The Balanced Life Planner

Questions of time management often come back to the subject of planners. I’ve never been a huge one for these myself. Over the years, I’ve put together my own system. I have a small weekly calendar — just a pocket-sized one with about 7 lines per day. I write reminders for phone calls or events in here. I also keep a regular spiral notebook in which I write my weekly priority list. This covers both work and personal topics. If the week seems very busy, I will schedule the actual days ahead of time, but usually I just make a list of what 5-6 activities I will do each day as the day shows up, and then cross them off.

This is pretty low key, I will admit, but on the other hand, my life seems to be going pretty well. Except for the occasional glitch like the baby waking up at 4:30am two days in a row after sleeping through the night for 4 months. No planner can do anything about that.

If you’re into commercial planners, though, I would definitely recommend checking out Julie Morgenstern’s Balanced Life Planner.

I like Morgenstern’s work for several reasons. First, she once did a coaching session with my husband in which she mocked his 20 page to-do list. He totally deserved this.

Second, as she puts it in the planner, she believes that “you have the power to make choices, take ownership, and influence the course of your days, instead of feeling victimized.” Her system “will help you plan your days realistically so you feel excited, rather than overwhelmed, when you wake up…. It will help you create days that are meaningful and rewarding to you and teach you how to connect each of your daily activities to your big-picture goals.”

Here’s how that works. The system’s master notebook has space for you to write down your goals for each month. She suggests three main categories for those goals: work, self, family/friends. Given that these are most people’s three main core competencies (nurturing your career, nurturing your family, and nurturing yourself), we are already off to a good start on focusing on what really matters.

Each month has its own calendar for you to write appointments and daily tasks. Standard stuff here. But what makes it interesting is that Morgenstern puts in a column for you to estimate exactly how much time these tasks will take. Many people are bad at this. As I wrote in 168 Hours, they don’t know how long the subway takes from midtown to downtown and they’re riding it every day! Untold horrors occur in both work and people’s personal lives because, even though they’ve written 10 other reports, they just can’t guess how long that 11th one will take, and block it into their schedules.

Anyway, she suggests you then also write down how much time the tasks actually took. Over time, getting into this habit will help you figure out exactly how much a day can hold. Hint: if it takes you 4 hours to write a report, you have 3 hours of phone calls booked, you need to do a 1 hour errand, you have 2 hours of meetings, and a 1-hour round trip commute, and you start all this at 8am, you won’t finish a recipe that requires 45 minutes by 6:30pm. Just FYI.

My one criticism would be the Time Map, a spreadsheet that you are supposed to use to block out how much time you would like to devote to different spheres of life. The idea is to see whether you are in balance, and certainly it is a good idea to have a visual representation of time. However, the spreadsheet only has 98 hours. Of course, you need to sleep, but sleeping 49-56 hours per week leaves 112-119 for other things. And I think it’s helpful to see when you’re sleeping too.

But there you go. If my only problem is that the time spreadsheet isn’t big enough, that’s pretty small in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this is a good planner for moving from getting through the day to figuring out what you actually should be doing with your time.

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