Travel, Work-Life Balance, Time Management, and the Paradoxes Within

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“Work/Life Balance”: This phrase has become something of a cliché.

Some people surmise that as long as you love what you do, there’s no such thing as work/life balance; that work/life balance is a function of “work” being something you don’t like to do, something separate from “life” or living.

I generally love to write, but when I also love to hike, cook, volunteer, and develop meaningful relationships with people, the “work” required for my writing career comes in conflict with these other activities. It’s not that I don’t like the work (or most of it, anyway); more that the “work” of writing is a necessity required to enable me to enjoy the other activities of “life” that I so relish.

And when something you do regularly is a necessity (regardless of whether you like it or not), it becomes “work”.

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

buddhist quote that relates to work-life balance

“Time Management”

I believe that time management is the root of work/life balance issues for most people. I can speak for myself in saying that time management has been a crux of my full-time travels. How do I manage my writing career, research and book upcoming travel arrangements, stay in touch with family and friends, connect with new friends on the road, volunteer in trade for accommodation, and enjoy whatever the country I’m visiting has to offer (which is supposed to be the point of being a full-time traveler)?

Fitting all that in makes for a bloody long day.

Choosing from the Three Pillars of Life

There is a school of thought that says there are three pillars in life, and you can only ever excel at two of them. The three pillars are career, family & friends, and health & fitness. And at first blush, this makes sense.

If you excel at your career and like to run marathons, then you’ll spend 8-10 hours a day at the office, and another 2-4 hours training – not leaving much time for your family &  friends.

If you excel at relationships with family & friends and a rewarding career, then you’ll probably have trouble finding time to exercise.

And on it goes.

This brings up the question: what defines “excelling” at something? Does it mean being the best of the best? Always rising above others? It seems that the very definition of the word “excel” implies a comparative angle that means you must exceed the average, surpassing expectations.

If this is the case, then yes, you can only ever excel at two of the three pillars in life. Somehow you must make a choice, and live with the (sometimes unfortunate) consequences of that choice.

can't see through the fog

The Courage to be Average

But what if we forgive ourselves enough to not excel? To instead, be very good at what we do (regardless of the average, or the norm), comparing ourselves not to others or some pre-set benchmark, but instead to our ideal vision of life?

What if we had the courage to simply be average at two of the three pillars, possibly excelling at just one? Or (yikes – heaven forbid) excelling at nothing, but happily balancing all three pillars?

What Time Management Really Is

Time management has only a minute relevance to the actions of planning out your day. It has little to do with “balancing” work and life in the precarious way most of us try (unsuccessfully) to.

I’d like to illustrate this by way of personal example.

When I first volunteered at Mana Retreat, I was considered to be a “full-time” volunteer, in that my 30 volunteer hours per week fully paid for my accommodation and meals. But I found this to be quite onerous over time, since I work another 14-28 hours per week on my own business.

Some people balked at my complaints that there weren’t enough hours in a day, suggesting I needed to “suck it up” by citing their own 60 hour work-weeks as being commonplace. Others who saw me guiltily tied to my computer during most of the off-hours asked me why I work so hard and suggested I was a workaholic, or that I needed to take a holiday. (Imagine that! A full-time traveler being told to take a holiday).

When I later returned to Mana to heal from the cumulative effects of travel fatigue, I knew that a full-time volunteer work-load wouldn’t be conducive to the down-time I was craving. So I arranged to volunteer part-time (about 18 hours per week), and pay a fee to compensate for the rest. In theory, this would allow me plenty of time to work on my writing, as well as enjoy the people and property to its fullest extent.

Instead, I found that even though I had “bought” myself an extra 12 hours per week, I still finished each day with a wild look in my eye and a sense of disappointment for not getting everything done that I wanted to.

This is when I discovered the root of my problems: I had thought that by logistically creating time in my life for the things I wanted to do, I would have a satisfactory “work/life” balance.

But this wasn’t the case. Time management, I discovered, comes from within. It has very little to do with creating space or time in our day; instead it has to do with how we view our day and how forgiving we are in setting (and sometimes revising) our expectations.

watching the moon

Shoot for the Stars…

By suggesting we need the courage to be average and to set forgiving expectations, I’m not saying that we should aim low in life. I believe it’s important to shoot for the stars, but also to be happy when the moon is as far as we get.

