It’s the simple things that can make the biggest difference says Lauren Parsons
Do you ever feel stretched, rushed or overwhelmed by everything that’s expected of you?
With our modern paced lives, the most common response to the simple question “How are you?” has become “Busy…good but busy!” We are constantly connected via technology and need to balance competing life and work demands so it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed.
The following seven strategies are the most important foundations I share with individuals and organizations. These strategies will help you overcome stress and feel more relaxed, productive and organized, regardless of what’s going on around you.
1. Get clear on what’s important
As human beings we have an innate desire to be liked and accepted and to get along with others. Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to say “Yes of course I can help with that” than to say “No”? This can cause you to overcommit and take on so much that you feel overwhelmed and unable to do any of it well.
There is one thing that can change this: getting crystal clear on what is most important to you. Understanding what really drives you allows you to clearly focus on those things.
As the professor in the rocks and the jar story tells us, if we don’t put the rocks in first (those things that are truly important) we’ll never fit them in as we end up filling the jar with all the pebbles and sand (the inconsequential things in life). If you don’t focus on your most important goals and values first, they may get left last, and left out.
Steven Covey said “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.”
Take a fresh sheet of paper and brainstorm the things that are most important in your life, for example – your health, your family, your pastimes and passions, the legacy you want to leave in this world. Describe how you would like each one to be.
HEALTH: Be healthy, happy, fit and strong
FAMILY: Have a close-knit family and create special memories together
LEGACY: Make a difference to x group by doing y.
Once you are clear on your top priorities and have a strong “yes” burning inside it becomes much easier to say “I’m sorry but I can’t commit to that at present because I’m focusing on x.” As Robyn Pearce the Time Queen says, “The word “No” is your most powerful time-management tool”. Use it wisely. It will immediately lift a weight off your shoulders.
2. Overcome the tyranny of the urgent
Everything we do fits into one of the boxes of the Eisenhower Matrix. The challenge is that often we get caught up in things that appear urgent, (regardless of how important or helpful they are) rather than focusing on the things that are truly important. Once you understand the distinction and train yourself to filter your day in this way, it will change your life.
Urgent and Important
These items are the vital tasks like report deadlines, difficult yet important conversations or key decision making that must be done now.
Non-Urgent and Important
This is the space you want to spend the most time in. These are the most beneficial things such as effective planning, personal development, relationship building, and maintaining our health and wellbeing. They must be scheduled in otherwise they tend to get missed (until they cause urgent problems.)
Non-Important and Urgent
These things can take up a lot of our time if we’re not careful. They include things like being called into meetings that we don’t need to be part of, non-essential phone calls and emails and social things are aren’t real work. Systemize or delegate them whenever possible.
Non-Important and Non-Urgent
These are things that are simply time wasters which need to be avoided. They can be fun in the short term to tick off your list, but only give you a false sense of achievement.
Most people spend their time flicking back and forwards between frenetic and reactive with a little bit of time-wasting for light relief. Picture how your day is spent. Commit to scheduling time for those non-urgent yet essentially important things that will really add value to your life, work and relationships.
Block out chunks of time to proactively work on your “rocks”, the most important things, and you’ll find that the non-important things are allowed less time. Many clients have reported this one concept has transformed how they approach their days and totally reduced the overwhelm they used to feel when looking at their to-do list. When you have clearly defined your goals and pictured how you would like life to be, you can more easily assess what’s important and make decisions in line with that.
3. Start the day right
Champions rise with consistent morning routines. When you wake at the same time each day you feel more alert because your body clock can regulate your hormones, elevating cortisol at the right moment so you wake refreshed. So, set an alarm for the same time each day (across the room to force you out of bed) and get straight up and into a structured morning routine.
This could include drawing the curtains, getting sunlight into your retina (if possible) and engaging in a movement routine. I recommend putting on your favorite music while you get moving – even just for the length of one song (about four minutes.) While you do that you can set your intention for the day picturing how you want the day to be or think about the things you’re grateful for.
How you start your day usually determines the outcome of your entire day, so create disciplined rituals that you enjoy. Even when the rest of your day goes haywire, you can “bookend” your day with a great morning and evening routine
4. Wind down well
Quality sleep is one of the best ways to avoid feeling overwhelmed and, just like babies, we all need a good winding down routine to optimize our sleep. Again, timing is important, so you might like to set a “go to bed alarm” in your smartphone as a reminder.
Use this as a signal to dim the lights. Invest in some lamps if you need to, switch off overhead lights and avoid all technology and screens for the two hours prior to your sleep time (unless you read off a device with a special light filter). Your routine might include things such as a bath or shower, a stretching sequence, preparing clothes/items for the next day, completing any nagging chores, prioritizing your to-do list for the morning, writing, reading and finishing off with a muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing. Pick the things that appeal most to you and experiment. Imagine how you’ll feel after a restorative sleep, which is proven to make you smarter, healthier and more resilient
5. Create energy, false urgency and focus
One of my most effective productivity hacks is to set a recurring timer in my phone for 25 minute blocks and to Snack on Exercise in between. The countdown timer creates a false sense of urgency which keeps me focused, efficient and on-task. Once the timer goes off, I pause and immediately do a 3 minute movement break. This could be a deskercise routine using my desktop and chair, a dance party (upbeat music is great here!), some restorative movement and/or stretches to maintain mobility. I then return to my work re-focused and re-energized.
After three rounds of 25 minutes focused work: 3 minutes movement break, I recommend a 15-20 minute brain break, to tie in with your body clock’s natural desire to recharge and restore. Many clients have told me that this strategy, makes them feel 2-3 times more productive than when they don’t structure their time. Try it out today and see what it does for you!
6. Have a plan and work it
In 1918, management consultant Ivy Lee was asked to help Bethlehem Steel become more productive. He became famous for his one piece of advice to managers which was to make a to-do list at the end of every day with only your top six items and to prioritize them 1-6, then to start immediately on your top priority and continue through the list each day, transferring any items at the end of the day and repeating the process. As his consulting fee he asked the general manager Charles Schwab to wait 3 months, then pay what he felt it was worth. Lee famously received a check for $25,000 (the equivalent of over $500,000 today) because Schwab said it had created such an increase in productivity.
Just imagine the impact could this have for you! Try it out, ensuring you make the list at the end of the day and most of all that you prioritize it. When interruptions come (as they always do) write them down, quickly assess if they’re more important that what you’re working on and if not leave them there, knowing that they are noted for later.
7. Make me-time non-negotiable
Often people associate taking time out for themselves as selfish and feel guilty when they do so. I firmly believe we need to flip that attitude on its head. Me-time should be non-negotiable as it’s essential in order to thrive and perform at your best. Not doing so is actually highly selfish because your colleagues, family and friends end up interacting with the grumpier, worn-out, tired version of you, which is not what they deserve.
If you never take time to recharge, how can you ever have the energy, attention and love to give out to others around you? Re-record your inner dialogue affirming that “Me-time is essential” rather than “Me-time is selfish.” Whether it is walking outdoors at lunchtime, learning, reading, creating, having a massage, practicing a hobby you love, hiking in nature, or whatever best grounds you; schedule time for it regularly. Literally make an appointment in your diary for it so that when someone asks a favor, you can let them know you already have an appointment (even if it’s just to go and feed the ducks at the pond.)
Be sure to grab moments throughout your day as well. Take 60 seconds, to roll your shoulders back, lift your gaze, smile, take a deep breath and think of one thing you’re grateful for. You don’t always have to make a huge event to be able to rebalance and lift your mood.
It’s the simple things that can make the biggest difference, when done regularly.