by Risa Williams, LMFT
A few years ago, I was working a full-time job, two part-time jobs on the side, while commuting two hours a day and raising my kids. I was rushing from teaching to work, to seeing clients, to picking up kids, to making meals and running errands… it felt like an endless hamster wheel. And whenever I did have a little downtime, my brain would just start listing all the stuff I had to do in the future, instead of… relaxing.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Now, as a clinical therapist who specializes in time management and productivity skills, I see my clients frequently getting stuck in the same mindset of “endless hamster wheel” that doesn’t allow them to relax or enjoy their successes. Even now, when many of us are working from home due to quarantine, people still find ways to over-work themselves into missing lunch breaks and pushing past workday end times.
Over the last years, as I pared down my jobs and prioritized tasks more, I made an interesting discovery: When I narrowed my focus and took things slowly, one task at a time, I actually wound up accomplishing more! I learned that multitasking was not only making me stressed out, it was making me accomplish less overall.
So, how do we keep ourselves off of the multi-tasking hamster wheel of stress? Here are six strategies I’ve seen be effective:
Make a daily list of things that you need to do. When our brains feel overloaded and stressed, we have trouble making decisions, prioritizing tasks, and moving forward. Write down a daily list of things you need to do. Keep your list simple – leave off things that aren’t important to accomplish on that particular day. The fewer things you put on your list, the less overwhelmed you will feel, and the easier it will be to begin.
Take it one task at a time. What is one small simple task you can do to move forward? What is the easiest task to start with on your list? Pick one to start with, and then block off a few hours to concentrate on only doing that one task. Avoid multi-tasking during this time in order to reduce feeling overwhelmed.
Block off chunks of time for each task. Using “time blocking”, set aside a few hours for each task on your daily calendar where you can focus all of your attention on completing the task. The goal is to narrow your focus by minimizing distractions, so I often encourage clients to set their phone aside or to leave it on the charger to avoid getting derailed. Try to resist jumping around from one task to another, and instead narrow your focus on what’s in front of you.
After each task is done, give yourself downtime in between. Mental downtime is just as important as taking action. Schedule in breaks in between your “time blocks” to reset yourself. Leave your work area, take a walk, sit in a different room, read a book. You might find that the breaks give you the clarity and focus you need to tackle the next task ahead. At the end of day, have a clear “end time” when work is over and stick to it as much as possible.
Celebrate your small successes. Are you giving yourself enough praise for all the things you do each day? During your breaks in between tasks, remember to connect with the feeling of relief that the task is done. Allow yourself to feel proud of yourself for the small things you do each day.
Remind yourself: Balance is key. Sometimes, when we keep pushing ourselves to multi-task and to constantly overwork, we might need to step back and get some perspective. What is reasonable to expect of ourselves each day in terms of tasks? Relaxing, being in the “now”, and connecting with our loved ones is also important to our stress levels and our emotional states. When you think of these things as essential to your well-being, you can find ways to get back in balance.
When you do less with the clear intention of maintaining your balance and focus, you might find that you actually accomplish more. And more importantly, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy what you’ve accomplished…instead of just rushing off to the next stressful task on the endless hamster wheel.
ARTICLE LINK: https://airapy.io/blog/six-strategies-to-get-more-done-by-doing-less/
Your Monday self talk mantra: “Every morning is a chance for me to reset my emotional state and start again. I don’t need to carry yesterday’s stress into today. I am getting better at resetting myself every morning as I wake up and start my day.”
During this time, it can be easy to get into a stressed out mindset that carries over into the next day. When you wake up at in the morning, you can make a conscious decision to start fresh by taking a few mindful, slow deep breaths and mentally resetting your brain and body. Ease into each day slowly with this awareness and it will ease you into a state of calm instead of stress.
Start the day mindfully aware of how your thoughts can change your mood. Try to pick thoughts that are easy and gentle, instead of harsh, negative and critical. As you move to get coffee, or brush your teeth, take deep breaths to let all the stress go. If you find your mind gravitating towards your "to-do" lists, or toward stressful future encounters you are picturing, take deep breaths and try to let those thoughts go as quickly as they come in. Remind yourself to pick helpful thoughts, not un-helpful ones, as often as you can remember to do it.
How you start each day matters. If you can start the day right with your thinking, you can change your future mood.