I could have returned to Mana and volunteered only five hours per week, and still I would have fought the same “time management” issues. This is partly because there is so much I like to do here, and partly because I tend to set demanding goals for myself. It compounds when all the extra time and space I create gets filled with “stuff” that isn’t necessarily on my pre-determined list of things to do, but “stuff” that is rewarding nonetheless.

Take my run-in with Toro Bravo in Spain or Sheralee in Australia: I didn’t have “time” for these encounters given what I had planned for the day, but they ended up being defining experiences for me; crucial travel encounters that unspeakably enriched my life. All I had to do was to rearrange a few of my expectations for the day and forgive myself for not getting everything done that I had intended.

Not only does time management come from within, but it evolves with our day and our lives.

And when we manage our time from within, each day truly defining for ourselves what we need to do and what we want to do – and ultimately marrying need with want – then maybe work/life balance and time management can go from clichés to misnomers.

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32 thoughts on “Travel, Work-Life Balance, Time Management, and the Paradoxes Within”

  1. Totally hear you on this one! I can’t tell you how may days (well–all of ’em) that I evaluate the success of the day in terms of what I got done, rather than…oh, I don’t know…a bezillion other more soul-enriching ways that I could have evaluated the day.

    You’re spot on in terms of the big three–for me it’s relationship (with hubby and others), my business (a.k.a. career) and weight management (sometimes a struggle when on the road–and we’re always on the road!)

    Managing time “from within” is a great concept and one on which I plan to cogitate a bit more!

  2. Balancing work and everything else was actually easier at home, strange tho that is to say. There wasn’t as much stuff “out there” that I hadn’t seen or done, so I didn’t feel so bad being chained inside at the computer. Which meant the work got done faster, and when it was done I got to go do more interesting things.

    Now, on the road, I can’t seem to get any kind of balance. On days I do “traveler stuff” I don’t do any work. On “work days”, I try to catch up on all the stuff I didn’t get done when I was out having fun. I end up resenting the time I’m spending working, and then I procrastinate more so it takes all day. I still don’t catch up.

    I’m learning, slowly, that if I get my work stuff done early enough in the day I don’t resent it quite as much. And I still have the whole rest of the day to “play”–explore, talk to people, sit around in bars, chat thru skype with my mom, whatever. I just need to train myself to work, *then* play online, wander, or do the fun stuff I have planned that day.

  3. @Maureen – I like the idea of creating a new system for evaluating our “productivity” on a daily basis. Maybe productivity isn’t the word to use, as it implies producing something tangible…maybe it’s more about evaluating daily “satisfaction”.

    @J. – I’m with you. I too sometimes end up resenting my work, and I also wrestle with guilt or stress on the days when I’m doing the traveler thing and don’t open up my computer.

    And I’m also most productive earlier on in the day. This is a pretty standard time management technique: to get a tangible piece of work done first, before opening up emails, the internet, and the plethora of things that get us sidetracked and help us procrastinate.

    Which brings about the idea that routine can be very helpful to getting work done, but the very act of traveling shakes up a big part of our routines. How do we manage that?

  4. You are making an excellent point. I am a freelancer myself and there are days I struggle to stay on schedule; i often find myself running like a headless chicken to meet my deadlines and run my errands and do this and that and the other thing and I often go to sleep pissed off that i did not manage to find the time to play with my art or read my book or do “something for myself”.
    I have tried tricking myself into waking up at 6.00 every morning, some days even earlier than that, but even though my quality of work and clarity of mind are at their absolute best for the first 3-4 hours (GO-GO-GO!!), by 4.00 in the afternoon, I feel completely exhausted and demotivated, yet I still need to carry on.
    It’s a vicious circle I need to break i guess…

  5. “Not only does time management come from within, but it evolves with our day and our lives.” – This is soo true. After all, that’s why in the end we decided to become location independent entrepreneurs/professionals to live life based on our own terms and not on what others think is right or should happen.

  6. @Nora- no, travel and routine don’t really go well together in an active sense. Not with work that needs internet connection, anyway. But even on “travel” days it’s possible to work–I outline articles or work on story ideas when I’m stuck on a bus (ok, not on a Guatemalan chicken bus, but otherwise….).

    The routine part does take a lot of fun out of things. I’m spending now to November, actually, trying to get enough “other” income running (advertising, affiliate income, self-pub’d books on amazon and b&n, etc) that I can make “work” the fun thing I do when it’s raining too hard to go to the beach, or when everyone else has caught Dengue. Or just because I love what I’m doing, instead of these week-and-month long slogs.

