Time Budget: An Easy Way to Avoid Prioritization Dilemmas and Keep Your Life Balanced

Time Budget

The time budget is a practical method you can use every day to keep your life always in balance. It closes the gap between the high-level world of areas of responsibility and major goals, and the down-to-earth world of tasks and external demands.

As a bonus, the time budget also helps you effectively deal with many productivity killers such as lack of focus, procrastination and perfectionism — all in one fell swoop.

Neglect-Based Prioritizing

Consider the following question. What’s more important to you: health or family?

All right, we know that that question doesn’t make any sense. Its silliness lies in the fact that we know that both health and family are important and that both need attention. The usual notion of prioritizingchoosing one thing over another — doesn’t make much sense here. It’s obvious we need to pay attention to both, and so it is with all key areas of our lives.

But here lies the conundrum: although we can’t properly choose between health and family, in any given moment we may need to choose between their tangible equivalents ‘go to gym’ and ‘call mom’. When we break down these high-level areas into discrete tasks, it’s too easy to forget what they’re really about and make bad prioritization decisions as a result.

The easiest — and unfortunately the most common — way to make these decisions is by what I call neglect-based prioritizing.

It goes like this: You unconsciously start paying too much attention to one aspect of your life, say, your work. After a while, you notice that you’ve been neglecting another area, say, your family. You take some action and then put the family affairs back on track. While you’re doing that, another area gets neglected. You tackle that one area. And so on.

The problem with this cycle is that you’re always in reactive mode — always lagging behind on most areas. We all use neglect-based prioritizing to some extent in our lives, but we can substitute a much better strategy.

The Time Budget

The best method I found to fight neglect-based prioritizing and achieve better life balance is to create a time budget.

Setting a time budget means proactively allocating shares of time for the things that matter to you. Similarly to a financial budget, you define the ideal amount of time to invest in each of your important life areas, and then stick to that budget for the duration of its allocated time.

And, just like in a regular financial budget, the benefits are many. Following a budget prevents you from wasting time on non-critical activities, as it helps you allocate time for the things that are most important to you. And — this is for sure — you’ll gain many insights about how you spend your time! But there’s much more to it than just that…

As simple as it may sound, on any given moment, your time budget is an easy and practical guide to high-level decisions on how you should invest your time. That gives you peace of mind and frees mental energy for you to focus on any task to which you allocated a time period.

Let me show you the 4 steps to making a time budget for you and you’ll also understand along the way the many nuances that make time budgeting so powerful.

How to Create Your Time Budget

1. Organize Yourself Around Key Result Areas

Forget for a minute about tasks. Focus instead on the high-level ‘compartments’ of your life: those can be big goals, areas of responsibility or major roles — whatever suits you best. Think of these as the “big buckets” of your life — the areas that should get your regular attention. Be as broad or as specific as you want. Brainstorm and list these areas.

As for me, I use loosely-structured categories of activities I consider important: some examples are reading, socializing, exercising and self knowledge.

2. Allocate Time for Each Area

Now that you have your key result areas outlined, you need to allocate time to spend on each of these areas. This is of course a very personal decision, but here are some tips that can help you:

  • Don’t pay (much) attention to current tasks. Remember that budgeting means allotting your time in one way you consider ideal. Of course, you need to add extra time for contingencies and other unforeseen circumstances, but consider that they are temporary. Think long-term and mentally isolate yourself from current pressures as much as you can.
  • Be conservative with your overall budgeted time. You should never commit all of your available time to your budget, as you can never predict the inevitable external demands and random tasks that pop up. Budgeting 50% of your available time is a good start (you can be even more conservative in the beginning and adjust it as you gain more confidence in the process).
  • Use a short time horizon for your time budget. If you want to make time budgeting work, you’ll need to review your budget regularly. To make it practical, don’t wait too long to evaluate how you’re doing with your budget. One week is a great time frame for planning and reviewing in general, and that also holds true for your time budget.

3. Spend and Track Your Time

As is the case with any budget, you’ll need to track your spending to make sure it comes as close as possible to what you’ve planned.

There are many ways to track your time as well as many tools you can use, but let me suggest one approach. This is what I consider to be the cherry on top of time budgeting. For me, it’s what makes all the difference, what considerably increases the effectiveness of time budgeting: Since we’re already allocating our time to our budgets, why not make use of time boxing?

Time boxing is the best stand-alone productivity technique I know, hands down. But when used as a companion to time budgeting, you really have the best of both worlds: high-level life balance taken care of, and low-level productivity soaring.

By dividing your time in discrete units of, say, one hour each, you also make it easier to track your time. Instead of tracking running time, you track the number of completed time boxes instead. Even more important than that, you also add all time boxing benefits to the mix, such as overcoming procrastination, conquering perfectionism, increased focus, among many others.

4. Review your Spending

If you’re human, your actual time spending will not match 100% of what you defined in your budget — that’s OK. As important as tracking your time is reviewing your progress and adjusting your budget accordingly. This is what keeps your system dynamic and flexible, as priorities change and as you learn more about yourself and how you spend your time.

If you perform some kind of weekly review — such as in David Allen’s Getting Things Done system — that is the perfect opportunity to review your budget, too. Here are some examples of questions to consider when evaluating your past week’s performance and creating or updating the budget for next week:

  • Did you overspend/underspend time on any particular category?
  • Did you allocate too much time overall for your budget?
  • How do you feel about the amount of time you allocated for each area? Do you feel your life is balanced?
  • Are there any key result areas you initially overlooked?

Conclusion

By budgeting your time, you have an objective framework to assess your life balance and adjust it accordingly, instead of waiting for a crisis in a life area to do something about it.

That’s the best way so far I found to seamlessly integrate high-level prioritization into my everyday life. It really has been working wonders for me.

Do you use a different approach? I would love to read about it in the comments!