You Can’t Do It All: The Problem of Balancing Time

I have a full-time — job. I have three children at home. I have a wife and a marriage to keep healthy. I’m a homeowner. I have lots of family and friends who need some of my social time. I have a number of community commitments as well. I have hobbies and interests that want some of my time, too. I also have all of the basic human upkeep that everyone has — sleep, hygiene, food, and water.

Here’s the truth: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to give the time I need to give to each of those things. It simply isn’t there.

A common strategy, and one I leaned into for many years, was to take a lot of shortcuts. I slept five hours a night. We got food from restaurants. We even tried out things like housecleaning services and laundry services.

What happened? We found ourselves in a financial hole, one that ended up making our careers even more essential and made them suck up even more of our time. Walking that tightrope at work, at least for me, meant travel when I didn’t want to travel and weekends spent working.

I was also exhausted a lot of the time, and that made me irritable. Add to that the financial and professional stress, and it wasn’t a good mix.

I eventually came to the realization that for many people, there simply isn’t time for everything you want out of modern life and that taking shortcuts helps only temporarily and ends up with disastrous consequences in the long term.

This is a huge problem, one that I’ve struggled to deal with in many ways over the past several years. How does a person balance the things they want out of life when there isn’t enough time in the day for all of it without making long term financial and personal sacrifices just to make things a bit easier right now?

I don’t have a perfect answer to that question, but what I can share are the things I’ve figured out along the way when it comes to balancing all of life’s demands without digging a huge financial hole. Consider these strategies to be a smorgasbord of options, but remember that many of them interconnect and build upon each other. Doing one or two of them won’t have a big impact, but doing many of them will bring about some real changes.

Get on a firm financial foundation, even if that means making some changes.

If you want to have time, focus and energy for all of the things you care about in your life, one of the most vital things you can do is get your financial house in order. I don’t mean that you have to be wealthy or that you have to have tons of money in the bank. Rather, you need to have your bills caught up, you’re not at risk of over drafting all of the time, you have some money set aside for emergencies, and you’re not drowning in debt. You need to get there as efficiently as possible.

The truth is that if you’re not already doing those things, you’re going to have to make some life changes to get there. However, those life changes don’t necessarily have to be very painful ones.

Here are six initial financial steps I recommend for everyone to give their lives a bit of stability and keep money stress and money pressures at bay.

Assess all of your regular bills and decide which ones you can cut. Do you need a cable subscription? Do you need that data plan you currently have? Do you need that gym membership? Do you need both Netflix and Hulu? Identify which of your regular bills that you don’t need and cut them.

For all of the others, contact the organization that’s billing you and ask what you can do to reduce monthly payments (without boosting interest rates). Call your energy company, cell phone company, insurance company and lenders. Find out what exactly you can do to trim each and every one of those bills.

Do a few basic frugal strategies that don’t disrupt your life. Try switching to buying store brands of most products and sticking with store brands if they do the job for you. Aim to make more meals at home, sticking with simple meals that you enjoy and can prepare easily — the more you do it, the easier all of it becomes.

Look through your bank and credit card statements for expenses that had no real impact on you, and cut those going forward. Go through your last few bank and credit card statements and look for any and all expenses that didn’t have much impact on your life. If you can’t really remember that expense, it didn’t have an impact. If you do remember it but it doesn’t fill you with a happy glow, it didn’t have an impact. Going forward, simply avoid those expenses. Keep the ones that made a difference, drop the others.

Go through your closets and sell off any possessions that you haven’t used in a while and honestly won’t use frequently in the future. Are you really going to use that thing your aunt gave you two holiday seasons ago that you never took out of the box? What about those old clothes that have been in storage since you moved? Those things should go. They should be turned into cash that can help you move forward with life. Here are 11 ways to sell unwanted items.

Use the proceeds from these changes to achieve those positive financial steps. Take every dime that you’re saving from those changes and apply them to taking the financial steps noted above.

