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Is there such a thing as balance? Ask Alice.

 By Jacqui d’Eon

In the late eighties, (I could have started this “Once upon a time”) the concept of work/life balance began to emerge. We were hearing that we could indeed have it all – a successful career, a happy family, a fit body, financial freedom at 55 – and more. The experts told us that it was just matter of finding balance. As a natural cynic, while I knew balance was what I wanted, I just couldn’t seem to achieve it, so I was a doubter about accomplishing so much while maintaining equilibrium. But with age and hindsight, I look at balance differently and I do think it is attainable.

“Stuff” is my life! I coach busy executives to help them get stuff done. I am an evangelist for crisis preparation because I know stuff happens. As a professional communicator, I also work with associations to build communication strategies that achieve the important stuff in their overall strategy. 

When you are a master of stuff, you learn some things about balance. First and foremost is that day-to-day, you may not achieve the balance you want – stuff happens that prevents you from meeting a friend for the movie you both want to see, your child gets sick and you have to participate in an important meeting remotely, a key employee is unable to work or a major sponsor is unable to meet their financial obligations to you.

What I have come to understand is that balance is measured in longer timeframes, not in days, and achieving balance means taking stock of your values and your definition of success. Some of you reading this may be currently working to earn your CAE® designation. I am willing to bet that in the time you are doing that you have had to let some other parts of your work or personal life slide a bit. Maybe you had to resign from your child’s school’s parent council or you had fewer dinners out. Making the decision to pursue something of value required you to make other decisions to recalibrate your balance. After that proud moment onstage when you get your CAE® at CSAE’s annual conference, you will be assured that you made the right choices and that the effort was worth it.

Meet Alice. Alice is a fictional association leader. Alice’s association is small. She has responsibility for member communications and business development. She is a bit overweight and out of shape. She has three school-aged children and a partner who travels a lot for business. To move ahead, Alice wants to earn her CAE® but is chauffeuring her children and rushing to meet deadlines. So what she frankly would like more than anything is to head to a cabana on a secluded beach with a good book and an exotic drink. But that’s not her reality. She needs to make some decisions about where her priorities lie and how to spend her time. Alice has these goals for herself in 2020:

•   Earn my CAE®

•   Lose that last 10 pounds

•   Run a marathon

•   Increase membership engagement by 20 per cent

•   Get a new sponsor for my association’s conference

•   Read a book a month

•   Spend a morning a week at my child’s school

•   Take a vacation

•   Maximize my RRSP and TFSA contributions

Besides being overwhelmed right now, Alice is at risk of feeling she is failing when she measures her goal achievements over time. She needs to prioritize to achieve balance and set herself up for success.

A Heat Map helps prioritize efforts against a variety of possible events by plotting their probability against impact. Here’s how Alice’s list looked when she plotted it on a Heat Map.

According to this exercise, if Alice ended 2020 with her CAE® program on track, topped up her RRSP and got to her kids’ school once a week, 2020 would be a success. Those goals become her “must dos” for the year. Alice’s personal well-being is also very important and, while she would like to lose 10 pounds and take a vacation, if she focuses on eating better and moving more, she will still contribute to her sense of well-being (her mental health is already improved with this exercise!) and rather than taking a vacation, planning for one and taking a staycation for her kids’ March break will do for 2020 (more on this later). Of course, it is also important to her association that she increases membership and finds a new sponsor. Ultimately, this will support her career success and she can definitely work to make some progress on both in 2020. But the marathon and reading goals may have to wait.

If Alice approaches her year with these priorities established, she will have achieved some balance by making some tough choices that permit her to approach the year from a point of control. She is poised for success.

The lesson that Alice learned through this exercise, is that she can have it all — just not right now.

With her goals in place, Alice can set up her tactical plan to plot how she’ll measure herself against them.

Is Alice still busy? You bet she is. Has she achieved balance? – yes, but as measured over months, not daily. Will she be successful? Assuming that her values align with her priorities and that her tactical plan fits into her overall work and family schedules, she will. If Alice experiences a work or a life crisis over the year, she now has the tools that will help her re-assess and re-align what she is doing. She is ready for whatever happens.

Alice has one last task to perform. She needs to put her plan into action on her calendar.

Like Alice, I am a busy person – one look at my calendar would verify that. What I have learned over the years is that when I allow my calendar and busy-ness to overwhelm me and make me feel stressed, I accomplish less and get behind on projects. Fortunately, the calendar is the very tool I use to help me keep my balance. Every week, I gauge my progress on my goals and assess my balance both by looking back and looking ahead. I have learned a few tricks along the way and I call these my 10 Golden Rules for balancing a busy life. I hope these will help you achieve your balance in 2020.

