to go over the launch of the red mini clip line.” Yet, on your calendar you scheduled writing. By accepting this last minute invitation for drinks, you are actually saying to yourself, “YES, I can put off my writing time so I can have drinks with him even though I have 20,000 words to finish in two days.” Stay in control of your time and your calendar. Keep your priorities set so that you are doing the things you need to do, when you need to do them. Consider saying, “I’m sorry I can’t make drinks tonight, but I have time on Tuesday at 3 pm to meet with you for about an hour. Does that work for you?” Re-read that. Even though you have said “no” to your customer, you have also given them (and you) a solution by giving an alternative plan.
I have spewed over fifteen hundred words at you about balancing your life and your writing profession, and you might be feeling overwhelmed. RELAX. It takes time to get into the swing of setting priorities, keeping a calendar, and getting comfortable with saying “no”. When I first started I kept track of every minute just so I could figure out where my time was going. Funny, I found I spent more time on Facebook then I imagined. No wonder I had no time for Bingo! After months of practice and honing in on what my calendar and my priorities, I found my life running more like a well oiled machine. I chipped away at the rusty spots on a regular basis and, as a result, my writing machine started humming along without the loss of my sanity. I’m happier, my family is happier, my business gets the attention it needs and I now write everyday. Without fail.
Great point with making “ME” time. So often have I just finished with the day…cleaning, driving, caring for kids…that I just want to sit and write for the rest of the night. Sometimes I give in and that’s all I do….That’s probably why I’m gaining weight. I don’t exercise nearly enough anymore!
I does seem like the “ME” in all of us gets put in the back seat. Maybe to get yourself back into the swing of exercising try going for a 15 minute walk right after dinner. After your walk, make dinner then declare the rest of the evening as YOU time and write.
Thanks for sharing this – I’ve been struggling with how to balance my schedule and make writing for what feels like forever, and this sounds like a great way to start sorting it out.
Start small Meghan. You can only eat cake one piece at a time. Make one change at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed and throw the whole idea out the window.
This makes such perfect sense but, as you say, it’s so difficult to say NO and we do need to question whether some of the things we do are absolutely necessary right now. Thanks for the tips, I need to try and put them into practice now.
It is difficult to say NO. Keep in mind that the more you practice these things the easier they get and they will bring a whole new way to navigate through life with you in control of the boat….not the rest of the world.