    @Turner- Don’t s’pose you’d like to do my work for me? I *love* it, of course–nothing better in the world than writing articles about exterminators all day. But, for a small fee, I could be convinced to let you try your hand….

    @Prime- yeah, but it’s so easy to turn into the employee/boss from hell. Not from other people’s expectations, but from seeing other people who seem to balance it all–work, exploring, relaxing–and trying to be like them.

  7. Enjoyed reading your thoughts here — especially about being average. My husband and I are both educated, but instead of putting our education to use the way most people would say we should, for the past 3 years we’ve opted for jobs which allow us to hang out 24/7 if we want to. Even still we often struggle with the feeling of not having enough time in the day to do the things we want/need to do which seems crazy doesn’t it?

  8. Great article, just discovered your blog and loving it! I think you are right about time management, for me I take it day by day and try not to be too hard on myself if Im tired/stressed/just need a break. I think if you also let one part of your life rule for too long it can make you unhappy, so its good to invest in all aspects, even though it can be hard if youre a workaholic like me!

  9. @Nicole – Thanks for stopping by! Now back in my hometown of Toronto Canada for a visit, I’m facing new challenges; some people (family/friends) are suggesting that I’m “on vacation” by being back “home” for a visit, and are wondering why I’m so stressed about getting work done. Again….I have to implore them that I’m certainly not on vacation (location independent work still/always needs to be done), but it’s probably also a sign that I haven’t struck a satisfying balance between computer work and enjoying my current surroundings/company.
    Sigh – it’s a constant battle! 🙂

  10. Thanks for writing this post Nora, you covered a load of things that have been playing on my mind for a while! Time management is something I struggle with, I think something we all struggle with! I recently got a steady writing job for an art website and in that job they require me to write 2 articles a day 5 days a week. When they told me I was overwhelmed, how on earth could I do that and focus on my other writing as well. Also the 4 hours they allocated a day seemed like a grossly underestimated amount. I’ve been panicking to say the least on how on earth I’ll manage it and not hate writing by the end. After reading this though you gave me some hope! I think if I’m honest with myself my expectations are too high and unrealistic, I give myself daily goals that I have no hope of completing!

    This line really resonated with me “What if we had the courage to simply be average at two of the three pillars, possibly excelling at just one?” I am a perfectionist who puts very high standards on myself but your absolutely right though I need to “forgive myself enough to not excel!” After all no one can be brilliant at everything!

    Thanks again! 🙂

  11. @Sasha – Wow: 2 articles per day, 5 days per week? No wonder you’ve been stressed! That’s a lot on its own, much less in addition to other writing. Do you have the ability to renegotiate the gig?

    And yes, I too fall prey to setting unrealistic expectations of myself, which are (obviously) a constant disappointment. I’ve always positioned it as a “shoot for the stars, hit the moon” sort of thing, but a little dose of forgiving reality in there is also a very good thing. There is a happy medium in there somewhere!

  12. Yeah it might be worth trying to renegotiate, though I don’t know how much they’ll budge but it’s worth a go. The one good thing is there standards aren’t too high they just want short, unique articles for SEO purposes (at least I don’t have to worry about keyword density, that has got to be the worst thing to worry about when writing and it’s so boring!). The biggest problem with this gig is there’s a lot of research involved, that always takes me more time than the actual writing!

  13. @Sasha – Ahh….research – the quintessential time-sucker. And beware of short articles; believe it or not they’re characteristically harder to write than long ones! 🙂

  14. I think the hardest of the three is the family/friends; the only immediately social pillar of the bunch – at least for me personally. That said, the balance is always a tough one, shifting constantly, and needs to be monitored by our busy eyes 😉

  15. @Anil – And rarely is any one thing (or pillar) a constant, or requiring of the same amount of time and energy. Shifting constantly, and re-evaluating regularly, as you say, is key.

  16. I am having problems with time management as well. I have started to g to the library and spend a few hours there on website writing stuff. When my time is up that’s it for the day.

  17. @James – That’s a handy way to get work done: to create (or go to) a space where your time is limited, distractions are minimal, and the work is concentrated. I find that working in my living space can blur the lines, and my productivity can falter. Discipline is also a key, I think.