Your foundation is your health, both short term and long term.

If you neglect your body and your mind, almost everything else in your life will falter because of it. You’ll lack in energy and focus. You’ll get sick easier. You’ll be a lot more irritable. It will be harder to focus. It will be harder to do anything well, personally or professionally. Your ability to make good decisions will decline.

Here are some good practices to start incorporating into your life. Consider these things foundational, because they’ll enable you to do everything else better.

Get enough sleep. I would rather be energetic and engaged for 16 hours than tired and irritable and not particularly focused for 19 hours. The difference is the difference between 5 hours and 8 hours of sleep in a night, and that difference is huge. Getting inadequate sleep has tons of short term and long term health consequences, plus I found that if I got plenty of sleep each night, it was much easier to get all of the things done I needed to get done in my life faster and better than before. There was a lot less work outside of normal work hours, my household chores were done far faster, I felt better, I felt less stressed, I was less irritable and I actually had more flexible time.

Get plenty of sleep. Go to bed early enough such that most days you start to rise without an alarm clock, instead using your body’s own cues. For more information on this, I highly recommend Dr. Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep.

Eat a healthy diet. Basically, my advice here is to just stick to the principles that are largely agreed upon throughout the nutrition and dietary world. Most of what you eat should be plants — fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans. Don’t overeat — when you no longer feel hungry, stop. Don’t eat for entertainment — in other words, only eat when you feel actually hungry. Eat less food that’s prepackaged or made for you at a restaurant, and eat more food you make for yourself at home out of basic ingredients. Drink water when you’re thirsty, not sweet beverages. These things are agreed upon by almost every nutritional specialist out there, so stick to them regardless of what else you do.

Move around more. Our bodies are designed to move around when we’re awake, not just rest in one spot. If you can, go on walks outside. If you can’t, at least move around your home at least once an hour. Find some simple exercises you can do that you enjoy and do them regularly. Simply add more movement to your life, and you’ll find that your energy level for everything in life will gradually grow.

Trim some of the less important time commitments.

We’re all committed to a lot of things and have a lot of other things that we want to be using our time on. It can often feel like we’re trying to stuff too many things into our life at once.

The thing is, not all of those things are of equal importance. Quite a few of those things are commitments that really don’t matter too much to us. Others are things that we value, but that we value less than other things we’re trying to fit in.

Here are a few things you can do to identify your least important time commitments and cut back on them.

First, go through your schedule over the last month or so, day by day. Rank everything you did during that day in terms of importance. I suggest marking off the five most important things you did that day. Do not simply mark all leisure activities as being low in importance; some of them are, sure, but leisure that really fulfills and refreshes you is quite important. Make sure you’re ranking these things in terms of importance to you and how much value they produce for you, not in terms of what others tell you that you should value.

Next, go through all of the things you didn’t mark, or that you noted as being of relatively low importance, and ask yourself which of those things you can cut. Do not simply cut all leisure time — that will actually make things worse, as noted above. Rather, look for commitments that bring you relatively little value for the time you put into them, as well as other activities that give you little value.

Once you’ve identified things you can cut, start cutting them. Don’t be afraid to apologize and step back from commitments that are pushing you to the limit without bringing much value to your life. Remember that you’re probably not giving nearly as much to that commitment as you could or should be, so stepping back and finding someone else to fill that role likely ends with better results for all involved.

I ended up selling The Simple Dollar to new ownership when I realized how much of my time commitments were devoted to things I didn’t enjoy. More recently, I dropped out of a few regular social events and stepped back from a leadership role in a community organization when I realized that my time commitments were overwhelming me. Don’t be afraid to step back when you’re being killed by too many commitments.

Another key strategy: get rid of distractions that aren’t providing real value to you. Your cell phone is a big source of them. Delete all of the apps that you find yourself mindlessly playing or scrolling through. Turn off lots of notifications. Here’s an excellent article I wrote late last year on turning your phone into a useful tool rather than a distraction. The big ones for me were downsizing social media and eliminating smartphone games.

