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If you’re stressed, ask: Is this task something I really need to do?

Tired? Overburdened? Amy Andrews has a neat technique that can help you organize your time better and make sense of your work-life balance. It's in her eBook Tell Your Time developed logically from trying to make sense of her own life as wife, parent, employee, and blogger.

She suggests we divide our lives into whether activities are negotiable or non-negotiable, and whether they occur at fixed times or can be scheduled more flexibly:

  • A “non-negotiable” activity is one you cannot or are absolutely unwilling to give up. Sleep falls into this category for all of us, she insists, although sometimes we hedge on it. A bi-weekly lunch appointment with your best friend might also fit into this category.
  • A “negotiable” activity, on the other hand, is one you cherish but if necessary can relinquish. An easy example might be your favourite TV show, or your child’s third extracurricular activity. Even work, she argues in an interview, is negotiable. She and her husband have chosen to work part-time at this stage of their life and home-school their children so that they can more easily flow between play and school during the day rather than be locked into a regime where family interaction and play always occurs with everyone tired in the evening.
  • A “fixed” activity is one with a time determined by someone else that can’t be changed by you. If your employer sets certain work hours, those are fixed. Your child’s hockey or soccer practice is fixed by the coach, the games by the league.
  • A “flexible” activity has the time determined by you. Grocery shopping is a prime example – it does have to happen, at some point, but you can decide when to fit it in. If you’re self-employed, some or all of your work hours might be flexible.

The idea is to create a four-quadrant grid into which you plug all your activities before tackling your calendar. In the non-negotiable/fixed time quadrant, likely few in number, might be your work hours and your time at church. Non-negotiable activities with flexible times might be a host of other activities, from sleep to grocery shopping, to time with the kids and your spouse, to reading.

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Non-negotiable activities must be slotted into your calendar. But the negotiable activities, whether they occur at fixed or flexible intervals, must be seen as truly negotiable: To live a sane life, they are targets for cutting, since there are only 24 hours in a day.

At the same time, she suggests you check that some of your non-negotiable activities aren't in fact negotiable. You may not be willing to work part time. But perhaps the children need not be in a certain number of extra-curricular activities. Perhaps your involvement in a voluntary organization has become a bigger burden than you can afford.

"It comes down to choice and priorities," she says. "Most people realize when filling out the negotiables and the non-negotiables – at least I did – that they have more possibilities for change than they realized." Indeed, she deliberately makes the non-negotiable quadrants in her grid smaller than the negotiables: "There are not that many non-negotiables."

This bleeds into some other useful concepts in her time management approach. She stresses the importance of thinking through your major roles in life, as a way to determine your purpose and create a beacon for sifting through the many activities in your schedule to decide which are off target for your chosen roles.

"Roles are who you are; activities are what you do in your roles," she writes. She gets you started by suggesting your first role is "self." There are probably three to five other roles, such as: spouse, parent, employee, business owner, student, caregiver, volunteer, coach, and home manager.

She points out that roles may be chosen by you or given to you. They may be enjoyable or not. Over time, they will shift. "They are the easiest way to see the big picture, what you are doing in life and what your goals are. It's a way to break your activities down," she says.

The roles, and activities, she notes, relate to relationships. "At the end of their lives, people want to know they had good relationships. Relationships are where you achieve the most joy – and pain, and regret. We're relational human beings," she says.

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We're also human beings without much patience and willingness to sacrifice. But if we want to make changes to our lives and achieve our goals, she argues we need to accept that it will require patience and sacrifice, pushing through discomfort. "You have to think marathon, not sprint. That applies to relationships. It's constant work. If I want a good relationship with my spouse, I have to invest in that relationship and keep working on stuff when distress occurs. We're in it for the long haul," she says.

Sacrifice reconnects us to her grid. After you have figured out your roles and purpose, and the activities that flow from it, you must realize you can't have it all. Only so many activities can be pursued if you want to be fair to yourself and others. Be prepared to sacrifice some of those negotiable activities, to focus on the truly non-negotiable in terms of your goals.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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