Life Frame: The 7 Life Categories for Work-Life Effectiveness

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"Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced." — Soren Kierkegaard

There is always a lot going on in life.

How do you balance where you spend your time and energy?

How can you make sure that you are investing in the right things so that your life doesn’t spin out of control?

I use a simple frame for life to help me spend my time and energy on the right things. 

I call this frame, my "Life Frame." 

It helps me frame how I look at my most important categories in life that I invest in.

The 7 Life Categories (“Hot Spots” for Life)

It’s a set of 7 categories, or “Hot Spots” to invest in:  mind, body, career, emotions, financial, relationships, and fun. 

Hot Spots Examples
Mind This includes investing time to learn thinking techniques and keeping your mind sharp.
Body This includes investing time in keeping your body in shape. It includes learning patterns and practices for health. The most important basics are eating, sleeping, and working out.
Emotions This includes investing time to keep your emotions healthy. It includes learning emotional intelligence and keeping your emotions in check. It’s about learning skills for feeling good.
Career This includes optimizing around your job to live your values, get results, find your flow, and fund your lifestyle.
Financial This includes investing time to learn patterns and practices for building and sustaining wealth.
Relationships This includes relationships at home, work, and life.
Fun This includes investing time to for play and doing whatever you enjoy.

 

It’s Just a Starter Set

Feel free to change any of the categories so they work for you.  It’s just a starter set to get you thinking about the areas of your life that are most important, and how you are investing in them.

It’s hard for life to go well when you don’t invest in some of the categories.  Likewise, when you are investing across the board, life works out a little better, because you are taking care of the important things in your life.

The 7 Life Categories of the Life Frame are a simple way to keep balance in the grand scheme of things, especially when life gets chaotic.

Set Boundaries (Minimums and Maximums)

You are already spending time in your Life Frame.  Chances are, you may not be spending the right time or the right energy.
Set minimums and maximums for hot spots that need it.  For example, as a starting point, you might set a max on career and a min on relationships, body, and fun:

Hot Spots Minimum Maximum
Mind
Body 3 hrs.
Emotions
Career 50 hrs.
Financial
Relationship 3 hrs.
Fun 3 hrs.

Here are the key things to keep in mind:

  • Set boundaries to help you prioritize.  The real lesson is that if you don’t first set your boundaries, then you never really have a way to prioritize.  For example, if you allocate fifty hours to your career bucket weekly, now you have a rough idea of how much work to bite off to stay within your time budget.  Otherwise, you’ll just work until everything’s done, but there’s always something more to do.  Priorities, focus, and value are your friends.
  • Invest in your relationships.  Investing in your relationships can pay back in multiple ways.  Your life can quickly get easier, more productive, and fulfilling when you get the people on your side, spend time with people you enjoy, and build a network that supports you.   I like to think of my relationships like a Banzai tree that I have to tune and prune.  
  • Your network is growing or dying.  Remember that people flow in and out of your life.  Each week I have lunch with an old friend and a new friend.

Think In Terms of a Portfolio for Your Life

Think in terms of a portfolio and invest across your Hot Spots.  Be intentional about how you spread your time and energy across them.  Keep in mind that time is a limited resource, while energy is a wildcard.

Here are the keys:

  • Balance across your portfolio.   Balance your time and energy across your portfolio.  Be aware of where you are over invested or under invested.
  • Play with your dials.  If your current investment’s not working, turn up the dial on some.  If your stuck in one area, then try turning up another.  For example, if you’re not getting the results you want at work, then crank up your relationships dial. 
  • The sum is more than the parts.  Remember that with this portfolio, the sum is more than the parts.   It’s the net effect.   The hot spots can support each other or can work against each other.

Here’s What Can Happen When You Don’t Use the Life Frame

When you use the frame, you have a way to help you find your work life balance.  When you don’t use a frame, there’s a few problems you can run into::

  • You don’t know when you’re done.  If you don’t have a maximum, how do you know when to stop.  By default, most people stop simply when they run out of time or energy.  In other words, they over invest in an area at the expense of others.
  • You spend time on the wrong things.   It’s easy to spend lots of time on things if you don’t have any gauges to keep you on track.
  • You don’t spend time on what’s important.  If you don’t have a handy set of hot spots, it’s easy to completely ignore or forget the areas in your life that actually matter most.  It’s counter-intuitive but true.
  • You don’t know when you’re on track.   Without a simple model, it’s tough to stay on track or know when you’re doing a good job.  When you have a simple model, you can baseline your results and set some simple targets.  Life gets better when you have a model that works.

