Want to reduce daily stress and focus better?  Schedule in time for emergencies and the unexpected.

Home / blog / Want to reduce daily stress and focus better?  Schedule in time for emergencies and the unexpected.

Kids and pets get sick.  We get sick.  Co-workers and team members require help.  Cars need repairs.  Trains, planes, and buses get delayed.  Computers require updating.  Projects take much longer than anticipated.  Something you let slip will become urgent.  Your partner will forget to tell you about an event or commitment.  Rain, snow, and ice will cause disruptions.  These things are inevitable.  We all know this from our own experience.  So planning life as if everything will run smoothly every day and we have endless reserves of energy is a guaranteed recipe for extra stress and frustration.

Things will be much easier and more enjoyable if, instead of ideal plans, you make realistic plans.  For each day, determine the 3-5 key things that must be done.  Yes, just 3-5.  Actually, 3-5 tasks/small projects* on top of all the daily requirements:  eating, exercising, care of others, email, commuting, regular work-day duties . . .  Your plate starts at least half full each day; you don’t have as much available time and energy as you pretend.  So commit to just 3-5 action items for each day.  Once they’re done, SUCCESS!  You’ve done enough for the day;  let yourself go to bed at a reasonable hour and sleep well.  If you finish your tasks before the end of day, you can move on to the next important item on your to-do list or do some planning for the next day and week.  (On the other hand, if you get to the end of the day and all the tasks aren’t finished, decide if losing sleep to complete them is really worth it, or if its wiser to push them off until the next day.)

Yes, limiting your to-do list will require you to make choices and may mean you do less.  This is why getting clear on your values, priorities, and goals is so important.  As Stephen Cope explains in The Great Work of Your Life**, “The root of the word ‘decide’ means, literally, ‘to cut off.’  To decide for something means at times to decide against something else.”  In fact, you are de facto already doing this.  Each day that you plan to accomplish ten, fifteen, or twenty tasks and only get to five or eight, you are “cutting off” some actions in favor of others.

Given this reality, why do you continue to pretend that you can do all twenty tasks on a given day?  Because there is comfort in the pretending.  You don’t have to confront the “deciding against” head-on.  Even though the unrealistic plans cause stress, they also let you maintain the fantasy that you can do, be, and have it all, today and everyday (or at least every week).  But you can’t.  No one I know gets to do, be, and have it all at the same time.  Over the course of a month, year, and lifetime you can do, be, and have many different things, but not all at once, especially if you want to actually be mentally present and really experience and enjoy where you are at any given moment.  So step one: stop believing the myth that you can do, be, and have it all today, and every day after.

Step two: make choices.  In my last role as a sustainability consultant, I worked on client projects, led internal talent management and systems development projects, and was also the firm “fire-fighter”—on call to handle last-minute client projects or help teams needing immediate assistance.  My project and task lists were always more than 100% full.  But as I planned each week, I only scheduled 50-70% of my time, in order to leave space for the unexpected and for work to take longer than anticipated.  This meant that when reviewing open projects/tasks with my supervisors, we had to agree on just a few priorities per week. While they liked to joke that “everything is a top priority”—something a lot of us feel—it was crucial to get realistic about what truly mattered most for any given week and month.  If only one planned project could be finished that week, what did it need to be?  After that, what was the next priority?  And after that?  We would extend the list to seven or eight items, so on those magical weeks when all went smoothly, I could keep trucking along without need for further discussion.  Regardless of how much progress was achieved, each week we’d again review the open loops/unfinished projects and adjust priorities as needed.  Sometimes we removed things altogether (or agreed to not consider them again until next year), because while it would have been nice to complete X, we accepted that it wasn’t possible at that time.  We had to say “no” to certain things in order to focus and maximize efforts on what was most needed.

After deciding what you will do, it’s time for step three: make realistic daily plans with built-in extra time.  If it takes five minutes without traffic to get somewhere, plan eight to nine minutes to get there, plus time for parking.  If you arrive in just five (or four!) minutes and immediately find a parking place, you can use the “spare” time to read, make a call, answer a message, get your thoughts in  order, meditate, or just be—to rest and recharge.  Or to chat with the friend you run into on the way, whom you can now briefly engage with rather than just blowing past in a harried rush.

In addition to decreasing stress and frustration and increasing moment-to-moment joy, following realistic plans helps us to be more pleasant, better people.  For example, I aim to be a considerate driver, but when I’m running late, I am much less likely to let some one in and much more likely to be the jerk cutting off people.  Ironic, since I’m rushing in order to not be rude by being on time and keeping my commitments, but I’m being a punk along the way.  Daaah!  Not fun, and I’m sure that cognitive dissonance adds to my stress levels.  One of my over-arching life goals is to be the best person I can be, which includes being a good member of the community.  Being a bad driver is the opposite of that, so whether or not I’m consciously aware of it, it gnaws at me: I’m failing to live up to my ideals.  Given that alternative, leaving enough time to gracefully accommodate delays is the better option for all of us.

Need help getting clear on your values and determining the priorities and goals that help you live those values?  You can contact me to set up a sample coaching session or answer the questions below on your own.  The listed resources listed can also help.

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* For an explanation of the difference between projects and tasks, I recommend David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” framework
** Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life (page 70)

Questions to Help You Gain Clarity on Your Values

  • What makes you cry because it touches you so deeply (rather than making you sad)?
  • What makes you angry? Why; what rules or expectations are being violated?
  • What do you always find the time and energy for? Why; what personal rules are you adhering to?
  • What do you want your eulogy/obituary to say?
  • What do you hope your children or best friends say about you to others?
  • What are the achievements and aspects of your life that you are most proud of? Go back as far in your life as you can: What are you proud of from the past week, month, year, five years, ten years . . .  all the way through childhood?  Do you notice any themes?
    • Note: these are the things that bring (brought) you joy, fulfillment, and pride—not what is most prestigious or financially rewarding or what other people think are your greatest achievements/ways of being.

Resources

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
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