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Draw two 24-hour clocks. On the first, mark out how you would spend your ideal workday. Perhaps sleep is from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Then the next hour is spent cleaning up and eating, followed by an hour with family, then three hours of work, and so on, around the 24 hours of the day. On the second circle, indicate how you actually spend the average day. Comparing the two clocks will show whether you are in balance. It will reveal which areas of your life are getting undue or insufficient attention, and also whether the time you tackle various activities fits with the periods you prefer to address them.

For Jay Fuerstenberg, the exercise showed he was dramatically out of balance – and why. Married to a Japanese woman and working in Tokyo, but with an apartment outside that city, he was spending four hours a day commuting. That meant time with his family during the work week was infinitesimal and his sleep was less than the eight hours his body required to function well.

When major projects came along, the shaky situation would deteriorate, as he needed to sink more time into his work as a software developer, his sleep declining to as little as four hours a night. Even at best, the Japanese work culture kept him in the office far too long. "The Japanese are very hard working, to the point of dying, actually," he said in an interview. At his office, nobody wanted to be the first to leave, so everyone stayed at their desks, hoping somebody else would make the first move.

Regaining balance happened in stages. He was able to work at home a couple of days a week, easing some of the commuting burden. He could eat dinner on time those days and spend time with his son rather than rushing into the house just as the youngster was going to bed. When he realized how much time was gobbled up by shopping, his family decided to go grocery shopping once a month instead of weekly, saving on the time spent travelling to the supermarket.

Moving back to his Vancouver hometown and working as a freelancer from home, while keeping his former employer as a key client, allowed him ultimately to eliminate commuting time. Now he is able to take his son to school and pick him up, and eat meals routinely with his family.

He urges you to determine the areas most out of whack, since those are the highest priorities for change. Begin that transformation with your private life, since you have more control than with work, where you have agreed to exchange your time and effort for a paycheque. Then develop a plan of attack, and practise the changes you decide upon.

"If you don't have a plan, you are just flowing with the day. When you have a plan, you can try to apply discipline to make it happen," he said in the interview.

Next, consider how you got out of balance. He believes it will boil down to a lack of mindfulness in all aspects of your life. We don't pay attention to what is happening to each precious hour and forget who the boss of each hour actually is. "We let things happen, and only if bad things occur do we think about it. So we let things get out of balance without considering the consequences. Maybe we are seeking a promotion and feel the need to work longer hours," he said.

On his blog, he notes that the exercise with the two clocks makes us "think about where each hour was going. You're probably not used to looking at it this way. It takes a while to see time as minute windows of opportunity rather than something that just flows in one direction. Understanding this brings us to the next question: Who decides how each hour of your life is spent? The answer should be you, at least on some level. Your job may take eight hours each weekday but you choose your employer so you have some say in the matter. As for the other hours, you're the captain! You decide when to shop, run errands, watch movies, etc … ," he writes.

So, reduce your commute by moving closer to work. Try Internet shopping and banking to save time. Watch television shows you have recorded so you don't waste time on commercials. Incorporate exercise like walking up stairs into your life rather than allocating extra time for it at the gym. But don't park your kids in front of the TV. If you chose to have kids, be mindful about spending time with them.

His own mindfulness has led him to change his views on Canadian versus Japanese culture. "In Japan, you work longer hours and harder. I thought if Canadians were like that, it would make us more competitive and people would take our work more seriously. In Japan, we're only known for maple syrup and Anne of Green Gables while Americans are respected for their work ethic. But maybe the Japanese can learn from Canadians – not work so hard and enjoy life more. You can be mindful both ways," he said.

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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