What's In Your Buckets?

min read

Time is our most precious commodity. Each week we are granted the gift of 168 hours of life. Imagine that each hour is a gallon of water. That's about enough water to fill four standard bathtubs. That's how much time you receive each week — four bathtubs filled pretty full.

Now imagine that instead of water each hour is a gallon of molten gold. I said up front that time is our most precious commodity, right? So now you have four pretty full bathtubs of molten gold. How will you invest that gift of time, all that precious gold?

Years ago when we were coming up, our elders told us that actions speak louder than words. They were telling us that how we actually invest our time is far more revealing than how we claim we invest our time. So how do we do a reality check and figure it out?

A few years ago I heard a speech by Harry Kraemer, a successful CEO and business professor. Working from a book he'd written, Kraemer introduced me to the concept of "a 'life bucket' into which you pour a certain amount of your time, energy, and attention."1

We invest time in our family and friends; leisure and fun and goofing off; sleeping, eating, exercising, and personal grooming; professional life; and secular and spiritual communities and personal passions. Each one of these can serve as a life bucket if you wish, a place where you pour your molten gold. There's no magic prescription — you can choose life buckets that make the most sense for you.

Here's how it could work for Maria, a director of IT operations at a prominent Midwestern university. She's a 37-year-old married mother of two preadolescents. She and her spouse are dedicated to personal fitness. They support a local food bank to feed the hungry in their community, are active in the PTA, and periodically attend ecumenical services at a nearby house of worship.

After she's done some self-assessment to identify her major priorities, Maria's life buckets might look something like this:

  • Children, spouse, family, and friends
  • Sleep, grooming, and personal time
  • Work and professional development
  • Health, fitness, fun, and investment in self
  • Community engagement and social responsibility
  • Spiritual growth and exploration

Maria's next step is to establish goals and decide how many gallons (hours) she ideally would like to pour into each life bucket. This requires some thought. Lately, her life has been feeling out of balance. A major software upgrade has been eating her alive. She feels like she's been ignoring her friends and losing touch with her fitness routine. She can't remember the last time she had a weekend of pure fun. Something's got to give!

Maria's ideal first cut at rebalancing her life might look something like this:

  • 28 hrs — Children, spouse, family, and friends
  • 55 hrs — Sleep, grooming, and personal time
  • 52 hrs — Work and professional development
  • 14 hrs — Health, fitness, fun, and investment in self
  • 14 hrs — Community engagement and social responsibility
  • 5 hrs — Spiritual growth and exploration

Actions speak louder than words. Establishing goals is an important part of clarifying her values and priorities, but she needs a reality check to see whether her goals are realistic and achievable. Before attempting to align with her new goals, Maria will keep a daily log for two or three weeks to get a realistic view of how she's currently investing her time, on average, each week.

No two weeks will be exactly alike. If Maria is ill one week, she'll pour more gallons of time than usual into her sleep and health buckets. If she and her family take a holiday weekend at the beach, her fun and family time buckets will be full. During the first week of classes when IT systems experience peak demand or when she attends the EDUCAUSE annual conference, she may be pouring extra time into her work and professional development bucket.

Logging activities for a while will give Maria a pretty accurate view of which buckets, on average, get the most time. Her log of actual time spent might look like this (with her ideal from the previous table listed in parentheses):

  • 23 hrs — Children, spouse, family, and friends (28 hrs)
  • 49 hrs — Sleep, grooming, and personal time (55 hrs)
  • 65 hrs — Work and professional development (52 hrs)
  • 12 hrs — Health, fitness, fun, and investment in self (14 hrs)
  • 14 hrs — Community engagement and social responsibility (14 hrs)
  • 5 hrs — Spiritual growth and exploration (5 hrs)

What can Maria learn from her log? First, her sense that her life is unbalanced is rooted in reality. She's spending way more time on work than she'd like to, and it is costing her time she'd rather invest in family and friends, sleep and personal time, and fitness. On the upside, she's happy to see that she's been able to maintain her commitments to community engagement and spiritual growth despite the time demands of her other life buckets.

Now that Maria knows the delta between actual time expenditure and ideal time expenditure, she can develop a plan to help her rebalance her life buckets. She already has a strategy to reduce the hours she spends working, but doesn't think dropping instantly from 65 hours to her ideal of 52 hours is realistic. She adjusts her goal for investing in work and professional development to 58 hours per week.

One of her community engagements is ending. Two years ago, she was elected treasurer of the PTA at her sons' elementary school and her term of service is ending. Meeting her commitment to this role has taken about five hours a week on average. Maria decides that she needs a break from further volunteering for the next few months. She drops her weekly goal for community engagement and social responsibility from 14 hours a week to nine hours a week. She plans to revisit the decision in six months.

Maria concludes that she can capture and reallocate about 12 hours a week — seven hours from reducing her work week and five hours by reducing her commitment to volunteering. She decides to reinvest all of the time she's harvested in family and friends, sleep, and fitness.

Her new goals for allocating her weekly gift of 168 hours might look something like the following list. Maria knows that assigning percentages to her buckets helps her stay aware of her goals, so she posts a percentage in parentheses after each goal.

  • 28 hrs — Children, spouse, family, and friends (17%)
  • 54 hrs — Sleep, grooming, and personal time (32%)
  • 58 hrs — Work and professional development (35%)
  • 14 hrs — Health, fitness, fun, and investment in self (8%)
  • 9 hrs — Community engagement and social responsibility (5%)
  • 5 hrs — Spiritual growth and exploration (3%)

Now Maria can see at a glance that about two-thirds of her week is dedicated to work, sleep, and personal time. The other third of her week is divided among several other buckets that help bring greater fulfillment and meaning to her life each day.

I've found that my path is smoother when I review my life buckets on a somewhat regular schedule. For me, Thanksgiving through New Year's usually is a time for parties, celebration, and enjoying the company of family and friends. But it's also a time for connecting with mind, body, and spirit and taking stock. Are my values, beliefs, and actions in harmony? Am I pouring my most valuable commodity — my time — into the right buckets in the right quantities?

If we treated every hour as though it truly were a gallon of molten gold, we'd reflexively and obsessively keep track of every drop. We'd be hyperaware of how we spend every moment of our irreplaceable time.

Most of us are not that tuned in. But we can ask ourselves questions about our life buckets any time. Give it a try. Figure out a schedule that works for you, set some goals, and start logging your time. Some of the results may surprise you. Will the process make you younger, sexier, smarter? Not likely. But regardless of outcomes, you're just about guaranteed deeper awareness of how you invest your most precious commodity — your time. That will be time well spent.


  1. Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, From Values to Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

Bill Hogue is senior clinical professor of Information Science and executive consultant for Enterprise Initiatives.

© 2017 William F. Hogue. The text of this blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.