• Author:Ben Jones
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The five principles for getting right work-life balance for you…….part four

Principle 4

Make the tools work for you

When I was growing up and starting to learn all those practical life skills that I wasn’t very good at and have never really used since (painting, decorating, gardening, car washing etc) I was taught to “use the right tool for the job”. 

I can’t say it was something that particularly resonated with – or frankly interested -me at that time. But now as I reflect of my views of work-life balance, what has worked for me down the years and the pile of pitfalls we can all succumb to, the idea of the right tools for the job really hits home.

In principle five – the final one of my quintet – I will talk about planning and how to become a good planner, even if planning is not your thing. Or as people who often dismiss the importance of planning say “I’m just more spontaneous” or “I’m a free spirit” or “I’ve just more creative than that”, to which I say “perhaps that’s why you’re working at 120% capacity all the time and are always late for stuff”. What we will examine now, in principle four, will help with the goal of becoming a planner but that is more of a state of mind and approach. In this post we will look at the practical tools themselves and some suggestions for how you can make the myriad of tools on offer work for you.

There are bookshops full of self-help/business tomes you can read that discuss the steps you can take to become a productivity ninja or some sort of organisation machine. In truth, the solutions are easy to find and implement. They are contained on your mobile phone, iPad and PC desktop. The “trick” as so often in life is to work out what you are trying to achieve and then find the right tool or technique to help you achieve it.

I start these suggestions with an assumption; you want to maximise your effectiveness at work and home so that you can reduce the time you waste on “admin” or mundane but time consuming tasks that get in the way of life – or put more simply – get in the way of you getting home on time. 

Think about the following questions. 

  • How many emails are currently in your inbox? 
  • How many of them are marked as “unread”? 
  • How often do you ask someone to resend you an email/spend time looking for an email that you think you saw but now cannot find?
  • How many folders do you have to file your emails? (If the answer is none or lots, we have a problem!)
  • Have you ever tried to find an email but couldn’t remember which of your 134 folders you have filed it in?
  • When was the last time you wrote a to do list? 
  • When was the last time you rewrote your to do list within a day or two or writing it out first time?
  • When did you last complete all of the items of your to do list?
  • When did you last write out your to do list in a note book and then leave the notebook at home/in a taxi/somewhere yet to become apparent to you?
  • When did you last forget your work pass/leave it at home/in a different bag?
  • Have you ever got to work and realised that something you read, need to read or some notes you have made are in the wrong bag?

If you’ve answered yes to any of this questions or the themes they highlight ring a bell, think about how much time you have wasted as a result. Think about every ten minutes you have wasted because you haven’t been organised enough or because you haven’t been using the right tool to help you organise your work and home life. Think about all the hours you waste a year on these activities that you could have spent with your partner, wife, husband, children, pets, family, friends, stamp collection or doing anything at all that you enjoy more than work. 

Over the course of a year, each ten minute bundle of wasted time adds up to hours and hours – maybe even days and days – that is your time that you are unnecessarily spending working. That is your time. Your time you are throwing away. 

The solutions are simple. 

Your inbox should be cleared every day – no unread items at the end of each day and all emails that need actioning should be answered each day and everything that doesn’t need actioning filed or deleted. Yes, every day. I allow a small number of emails to be left in the inbox each day (see below) but never enough to create a scroll! 

Get into the habit of deleting the dross as soon as you see it. Use spare minutes in the lift. Before a meeting starts. In a few minutes you can allocate to this task on the bus, train or even whilst sat on the toilet. Yes I know, a lovely image. 

The only items that should be in your inbox at the end of each working day are those that have arrived after 6pm (when you shouldn’t be reading emails unless you are dealing with a crisis or working a longer day for a specific reason) or the emails you have read and are leaving there to be actioned on the next working day(s) as you couldn’t action them straight away. 

Your inbox should be under control all the time. You should be responsive to what’s it in within 24 hours, even if that is just a quick acknowledgement whilst you work on what to do to action it – this will reduce the need for a follow up email from the sender and stress for you as you get chased to see if you’ve read it. 

You should never spend time looking for an email. To organise your emails you need a small number of folders; emails for “meetings” (with papers, agendas, notes etc for upcoming meetings etc – you file these away once the meeting has passed); emails for “long term action” (low priority activities that you will spend time on when you get a spare minute but that don’t make it on to your to do list for that week); “HR” (for all your people-related, team and people management activities); “general” (for personal emails or emails from corporate accounts such as finance, facilities etc); you then need 2 or 3 main folders for your day to day work – split by your big work topics. For example I have a “comms” folder, one for “media” and one for my “teaching”. Any more than 7/8 overall folders and you have built in more unnecessary complexity and time wasting into filing and searching for emails. 

You must have a weekly to do list. This list should contain all your week ahead actions – both work-related and home-related. One list. Keep it simple. Two options for how you write this. If you like hand writing stuff then use a notebook that never leaves your possession (see below on your work bag) and date it – e.g. Monday 1 April. Make two columns. Left hand side is work; right hand side is home. Write it once and leave room to add stuff as the week goes on. Make sure you tick off or scrawl out each item as it’s completed. Review it three times a day. First thing. Around lunch time. Before you pack up for the day. 

Option two – which is my preferred option is to use your calendar. Put each action as an all day appointment at the top of each day – place the item on the day it needs to be completed by and then delete it when you complete it. Using this approach means you can move items easily as you prioritise and reprioritise your diary, actions etc.

Have one calendar with your work and home appointments in. If you have a partner ensure they have access to the home calendar and use that for all your home/family. Include in it every meeting, personal appointmnet, travel time to and from events. Importantly for those with children, make clear who is doing the school run each day with the travel time blocked out in the diary. 

If you have lots of ideas or scribble notes in a notebook/on bits of paper for upcoming meetings, projects etc then try to use one of the many tools for taking notes available on your phone or smart device. I use “Apple Notes” for drafting stuff, making notes etc – I can then email it to myself or someone else and it saves time in typing up your rough scribbles. 

Have a work bag that you use every day. Before you go to bed each night make sure it is packed for work – security pass and all – don’t leave it until the morning when something is bound to distract from remembering to pack those key documents, keys, notebooks etc. Minimise the scope for forgetting stuff and then wasting time looking for it the next day. Ideally don’t swap bags during the week – keep your work bag stocked and ready for the week and don’t leave room for mistakes by moving stuff between bags. The one day you will need something urgently, it will be sod’s law be in the other bag, which is sat on your kitchen table – with your work pass!

I also get my clothes out for the next day on the evening before – this reduces wasted time in the morning and maximises the time I get to spend with my daughter at breakfast time. I take the same approach with her when she gets in from school with her uniform, school bag etc – getting everything ready as soon as possible. This may be a bridge too far for some but it’s my way of staying organised and reducing my wasted time in the mornings or my room for mistakes and forgetfulness. This is also a way for me to feel under control – something I learnt from many sessions of therapy. This need for organisation is for me about feeling safe and secure and protected from the uncertainties and unreliabilities of life and people. That is a topic for another post…..

There is nothing smart or complex about these practical tips and ideas. The principle is simple. Get organised. Stay organised. Reduce wasted time. Reduce rework. Reduce the chance you have to forget stuff and then spend time recovering your position. Stop wasting time at work that you could be using at home. 

It doesn’t matter what tools you use as long as you use them properly. As long as you spend the maximum amount of time at home on the fun stuff and not at work on the unnecessary stuff that is often self-induced. 

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to use a shammy when you’re drying your car after washing it – otherwise your windows will be streaky!