Tweak your time use.

One of the most powerful things I’ve personally done is improved the efficiency at which I get the unexciting but necessary daily tasks done to keep my life afloat. This frees up more time for the more meaningful things — quality time with my family, time for personal interests and hobbies, community efforts and social time, and so on.

Here are some things I strongly encourage you to consider.

Keep a to-do list and a pocket notebook. The goal here is to try to get all of the things you need to get done out of your head and down on paper so you can fully focus on actually doing things rather than squandering part of your focus on remembering and thinking about what you have to do.

Personally, whenever I think of something I have to do, I pause for a second, write it down in a pocket notebook, and then move on. I don’t have to think about it or remember it anymore. If I’m in the car, I use voice activation to create a reminder. “Hey Siri, remind me in an hour to . . .”

Then, a few times a day, I check that pocket notebook and my reminders and handle everything I wrote down. It either goes on my to-do list or my calendar or, if it’s quick, I handle it immediately.

Each day, I go through my to-do list and calendar and identify six key things that I want to get done that day. Usually two or three are work-related. My goal that day is to get those six key things done, and if I do, I feel good and am often motivated to do a couple more.

That’s my daily routine, almost every day in which I’m not on a vacation with my family.

Make the things you do every day as efficient as you possibly can. If there’s something you can do to make your daily shower and hygiene routine a few minutes faster, do it. The same is true with things like laundry, cleaning up, dishes and meal prep. I find a lot of value in optimizing those daily tasks for both money and time.

For example, I optimized my laundry routine and, over time, shaved at least 10 minutes and $0.50 off of the process, and I do it each day. I had a similarly positive result when optimizing dishwashing, and have had nice time and money savings for things like optimizing my daily morning hygiene and optimizing housecleaning tasks. Figuring out how to do those ordinary things more efficiently without reducing the quality of the results has freed up at least an extra hour a day — I’m not kidding — and a lot of money, too.

It takes practice and time, though. I had to teach myself a more efficient way to fold clothes. I learned and deliberately practiced better ways to wash dishes. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the routines, too. However, spending a few hours spread over a few weeks to result in saving five minutes a day is a trade I will make over and over and over again.

Multitask when it makes sense. My favorite example of multitasking is when I get several household tasks going at once in the morning before I start working. I’ll do a load of laundry and a load of dishes and start a meal in the slow cooker and move that laundry load to the dryer and then I’ll start working, knowing that three worthwhile jobs are finishing in the background while I work.

The key is to recognize which tasks in your life really require your attention — and give them your attention — and which ones do not. The ones that don’t can be multitasked with things that do require your attention. If something doesn’t require your attention, start moving your attention elsewhere.

A load of laundry running in the washer or dryer doesn’t require my attention, so I should be doing something else genuinely worthwhile as it runs (at this point, neither does folding, as my hands can busily fold lots of clothes while my mind is engaged elsewhere). The same is true for a load of dishes, or when a meal is cooking in the oven, or when I’m waiting for a response from a friend, or many other things in life. They simply don’t require attention, so I immediately move onto other things that will actually use my attention. I don’t dawdle and engage in time-wasters (like smartphone games or social media) while those things are happening.

Remember it’s okay to say “no,” and that perfect is the enemy of the good.

There are a lot of practical steps in this article. Pick and choose amongst them and apply the ones that make the most sense in your life. Don’t buy into the notion that you have to do everything and you have to do it perfect. It’s far better to improve by 1% in a sustainable and permanent way than to go like crazy for a little while and then burn out quickly.

More than anything, remember that it’s okay to say “no.” It’s okay to step back from things that are overwhelming you. It’s okay to recognize that your plate is full and that you can’t commit right now. It’s far better to say “no” now than to fall apart later on.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.