In my first job as a programmer, my company’s sales team consistently promised clients super-short turnaround times that we couldn’t meet without working serious overtime, sometimes as much as 16-hour days.
Talk about stress.
Had they given us another day or two for each project, I might not have been so glad to quit when we moved.
Same project, different timeline. The projects themselves weren’t inherently stressful. It was the company’s unrealistic expectations that made them so.
Sadly, now that I work for myself, it turns out I’m not much better than that old sales team at setting realistic expectations. I’m not even talking about big things, like publishing deadlines.
I’m talking about my daily to-do list. In my head there’s this fictional world where I can “handle” my email in 20 minutes, compose and publish a blog in under an hour, and consistently produce 3000 words a day.
That’s called Fantasy Land.
When I plan out my day (poorly) and don’t meet my goals, I get stressed. Over the long term, repeated stress takes time off your life, weakens your immune system (so you feel like crap AND lose more productive time), and turns you into an irritating house companion.
So, the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in having too many things to do (though I also need to learn to trim my list), but in not allotting myself enough time in which to accomplish them.
A to-do list with 18 items that I’ve taken care to schedule realistically—with buffer time for things like potty breaks, food, and general miscalculation—might keep me busy, but at the end of the day I’ll be feeling pretty good.
Yet, a list with three items can bring me low if improperly handled.
I’d love to say I’ve slain this beast, but I’d be lying. It’s something I have to re-address every few months or so because I get lazy and start winging it, and then start stressing…
Here’s my current approach to managing my towering to-do list:
1. I’m taking note of how long repeated tasks actually take, and using that to set a more achievable schedule.
2. I’m prioritizing my list so the most important things get done first (Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy has great suggestions). Even if I don’t get to everything, I’ll at least get to the items that matter most.
3. I’m going to bed earlier so I can get up earlier. I’m a night owl, but I’m more productive if I start my day early and get the key tasks—like writing—done before the day “starts” for real.
I actually set several alarms on my phone to remind me to get ready for/go to bed. The key is not to ignore them. 😉
4. I (usually) create a daily schedule. I’ve been hinting at this throughout, but when I know I have a busy day ahead, I’ll plan it out the night before, down to the quarter hour. If I have an appointment or event, I work backwards from it.
I schedule everything that happens prior to the appointment—with a bit of buffer for derailment—and then follow it with a list of other things to get done that day (sometimes schedules, sometimes not).
So it might look like this:
0630 Run and cool down
0800 Walk dog
0815 Eat breakfast
0945 Leave for Physical Therapy
I’m training for a half marathon, so on running days I go early while it’s still cool outside. (BTW, exercise is great stress relief!) Every other day of the week I start with writing, so it’s the first thing I accomplish, and work out later.
When everything is scheduled for its own time, I can relax and focus, instead of worrying about whether I should be doing something else.
And, yes. Some days I totally fail. If I don’t go to bed early enough, none of this works, so that’s HUGE for me right now. My biggest struggle. But having a plan (and a specific reason to get up) makes it easier.
I have high expectations for myself overall, which I think is important, but I’m learning to keep them real in my day-to-day plan.
How about you? What stresses you out, and how are you handling it (or not)?