Do you have a zillion things going on? Yeah, me too. Work, school, side projects a-plenty, friends, family, house stuff…I’m swamped. And I don’t even have kids – so I have no idea how you parents do all this stuff AND manage little ones. Kudos to you on that!

I’m often asked how I manage it all, and I’m telling you, it’s not easy. But I’ve learned over the years, especially after suffering stress-related health issues in the past, that having control in the midst of chaos is critical to not only my success but is directly linked to my sanity.

We are all extraordinarily busy. We all want to have the time to focus on what’s important in our lives. We don’t want to be slaves to our inbox, or our telephone. But when information is being hammered at us every hour of every day, how do we keep from losing control altogether?

You are what you eat. Oh, my Mom’s been telling me this for YEARS. My biggest downfall (and the biggest contributor to my waistline) is that when I get too busy, I don’t eat properly. I work and work and work, and put off eating until I’m famished, then because I’m starving I make poor choices (i.e. PB and J or boxed mac and cheese for supper instead of something green). Day after day I continue to eat poorly, and then suddenly I start having trouble. I feel tired all the time. I lose concentration. My tummy troubles flare up. I get anxious for no reason. Then I realize that I haven’t eaten a vegetable in 5 days, and it all becomes clear.

It’s hard to prepare food and eat well when you barely have enough time to get a shower in the morning. But I’m getting better, and it starts with planning meals for me and my husband. I like to cook, but I hate cooking when I don’t know what to make. By laying it all out at the beginning of the week, then grocery shopping based on the list, I’m able to actually enjoy preparing meals again. The tools are simple (and it’s not about the tools). I use my desktop calendar (iCal) to write in the meal for each day. Then I use ShopShop on my iPhone to poke in the grocery list based on what I need to make the meals. Meals that we like get put into a list in Evernote, so when I make my weekly meal plan, I can refer to that list for ideas. My parents have done a low-tech version of this for years. And you know what – it totally works. We’re eating less takeout because we’re not stuck at 4pm trying to decide what’s for dinner.

Live and die by your calendar. I’m a spontaneous person, and that’s a good thing, but sometimes it causes havoc in my schedule. I double book, or end up with six 15 hour days in a row without a break. Mostly, that happens when I fail to write stuff down. So, I’ve started a system of incessant scheduling. I write something in the calendar as soon as it has a date associated with it, even if it’s tentative. I even schedule exercise. (e.g. 4pm walk the dog, 6am do yoga). It’s the only way that important stuff gets done around here. It also helps me to balance my weeks – I work from home a lot of the time, so booking “meeting days” helps me to balance my ‘office’ time with my ‘out and about’ time, so I’m not always racing back and forth to things.
Get your calendar in shape – it doesn’t matter whether you use a paper daytimer or an electronic calendar, but what is most important is that you have a calendar you can carry with you all the time. Because if it doesn’t get in the calendar the minute you think of it, chances are you’ll forget and double book. And, once it’s in the calendar, you can forget about it. One less thing on your already busy mind.

Write it down. I think one of the major causes of stress is that we have so many things we need to remember to do on a daily basis. And if those things are all fluttering around inside our head, we’re having to revisit them mentally over and over again until they are done. Have you ever had a bunch of daily errands, one of which was to take your pants to the dry cleaners? And while you’re out running around, all you can think is “I’ve got to get these pants to the dry cleaners”. Then, when you finally arrive back home, you hop out of the car, look in the back seat, and there are your pants? Ironic, eh? The very thing you obsessed about doing is the very thing that didn’t get done.

The solution to getting more accomplished is to write it down on a list. The secret to succeeding with lists is to be specific. Don’t just write “Go to dry cleaners”, or “Work on marketing plan”. That’s not detailed enough. If you just write “work on marketing plan”, then your mind will still be occupied with “I’ve got to first get the strategy down, then decide my vehicles, then the timeline etc.”, before you even get started! Be specific. Write down EXACTLY what you need to do. “Take pants to dry cleaners”, “Write the strategy and timeline for my marketing plan”. Not only will the task actually get accomplished once you set out to do it, you’ll be able to forget it entirely until it’s time to do it. Your mind will be clear for other things. You’ll be more focused. Try it!

Keep it clean. I like things to be tidy, but sometimes it gets away on me. My desk starts to resemble a tornado zone, with papers and books piled up so high they are tipping over. When I feel closed in physically, I’m way less productive. You may think you can work amidst clutter, but that’s not really the case. If your desk is cluttered, you’ll be more distracted, either by those books you haven’t had time to read, or the business cards you’ve yet to file. So, schedule time to clean up your desk once in a while. It’s liberating – you’ll throw out a bunch of stuff you don’t need, file the things you need to keep, and clear a space physically so your mind can be cleared as well. Schedule it in your calendar now, and set a recurring appointment to clean your workspace once every couple of weeks (or days, if you’re really messy). It’s important.

Down time = sanity. Last, but definitely not least, rest. The #1 way to put my sanity over the edge is to not get enough rest. When I was younger, I used to think that pulling all-nighters or working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week was some sort of badge of honour…until I ended up spending the better part of 1994 either in the hospital or home sick in bed. It took months of bad health for me to realize that working hard and working all the time were two different things.

Today, my philosophy is this: when you’re working, work your butt off. When you’re resting, rest your butt off. But most importantly, define what it is that you do for rest. It doesn’t have to be flaking out on the sofa all weekend (unless it is). For me, rest is spending time having coffee or dinner with my friends and family, traveling to crazy conventions in the Midwest with my husband, socializing online (yes, Twitter isn’t ALWAYS about work for me!), reading, writing, being outdoors – all active things. It’s about getting your brain out of your day to day and into something different. Whether you’re being a couch potato or going for a run, down time is as much about resting the brain as taking care of your body.

Having trouble finding the time for down time? Go back to point #2 – and schedule it in. Not only will it be more likely to get done, you’ll have something to look forward to.

There you have it – that’s how I keep control. But what about you? Please share your tips in the comments!

8 Responses

  1. Great post.
    I learnt to write down and plan my activities on a weekly agenda during university. I had a low performing period despite studying hard. then I realized that I had to change my attitude. I read “7 pillars of success” and there I learnt to adopt a weekly planning attitude and to use mind mapping and similar tools to take note. It worked and works.

    Recently I’ve discovered the need to take a day off: off of work, work related issues and off of blog and Internet. It helps my performances and my personal relationships in family.

    About cooking and eating, the first is my passion while the second is a need to respect. I try to eat something different each day and doing that I eat more vegetable than meat.

    I really, again, enjoy your post.

  2. Now Suze, THIS is the type of stuff you should be writing for other great blogs like, say, Thoughtwrestling… 🙂

    Seriously, great ideas. Writing stuff down is keep to staying sane, even if you don’t go to the GTD extremes of David Allen et al.

  3. I like the list making, but I use two – one is the lists of small tasks that I need to do (I use RTM for this), but I found it was easy to get into the trap of achieving tons of small things but nothing big. Then I started making a list of high-level goals for the week – every day one of these should be my big goal for the day. It keeps me focused on the important things I need to do – so effective, rather than productive.

    Great post!

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