A little over a month ago, someone asked if I could share advice on how to maintain a good work-life balance as a leader. I was reluctant to respond as I’m no paragon for maintaining balance. But several weeks later, here I am sharing my story.

Let Things Go

Ultimately, work-life balance comes down to knowing when and how to just let things go. Oftentimes, we’re juggling more balls than we can keep in the air and we have to let some drop. Sometimes we can pick them back up on the bounce; sometimes we can’t. Sometimes someone else will realize that the ball dropped, and they’ll pick it up; sometimes no one does. Sometimes we think we’re keeping all of the balls in the air and then one disruption causes us to drop several balls at once. We have to learn to accept all of this.

The very first day I was a people manager, I asked my manager what one piece of advice he’d give me as a new manager. He said, “From this day forward, you’ll always have more work to do than you can get done. You have to let things fall on the floor and be OK with it.” Many years later, I reflect on that and I think he was spot-on. But this doesn’t only apply to managers; it applies to anyone who is trying to grow in their role. It applies to anyone who is taking on challenges they don’t quite know how to overcome. This advice applies to everyone who ponders how to improve their work-life balance. Let things fall on the floor and be OK with it.

Knowing What to Drop

Of course, it’s easy to say to let balls drop and to let things fall on the floor; but how? Virtually everything we need to do feels important, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. There’s a technique I’ve taught myself that has been working well for me–finding my system for managing my to-do list. While there are many tools, everyone’s system is different. Find yours.

Here’s my system:

  1. During the day, I record action items in my paper bullet journal notebook.
  2. When time permits, I record those action items into my electronic to-do list and check them off in my notebook.
  3. When I’m planning out how to spend my time that isn’t already booked in meetings, or when I find myself with a surprise 30 minutes of free time, I refer to my electronic to-do list.
  4. Before starting on anything, I triage the entire list, reviewing it from oldest item to newest item.
  5. This triage involves looking for something that seems urgent, actionable, and small enough to complete in the time I have free.
  6. Once I’ve reviewed my whole list and selected an item to tackle, I do it.
  7. Once that item is done, if I still have more time, I repeat the triage and task selection.

This system yields a natural consequence of deliberately letting things go. Oftentimes during my triage, I realize that some of my to-do list items just don’t matter anymore and I delete them. Poof, gone! There are several ways this can manifest:

  • I’ve already completed it as part of some other task and had forgotten it was on the list
  • Someone else has completed the task
  • Circumstances have changed and the task simply doesn’t apply anymore
  • The deadline for getting it done passed

The last one is the most painful–there was something that was supposed to be done by a certain date and it didn’t get done. Sometimes there are negative consequences for this, but more often than you might think, it just didn’t matter. If a task that seemed important when recording it never became important enough to be the item selected for action during triage, then it might not have been that important after all. But when there are negative consequences, this turns into a new action item: to apologize to those affected and to recognize how the triage process needs to change.

Maintaining Sanity

My work-life balance goes through cycles. Sometimes it feels really good, sometimes it’s not so good. But my system is always there for me and it keeps me sane. It also helps me recognize when it’s getting worse and when it’s getting better. Recognizing that I’m falling behind is the perfect time for me to ask for help from those around me, delegate more aggressively, and make sure my triage process is on target.

I’d like to point to this post itself as an example. I was asked to share this story over a month ago and I’m just now posting it. Since then, I haven’t had a time when this was the most urgent thing to do, I felt prepared to do it, and I had the time to get it done meaningfully. I dropped this ball and there was no way anyone else could pick it up. This evening, I left work at 5pm, came home, made dinner, spent time with my family, and now I’m writing this post before I sign off for the weekend.