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Prioritizing by Context

As a PR pro, I am constantly consuming media as well as journalists' request, and it never ceases to amaze me how much is still being written on work/life balance. It seems to be the never ending quest we're all on. We pack our days full and then at the end feel off-kilter. I'm not a huge believer in day-to-day balance (to me, that's just punishing yourself every 24 hours for getting it wrong), but I do think that having an overall sense of balance over time is important. It was coming to terms with that fact that's allowed me to figure out the best way to manage my day is CONTEXT. It's sort of a combination of block scheduling and being present, and it requires you understand your strengths, weaknesses and limitations in any part of the day, but ever since I've become conscious of doing this, I've found that I end the days feeling more accomplished, less rushed and like I hit on my personal and professional priorities for the day.

Like lots of working parents, my day is a constant running to-do list. I often get made fun of for my lists, my schedule blocking and my focus on efficiency around my house (all of that can be found here), but the foundation for it all is the context of my day. I prioritize my day by context intuitively, but if it doesn't come naturally to you, it's pretty simple to do, and it'll really up your efficiency game. When you're thinking about your day (and I highly recommend doing this the night BEFORE to get it out of your head!), block it off into the things you cannot control - what your particular situation will be at any point in the day. 

Then, take your to-do list and figure out how it all fits in. What are you going to be best at doing at any one time? Here's an example for you of a typical day for me:

5 AM - Wake up and work out
My body hates working out once it's fully awake so I trick it by doing it early. Bonus: my kids are early risers so this time is usually spent watching Daniel Tiger anyways. Might as well let my husband do that while I get my workout on!

6:30 AM -8:30 AM - Get everyone dressed, fed and out the door for school
Here's where context comes in. I try not to do any work during these hours--not even checking email--because in the end, it slows me down and I'm not fully focused. What I do get done during this time is small household chores: laundry gets thrown in, bedrooms get straightened, blankets get folded, dishwasher gets loaded as I move about the house. That way those things don't nag during worktime and they fit into the flow or context of "getting ready."

8:30 AM - 3 PM - Work
Even within the workday, I contextualize. I try to hit my hardest tasks in the morning so they're out of the way and I'm "rewarded" by taking it easier when the hard stuff's out of the way. If I have meetings to drive to, I use the context of the car to return calls or listen to podcasts. Things I NEVER do in the work context: work out, watch TV, grocery shop, do chores. It's work - not free time - so I try to keep disciplined.

3 PM - 7:30 PM - Family Time
Once we reach pickup time, I'm in mom mode again. I consider late afternoon post-pickup the perfect time to run errands like going to the grocery store or doing a return at a store--things that I find pretty easy to do with my kids. I cook, I straighten, I do light work things to wrap up the day but make sure anything that requires concentration is done by then.

7:30 pm - 11 PM - Relaxing and Light Work
Context returns here. I tend to spend this time relaxing and sometimes doing light work. I specifically leave simple work tasks that don't require tons of brainpower for this time, because it's a time I use to catch up with my husband or watch TV. So, for example, I'll invoice or research or build media lists during this time. I won't write the copy for an entire website--my brain's too fried. Because I know this about the context of my day, I know which priorities on my to-do list can and cannot wait. I also can't do much housework at this point in the day, so I'll save something I can do in front of the TV, like folding laundry, for the evening.

Not every day is the same for me, of course, but I find that knowing myself and the context of the situation--what I can and can't accomplish based on what else is happening--is instrumental in helping me be as efficient as possible, being less frustrated by the circumstances around me and doing my very best work. So try it: sit down and figure out what's going on tomorrow, what makes most sense to do during each part of your day, and if it ups your efficiency.