  18. Wow, I ran into this post at just the right time! I have struggled with time management for most of my life and find that it keeps getting harder. I choose to work for myself, but the more time I have the harder I push myself to get things done. It’s hard to know how much time to dedicate to each area of my life. I’ve found that while traveling I tend to be especially bad at keeping in touch with loved ones, and that just hurts everyone in the end.

  19. @Amy – It’s funny you should mention working for yourself. Years ago when I was working in an office, I wanted to run my own business since I was so damn efficient at work, and if my work was done for the day I wanted to go out and enjoy the day (instead of staying in the office and pretending to be busy until 5pm).

    So I started my own business, only to discover that as your own boss, your work is never done! (So much for quitting early to enjoy the day – ha ha)!

    We have a tendency to push ourselves harder than anybody else. I think our biggest challenge is to let go and achieve a happy balance.

  20. I have only come across this article now and please let me tell you yes…you are right time management is a huge issue….the problem is that you really can’t buy time even if you pay for it as you yourself experienced…time is precious and is given and is a gift…what you do with it is up to you and your capabilities and circumstances…sooner or later we all run out of time when death calls upon us… it always will.

  21. @Baron’s – “the problem is that you really can’t buy time even if you pay for it as you yourself experienced”….great summation! I hadn’t quite connected the dots in that way.

  22. I’m retired.
    Folks, be thankful for being busy. Nobody at the old folks home complains about being busy- Nope! They complain about being bored.
    The secret is to find a goal that gives you a reason to wake up in the morning.
    Your job is a vehicle, but you are the driver.
    Always remember that your job is JUST a means to an end. When you fall off the edge of the earth, no matter who you are, you will be replaced the next day. oh….and the world will keep on spinning like it has every day.
    Think of standing on the shore and the waves keep coming in, day after day, 365. NO MATTER what you do… they keep coming in day after day, 365.
    Think of the waves when you start to think that your job is SO important.
    These are words from someone who very early on learned this but who sadly lost a wife who did not.
    I don’t know about “thirsty”, but stay busy my friends.

  23. @Steven – Thank you so much for this sage advice. I had a partner who (more than once) lost balance in his dedication to work (even entry level jobs), and he regularly believed himself to be indispensable the point that his job became part of his identity. Sadly for him he rarely seemed to enjoy his job enough for the inevitable sacrifices it caused in other areas of his life.

  24. Hi Nora,

    really interesting article!!

    As far as:

    “But what if we forgive ourselves enough to not excel? To instead, be very good at what we do (regardless of the average, or the norm), comparing ourselves not to others or some pre-set benchmark, but instead to our ideal vision of life?”

    You have just given a “Lectio Magistralis”!!

    Sincere Congratulations!!

    All the best!


    PS Lectio Magistralis = A very meaningful speech/lecture held by a Master /Professor/Businessman…!!

  25. @Fab – Wow, the ultimate compliment! Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I periodically re-read it to remind myself of the lessons therein….it’s a constant process…

  26. Hi Nora,

    you’re very, very wise when you say:

    “it’s a constant process…”

    I sent you an email about that and I also enrolled an interesting ebook about the issue!!

    Anyway, if you didn’t like it, here are some other inspiring ebooks for free:

    “for free” means that you can download the summary for free!!

    Enjoy the readings!

    All the best!


  27. I am finding that some of my friends think I am just being irresponsible and should go get a “real” job. And of course I should then get an apartment and spend all the money I make on rent. I hate being pushed into that box. I would probably get a week’s vacation in a year in which I could travel. Ugh.
    Although I have submitted over 700 resumes I have not had a job offer. Perhaps they can tell that my heart is not in it. I want to travel and photograph.
    My degrees (BFA) are in graphic design and photography. I have just graduated and don’t know how to make a living at it yet. I need to know how to set priorities, manage my time, and get clients. Help please!

    • Hi Diane,
      I don’t know if I’m the person to help you with the nuances of building a graphic design/photography business, but you might gain some inspiration from the resources of my friend Lea Woodward – who is a location independent business strategist, and whose husband is a graphic illustrator. Good luck with your own lifestyle design!

  28. I am really learning some hard lessons about balance between work and having a life. All work and no play makes me a very dull gal! So thank you for the reminder about balancing life and work, and making having a life a priority rather than just work. It’s not all about making a living, it’s not all about running that business, it’s important that we take time to smell the roses and enjoy our lives!

    • Christine,
      Indeed – it’s all a fine balance! And you’re in a beautiful spot to enjoy that balance. Now….get off your computer!! 😉


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