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Piling it on: expectations and stress

woman with to-do list

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.

Hahahahahahaha.

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:

0600 Wake

0630 Run and cool down

0800 Walk dog

0815 Eat breakfast

0845 Shower

0945 Leave for Physical Therapy

Write

Call Jane

Blog post

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)?

20 Comments

  1. Reply

    I keep stress at bay by using these priorities:

    #1 taking care of my physical self, which includes enough sleep (probably the biggest factor in my mood and energy – and ultimately, my productivity)
    #2 daily spiritual practices (yoga and meditation)
    #3 schedule the most important things first (write / exercise) and the rest will more or less take care of itself

    And then there is life stepping in to temporarily reorganize my priorities – but that’s what makes things interesting.

    • Reply

      Nancy: It sounds like we’re pretty much on the same page. I recently re-started yoga and am loving how I feel during and after. Also trying to meditate several days a week and work my way up to more. Just a short brain break makes a big difference.

      Good luck staying on track. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Reply

    Hi Gwen. You’ve described my life perfectly, except for the part of finally getting around to organizing it. Like you, as a writer, there is no off switch to work. I don’t leave my workplace to go to my family or home place. They are one and the same and the only dividing lines are the ones I create, which is much too seldom. I surmise that part of the Delima is that people like us thrive on challenges but fail to recognize when we have taken on so many that they exceed the time available to accomplish them. Once in a while I take the opportunity to vent my frustrations to my wife and simply saying it out loud helps put things in perspective enough for me to apply some of the organizational tools you describe. Still, at the end of the day (or week or month) there is satisfaction in having accomplished some worthwhile goals while not forgetting to spend quality time with those I love. Thanks for reminding me to reflect on these important issues. Warmest Regards, Chuck Miceli, author, Amanda’s Room.

    • Reply

      Hey, Chuck! It’s good to see you here. Good point about boundaries and thriving on challenge. Working from home is harder than it sounds because we’re always at work. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉

      I’m glad the post got you thinking. Happy writing!

  3. Linda Fulgenzi

    Reply

    What you say is true whatever you are trying to accomplish……….we do vision projects for Lions and other volunteer activities and sometimes that time runs over into our “social” retired activities, or vice versa. I think no matter where you are in life’s stages, some organization and planning makes the days, weeks, months more productive and enjoyable. Thanks for reinforcing those thoughts!

    • Reply

      Linda: It’s so nice of you to stop by! That’s a great reminder. It might sound weird to schedule in fun and relaxation and anything else that’s important to you, but it really helps. Kind of like how budgeting your money makes it more fun to spend because you’re not worried about coming up short at the end of the month. Or is that just me and my weirdness? 😉

  4. Reply

    Just yesterday I was bewailing my overload. “My problem is that I try to keep everything organized.” My son responded, “No Mom. Your problem is that you try to keep everything.”
    I’m old enough that I should know I can’t keep and do everything that comes my way!

  5. Reply

    Hi Gwen,
    Great idea to set alarms, I’m going to try that, especially for SM. They continually tell us how important it is to write the next book, be seen on social media, take classes to broaden your knowledge, exercise, that if we followed this there would be virtually NO time for family or you know, cleaning the house, say!
    Maybe alarms to segment some of these chores would help, I’m going to give it a shot anyway 🙂
    Jacquie Biggar

    • Reply

      Thanks, Jacquie! I need to be better about setting social media timers. Maybe a big hammer that drops on my head or something… It’s exhausting trying to do everything we’re “supposed” to do, isn’t it? Except house cleaning. That can ALWAYS wait. 😉 Good luck!

  6. Reply

    Hi Gwen, exactly this same thing happens to me. I try to do too much, there is not enough time in the day to do that endless list of tasks, and I get frustrated…to put it mildly. People ask me to do this and that. I don’t like saying no because I don’t want to seem like a jerk. I don’t really want to do those things: they eat my time. Vast amounts of it. That is the worst thing about my daily life. I never seem to have the time to work on the goals I really want to achieve. I’m starting to deal with it. I am learning to just say no to the unimportant stuff and try to focus on my real goals — just one or two things. The big one or two things. Getting real, for me, means defining my base obligations, and meeting those as best as I can. Then cutting out the other things I just don’t have time for, and further cutting out the things that don’t align with those one or two goals.

    • Reply

      That’s tough, Bob. We don’t even realize how much we’re conditioned to say yes, even at our own expense. And some people are masters of guilt. There are whole books out there on how to say no, but you probably don’t have time to read any of them. 😉 I hope you can find a way to stand firm and pare down to the core priorities!

  7. Reply

    “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.” — WOW. I wish I could say I couldn’t relate :-).

  8. Reply

    I love making task lists and drawing lines through each finished job. I find that, if I don’t tackle the big ones (finish the project, take the photos, write the query, etc.) they become emotionally heavy until I actually do the deed. So I try not to let the “big ones” hang around on my list for too long.

    At this time on the chronological clock, lists are a must and, even then, I’ll forget something such as checking the list. Yeah, that.
    Jeannie Leighton

    • Reply

      LOL, Jeannie, the lists don’t help if you don’t look at them. 😉 I LOVE crossing or checking things off. Such a good feeling. I know exactly what you mean about how things weigh on you if you keep putting them off. Good reminder. Thanks!

  9. Reply

    My wife and I have always had a pretty low stress lifestyle, and even more so since my early retirement. Our scheduled activities include treadmill 3x a week and stretching 3x on different days, watering my vegetables and succulents (we have no lawn) every other day (using our recycled water systems), our 3 days per month volunteering with the VFW and/or senior citizens, late night blogging followed by some Apple TV action flick, a weekend rock’n’roll jam session with an old military buddy. My most recent stressful moment came a few weeks after a free upgrade to Windows 10– my computer froze up with a critical error message. Fortunately I was able to use an app shortcut to get to my explorer and control panel and perform a restore to a previous date. And I hadn’t done a backup of my artwork, poetry and current projects and tools in a month. However, there’s always that nervousness during that forever wait when you hope all will repair itself correctly– which (thank you, thank you!!) it did. Nice post, Gwen. Have a relaxing day.

    • Reply

      loujenhaxmyor: I think you’re now the envy of everyone here. 😉 I’m glad you’ve been able to create a relaxing lifestyle that fits in everything important to you. We all need to get better at that!

      Scary on the computer issues. After a scare where I dropped my laptop and fried the hard drive, I took my backup plan a lot more seriously. Have a great weekend!

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