Every morning is a chance to start over with your thinking patterns. Keep reminding yourself of this throughout the week.
"How to Relax" and all of Thich Nhat Hanh's wonderful books are a good read during quarantine. If you are just getting into mindfulness, "How to Relax" is a great place to start, as it's a simple short read that reminds us how to breathe into our emotional states.
I often re-read the book and feel that its calm words help ground me in remembering what I already know about being aware of my breath, my feelings, and letting things go in a simple and easy way.
Your Monday self talk mantra: “Even the smallest change in a positive direction leads me to a different outcome. I can make small changes each week and still move forward. Every time I make a choice to think a thought that helps me, I know I am making progress.”
One of my main beliefs is that if you change one small thing in a positive way each week, you will change the way your life is going overall. I like to break things down into simple easy steps. When I don't know how to do a new task or to change a habit, I tell myself, "I'm figuring it out one step at a time" and this usually brings my own stress level down. The self-talk mantra above is good to remind yourself that you are making progress with each small step you take forward. If you can repeat it to yourself frequently, throughout your day, it might just be the boost you need to get you through your day.
Sometimes we think that if we want to change, we have to do it all in one giant leap. This type of thinking often prevents us from getting started with any of our goals because it feels overwhelming. We think we have to be in the right "mindset" to take it all on all at once, and then we freeze up, and wind up not taking any action forward. A different approach that I use is to break things down into simple, easy steps that you can tackle one at a time, at a consistent rate for you. It can be more helpful to take things at your own pace that you can sustain, where you can practice positive patterns consistently, rather than to try to do too much and overwhelm yourself. Small positive changes add up, too. Take things at a pace that you can sustain consistently and trust that progress will happen over time.
When people think of having healthy boundaries, they might think of physical or emotional ones. Time boundaries are often worth considering and looking at, too.
A common problem people seem to be having in quarantine is establishing healthy time boundaries within this surreal situation. Many people find themselves working harder and longer hours from home, without taking actual lunch breaks each day. Many are answering work emails on the weekend now, because they may feel there is an unstated expectation that no one has any other plans now.
It’s important to ask yourself, “What is reasonable in terms of time requests?” Is it reasonable to suddenly not require a lunch break or to work after hours a lot more regularly? Sometimes, it just might depend on the specific situation, such as, it’s a rare request because of a deadline. Other times, it’s possible that you might need to establish clearer time boundaries with yourself and others, and to be a little easier on yourself in this situation. Mental recharge time is important, too, for your own body, mood and energy level.
Think about your time boundaries and expectations lately. Do you see any areas that might need shifting to more positive, healthy patterns?
I led a stress reduction workshop last year during which I led a guided meditation where I asked people to scan their bodies and thank their bodies, at their own pace. At the end, many people said that they were amazed that they had never thought to thank their bodies before, and it was eye-opening for them to experience. We tend to spend a lot of time in our heads, lost in our own thoughts, and it's easy to lose a connection between your body and brain, in terms of how your thinking is causing stress inside your body.
Our bodies do so much for us each day. But instead of praising our bodies, most of us frequently say harsh, critical and negative things to our bodies instead. We can develop a tense relationship with our bodies from doing this over time, and this can cause anxiety and low self esteem. To mend this relationship, learn to feel gratitude and appreciation for all the things your body is doing for you each and every day to keep you healthy and alive. We take our bodies for granted, and the more you think about this, the more you will want to shift your thinking.
To thank your body: Try taking a few minutes each day to mentally scan and say thank you to your body: Start at your head and work your way down to your feet, mentally saying thank you to different parts of your body. Then, listen to your body, feel what your body is feeling, and consciously breathe appreciation into your body with each breath.
A few minutes of appreciating and thanking your body every day can lead to big changes in how you feel about yourself. Have you said thank you to your body today?
Your Monday self talk mantra: “Every week, I take a few steps forward. I can go at my own pace. I can accomplish a few things consistently each week and still make progress. These steps will move me forward.”
When we are anxious, we tend to want to do too many things at once, and to go forward too fast. The pressure we put on ourselves tends to raise our anxiety more, which can make us freeze up completely. Tell yourself that it’s okay to pick your own pace. If you take steps or make positive changes each week consistently, it will add up over time. Try to speak to yourself in a way that is kind and encouraging this week. What encouragement will you give yourself this week?