What is the task? What are the specific and measurable goals to mitigate the risk?Who executes and is accountable?What are the specific actions needed to achieve the goal?
Complete CAE® Program (2020, 2021)Complete five CAE® courses – CAE 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500* *Basic process for each course is the same.Alice Contact eve@csae.com for more info on the CAE® program.
Register for CAE® 100.
Find others who are enrolled and with whom I can study.
Put time in my calendar for course reading.
Put assignment due dates in my calendar and include a workback schedule to ensure deadlines is met.
Calendar discussion forums including prework.
Obtain grade and plan to register for the next course/final exam.
Pass CAE® final exam AliceRegister for the final CAE® exam.
Participate in the exam prep call.
Join/keep study group intact so I don’t have to study alone! Calendar our meetings/schedule.
Organize and revise the CAE® coursework, instructor feedback, notes.
Write the CAE® final exam.
Get exam results.
Get my CAE® pin and my designation!
C E L E B R A T E !

Source: Stuff Happens by Jacqui d’Eon, CSAE 2019.


1. If it needs to happen, put it on the calendar (and use only one!).  I have tried many scheduling options over the years. I’ve tried paper, I’ve tried calendar and project lists, I’ve tried several online options. The one thing that works for certain is to use only one calendar. If you are part of a project team that keeps a separate calendar, put milestone dates on your personal calendar and add a note to yourself to check the team schedule regularly for changes. You can also add reminders about when your credit card statements are issued, when you need to follow-up with friends and clients, birthdays and anniversaries, etc. Schedule weekly commitments as recurring events. Alice decided to synchronize the calendar on her phone with her work computer.

2. Commit to your calendar. If you need to attend your child’s school play or sports event, put that on your calendar complete with travel time. That way if someone asks for your time during that event, you won’t disappoint your child and you have the will to say no and negotiate a different time for the meeting. One of the tricks I use for this is that I colour code events that cannot be compromised. Alice entered the known school dates for the year for her kids and made them bright red on her calendar – the red signified that these were times she was not available for anything else.

3. Carry your calendar with you at all times. If you are using an online calendar, this is easy – it is likely you can see your calendar on your phone. If you chose paper, carry it with you – this will be an important consideration when you purchase your calendar. Why carry it? Inevitably, you will meet someone or see something while you are away from your desk and you will be able to check your availability as well as suggest alternate dates on the spot.

4. Everything takes time, including travel. This commandment is important for two reasons. It can take 30 minutes to travel just a few blocks if you live in a large city, so putting travel time on your calendar for geographically dispersed commitments ensures you don’t jam yourself up. Murphy’s Law would suggest that even the simplest tasks often take longer than you expect. Alice blocked reading time for her CAE® program separate from her study time and time to prepare assignments.

5. Allow time between appointments for “work.” This is a bit of a corollary to “everything takes time.” Even if you only need a bathroom break, it is impossible to attend one meeting until 10 AM and be at your next meeting at 10 AM! You need to end the first meeting a few minutes before 10 or start the next one a bit after 10. Keeping people waiting or leaving a meeting early is disrespectful to others. So many people go from meeting to meeting and then do their “work” at night or on weekends because there is no time in the day. If someone else is managing your calendar, make sure they protect work time for you. Also, it is a good practice to have some flexibility to enable a meeting with someone else to run slightly overtime and for you to write your notes before you move on to the next thing. Alice gave herself extra time after meetings with potential sponsors to write her follow-up notes and thank you letters.

6. Log it and forget it. If there are recurring things you need to do, put them in your calendar. Whether it is paying bills, remembering birthdays or vacation dates, if you put the dates in your calendar, you can forget about remembering the dates and times because you can always look them up. Alice blocked an hour once a month with her executive director (ED) to have a fulsome check-in on projects.

7. Focus. When the time has come to do something, try very hard to be “in the moment” and give it your full focus.  Dividing your attention or worrying about the next thing only means it takes longer to complete the task. Alice was able to complete her CAE® assignments on time because she focused on the job at hand when it was scheduled. This is also part of “committing to your calendar.”

8. Be flexible. If everything that needs to happen is on your calendar, it is easier to make decisions about dates/times that can be flexed to accommodate unplanned opportunities. But be careful, if you flex too much, you may lose sight of your priorities. Part way through 2020, Alice’s ED is going to resign. She will be taking his place on an interim basis and will stand for selection permanently. Since Alice met with him regularly, she already will have a good understanding of what’s ahead so she’s able to move things on her calendar to accommodate her change in responsibilities.

9. Treat yourself for a job well done. I have a number of hobbies and, like most people; I would rather pursue them than work. So, when I have a lot to accomplish in a day, I try to treat myself with a bit of time on a hobby when a task is complete. Alice treated herself to some pleasure reading after a successful day and she spent time planning the vacation she’ll take after earning her designation. The planning and dreaming is a treat in itself.

10.  Write a To Do list. With all the calendaring, you might wonder why this is necessary.  I find a To Do list written at the end or beginning of each day helps to solidify the goals for the following day and how time will be spent. Try to identify the three things that must be done each day — the rest of the list may reflect “shoulds” or “coulds.” 

When Alice prepared her calendar, she saw that getting to school every week was going to be difficult to manage, so she opted for every second week. When her ED resigned, she was about to start her next CAE® course. She didn’t postpone that but she did get board members and a co-worker to attend some out-of-town meetings and conferences in her stead. With the right tools, it is possible to achieve balance on your own terms. Just ask Alice.

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