Your Life Frame Helps You Answer the Question, “At What Cost?”

Your Life Frame helps you make trade-offs, invest more wisely, and answer the question – “At what cost?”

When I first got to Microsoft years ago, I didn’t have this frame. 

Sure I knew about these areas of my life, but I didn’t have the mental model of a portfolio.  Instead, all I knew was that I would throw all my energy and hours at my career bucket. 

To put that in perspective, 80, 90, 100+ hours a week. 

The problem is I consistently got rated highly and produced results. 

But at what cost? 

Well, if you spend 100+ hours in one bucket, guess how much energy you’re spending in others?   Granted some buckets overlap, but I’m talking about when you really shine the spotlight on them.

Don’t Throw Time at Problems

Don’t automatically throw time at your problems.  While you do want to invest more time in some areas than others, make sure you don’t fall into the productivity trap.

Here’s the keys:

  • Prioritize..   The very first thing is to make sure you have your priorities in order.  Just asking the question is enough to get you thinking if you’re working on the right things and if you’re spending the right time on things.
  • Timebox.  Set limits on your time.  Time is a limited resources.  So is your energy.  Get in the habit of guarding your time.  Know when time is up.  Know when enough is enough.
  • Improve your effectiveness.  Improve your approach over spend more time.  The big pitfall is to spend more time on things thinking you’re producing more results.  Find better techniques.
  • Focus on the vital few.   Pick a few things to do well.  Doing a vital few things well beats spreading yourself thin across a bunch of things you’ll never finish or that you won’t get the ROI.

What’s the maximum I should throw at my career bucket?  60? 50? 40?  

Time-boxing my career bucket forced me to identify the real value of all my work and to heavily prioritize. 

It also forced me to find the most effective principles, patterns and practices for project management, personal productivity, running high-performance teams, … etc.   Which is better … more time at the problem? … or better techniques, more value, and a sustainable pace?

How To Use This

You can use the life frame to immediately start improving your life.  Here’s how you can get started::

  1. List your hot spots.  List the hot spots on your whiteboard or a pad of paper.  T
  2. Identify how much time you’re spending in each hot spot.   Simply identify how much time you’re spending already.
  3. Evaluate your current investments.  Take a look across your portfolio and evaluate your current investments in time and energy  Evaluate your investments against results.  Is it working?  How well are you balancing? 
  4. Reallocate your investments.  If you’re on track, great.  If not, try increasing your investment in some area and lowering in another.   The goal is to improve the quality of your life.   Experiment here.  You might be surprised how investment in one area really catalyzes another.

If you want to really add some extra focus to an area, consider a 30 Day Improvement Sprint.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. This one is huge. I partly use few techniques you describe here and it gets me serious results. It helped me to claim myself back and start investing myself in stuff that matters. I like the way you call it portfolio. I am a budget, or my energy is a finite budget. Where do i want to invest it? What’s the portfolio of me? The answer is in the post.

    This one is gold!

  2. I get tired of a lot of productivity and “better life” articles, but this definitely puts it all in an original and new perspective. It’s a new methodology, one that I like very much. Nice work!

  3. I’m definitely going to give this a shot J.D., I tend to throw everything at one bucket at a time until one of the others start rusting and then I switch buckets.

    In all things balance, right? 😉

  4. @ Alik

    Thank you. As a fellow Softie, you get what it’s like to be stretched six ways at once and have more to get done than you have time in a day. It took me lots of lashings from the school of hard knocks before I found a better way.

    @ Melissa

    Thank you. I get what you mean about productivity stuff. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Yet, it’s this funny line I need to dance to help people get results.

    @ Louisa

    Let me know how you make out. It’s one of my most important tools for keeping balance.

    Yes, in all things balance.

  5. For me this is your best work. You have a way to break anything down ina systematic way that is still easy to understand and follow. Great post. I stumbled so more people can learn from this and apply it to their lives.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  6. A great post. I’m looking into GTD at the moment, but might look more into the frame concept if that doesn’t do the job.

  7. […] What’s a Frame?: J.D. Meier explains how to use frames to solve problems. And he shares some excellent frames he created, including The Change Frame, and The Life Frame. […]

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