How I think about prioritising my work-life balance and calendar management

Posted by Kevin Dowling on Feb 12, 2019 10:14:15 AM

One of the hardest things to do when considering productivity in any scenario is calendar management. A lot of this stress is related to the fact that there are so many potential distractions & avenues for said distraction. Inconveniently, humans have spent years hardwiring our brains to feel rewarded by small, simple distractions. But, getting stuff done shouldn't be a battle of wits against a tide of requests from others or the desire to get a quick hit from an Instagram photo.

When it comes to the flow of things to be done & organisation, I have three really simple rules to consider:

  1. Email is a list of things to be done, prioritised by others. Feel free to de-prioritise that list -- and spend a good portion of your day with your email tab/client closed.
  2. Slack is also a list of things to be done prioritised by others a-la email. Snooze notifications, close the window and move on for periods of the day. Slack often becomes a channel where people expect immediate/close-to-immediate responses. Don't allow that to become normal.
  3. You own your prioritisation. Of course, that depends on the job. For Sales Engineers, the realm where I work, the top prioritisation tends to be things that generate revenue, then it's the things that aide you to generate revenue (self-development, training, etc.) and finally, other jobs to be done.

The main point here is that you need to take control of what you deem necessary work. Everything else is secondary. Yes, it means you'll take longer to get back to someone with a burning question; but that burning question is their responsibility, not yours. You may also need to setup a standardised SLA between you & colleagues depending on your autonomy within your job. But also, prioritising your own development is far more important than inbox zero. Chasing Inbox Zero is a fools errand.

The reason why we chase Inbox Zero or no Slack notifications is that it has the same hit of dopamine as getting lots of likes on Instagram or retweets on Twitter. But it's not necessarily conducive to actual productive work. When have you reached Inbox Zero and felt you did a good day's work?

The other part to this is calendar management. Knowing how to prioritise is step one, but being able to use that prioritisation to impact your day is the bigger step. Once you have a grasp on what to do (client meetings, 1:1 catch-ups, self development, projects, etc.) you need to figure out when to do it. And a former boss of mine always said that the struggle to balance life & work won't be meaningful unless you decide to take a "work+life" approach. Which is to say, weaving both work & life together will get you balance quicker than trying to draw a hard line in the sand between where one starts and the other ends.

In a few days I'm travelling to our US HQ. I have a pretty sizeable team including local management & individual contributors. This is coupled with a lot of people running playbooks that affect my team, my own boss and people in my periphery worth catching up with. Below is a screenshot of my calendar:


I've blurred it to protect the innocent. But it's busy, and there's a lot of colour. But it passes a blink test every day. Here's the rundown of colours:

  • Light blue is some travel-related block. Monday is the flight, and the first block is a public block to remind Dublin-based folks that I'm in the US so not likely to join a meeting at 3am!
  • Yellow are things that are specific to me; gym, commute, lunch, etc. That's why you rarely see it crop up in the middle of the day outside of lunch at midday.
  • Purple, the most dominant colour, denotes 1:1 meetings.
  • Red denotes meetings with 2 or more other people.
  • Green is prep time for certain meetings.
  • Dark blue is for projects or todo items/follow-ups I have in the pipe.

Beyond that, I take notes for meetings in which syncs across devices while I also use Things to run todo lists. I return to these in dark blue "todo" sessions. I've tried other tools but none have ever been that effective for me. For free alternatives, try Wunderlist and even the in-built notes app on your OS.

Obviously autonomy in a job helps this, but often times I've found people who get into work where autonomy is a factor slip into a hole of poor prioritisation of tasks and stress as a result of not putting their energy where it matters. If you walk away from an 8 hour work day feeling all you achieved was Inbox Zero, you won't feel fulfilled at work.

The crux of these exercises to prioritise is that if work consumes enough time and energy to be part of life's balance, then you best make sure you're growing, contributing and prioritising in an optimised way. And while these tips work for me, they probably need to be adapted for you. But hopefully this post will serve as a neat little template for how to get things done for yourself.

Questions? Feel free to ping me on Slack, drop me an email or DM me on Twitter. Thanks for reading.