“There is a time for work and a time for love. That leaves no other time." -Coco Chanel

This time budget exercise will help you more proactively make the most of the most valuable resource we all have–both in life and work.

As a startup CEO, I play many roles in my business – from marketing to sales, from product manager to human resources manager. And I also have a personal life. Or I used to, and I’m striving to get it back. I won’t go into all of the reasons why having balance in your life between work and play; between business and family and friends is important. This post simply focuses on one tool that can help you take control and proactively manage your time so you can have success in both work and life.

The exercise is relatively simple, but it does take a bit of work. The good news is that you don’t need to do this exercise every week. Even just doing it once will can be a life-changing experience. If you really want to transform your approach to time management, try doing it one week a month.

1. Decide what areas of your life you want to ‘balance’.

I call these categories “focus areas.” A classic list would include: work, family, friends, spirit, health, hobbies. If you are striving to launch a side-business or write a novel, you likely need to proactively carve out time to work those things.

Your focus area list should be personal to you.

If you are heavily focusing on one area of life think how you might break up that area into smaller focus areas. For example, if “running my business” is one of your main focus areas, you might explore how you spend your “running my business” time.

The first time I did this exercise, I tracked time I spent on traction (marketing, business development, and sales), product development, and team for a week. I discovered that I was spending too much time on the product — an area that I’m very comfortable with — and not enough on traction — an area that I’m not as comfortable with. We humans are very good at minimizing time spent in discomfort, sometimes without even always realizing it.

For my time budget this week, I want to budget these focus areas for work: sales, business development, product, team, and these for personal: health and relationships. These categories are fluid; our needs are always in flux. If you do this exercise for one week every month, over time you will no doubt find yourself changing your focus areas. Pick the ones that make the most sense to you.

Do this now:

Spend no more than five minutes coming up with your focus area list. Make sure you are considering areas that you may be avoiding, such as I was doing with sales.

[tweetify]”Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”            – Steve Jobs

2Reflect on the prior week.

Now that you have your list of focus areas, reflect on what you did during the prior week. You might want to list the major tasks or accomplishments of the week and then estimate the amount of time you spent on each. Your estimates don’t need to be exact. You’ll get a sense of the overall balance (or lack of balance) even with rough estimates.

Doing this step alone, even without the rest, is worthwhile. This is how I discovered I was avoiding the important work of sales and focusing too heavily on product development.

3. Decide on a milestone goal for each focus area.

Next, you are going to proactively plan your upcoming week.

Using Cardsmith, create a board called “Time Budget,” and switch to grid view. You’ll make the columns of your grid the various focus areas that you listed out in step #1. Name the top row of your grid ‘Goals’ and the bottom row ‘Tasks’.

Place one or two (at most) milestone cards in top for each of your focus areas.

Here is my time budget board in Cardsmith as I finished Step 3:

Cardsmith time budget board with milestone goals.
A Cardsmith time budget board with milestone goals.

I recommend putting no more than two goals in any single focus area; ideally, you will have only one goal per area. A goal should be something significant, but also achievable in the next few to several months.

It is okay to have ‘lightweight’ goals in some of your focus areas. As you continue to do this exercise over time, you will get a feel for how many goals you can successfully work toward at any given point in time.

I am a four-at-a-time kind of gal, which is why I have ‘maintain important friendships’ in the personal category, vs. ‘find ten new friends’ because I know I am pretty maxed out with other things right now.

Some focus areas will be weightier than others. The goal is not to make all areas equal, but to be intentional with your distribution. Without this intentional budgeting of time, you are likely to either spend a disproportionate amount of your time on things that don’t move you toward your goals, or reacting to other peoples’ demands on your time.

4. Create tasks to support each Goal.    

Now it’s time to put the meat on the bones. What tasks, large or small, are you going to complete this week in order to move closer to each of your goals listed in the top row?

In Cardsmith, create one or more cards for each task and place it in the second row. On the first task card, add two text fields. Label them “Estimated Hours” and “Actual Hours”.  

Then, as you create additional task cards, use the “copy card” feature so that these two fields will be on each card. You will populate the Estimated Hours on each task card at this time, and leave the Actual Hours field blank for now–unless you have already completed the task.

Turn on the grid totals feature in your Cardsmith board to see the totals for each area. Again, you may not be perfectly balanced mathematically, but you should try to be somewhat balanced between these focus areas to the extent that you choose.

This exercise is all about you being in the driver’s seat, about you taking control of your time and spending it in ways that will help you meet your goals.

[tweetify]”Time flies. You be the pilot”.[/tweetify]

Create tasks to support each goal.
Add tasks to your Cardsmith time budget board to support each goal.

(click on the board to see a live interactive example you can play with in Cardsmith)

5. Track your actual time during the week.   

I like to populate my actual hours at the end of every day as well as plan my specific tasks for the next day. Do this by filling in the Actual Hours on each task card. Don’t try to match your Estimated Hours; just enter what you actually spent. Doing this will raise your awareness and make you better at estimating of how long things actually take.

You may find that you worked on tasks that are not on the task cards–tasks that were not included or budgeted in your time. That is okay! It is still helpful information that we want to capture.

To capture this, copy one of the cards in the focus area in which that card should fall, and fill in the Actual Hours, leaving the Estimate Hours blank. If you find yourself doing tasks that are not in ANY of the focus areas, that is a sign that either you need to add another focus area to your plan, or that you are spending time reacting to other people’s demands rather than your plan–which is also good information to know.

6. Reflect at the end of the week.  

After you have tracked your time, and populated the tasks, reflect on how it went. How do you feel? What did you learn about yourself and the way you spend your time?

Looking at my own Cardsmith time budget board, now that I have finished this blog post (part of my “traction” time), it’s time for me to get back to product development.

Have fun taking back your time!


P.S. Ready to try Cardsmith for an easy, visual way to map out your time budget? Sign up for a free trial.