Over the years I have both taught about and treated stress. I've run workshops, chaired working groups, and of course written a great deal about it. In short, I feel I’ve learned a few things about stress and the effects it can have on people.
In this post I’m going to assume that you also know a few things about stress and you want to do something about it. I’ll assume you live a busy life where lots of things compete for your attention and you’re feeling the strain. By "strain" I mean:
- You often have the sense that there are never enough hours in the day.
- You don’t sleep well.
- Your thoughts regularly drift back to work issues.
- You perhaps "calm" yourself with alcohol or medication.
- You start each day with a knot in your stomach.
Why time management can help
Many people I’ve worked with find it hard to pin down the exact reasons why their lives feel so hard. But the fact is our lives are quite complex and dynamic, and we need to employ methods that simplify things. You will find that a little time spent examining how you operate and respond to situations will provide long-term benefits. The advice I offer is usually tailored to the individual, but in broad terms these are my time management tips.
Establish a baseline
A baseline is a way of mapping out how you spend your time. It’s a record, of sorts, and it provides a really good illustration of your behavior. You’ll need to be completely honest with yourself, and monitor everything you do. For example, if you start work by checking your personal emails and your social media updates, then note down the time you’ve spent doing this. Jot down all the distractions, like the number of times people talk to you, or you to them. A few days later, you’ll have a record of just how significantly non-work issues impinge on your time.
Take breaksMany people compensate for distractions by working through their breaks. They continue to sit at their desk. You may have the kind of job where some days you work flat-out, but you’ll be** far more effective if you take scheduled breaks**. Keep in mind that some breaks are an entitlement. They are there for a very good reason, and you should use them. A healthy lunch and some exercise will boost your energy levels for the afternoon and you’ll feel less tired and more focused.
Not all tasks are equal but they can sometimes feel that way. Take emails as an example. How often do you check your emails in a day? One New York Times article cited research indicating 55 percent of workers check their email after 11 PM. The article, resulting from a two-week study into email-checking behavior, found that by asking people to reduce the number of times they checked emails resulted in big benefits — "about as large as the benefit people get from learning relaxation techniques (e.g., taking deep breaths, visualizing peaceful imagery),” according to the authors.
Your time is a valuable resource so it’s important to consider what you are doing. Chopping and changing activities may feel like you're keeping busy, but it’s behavior that is more likely to result in errors, is more stressful and less productive.
I’ve seen many management DVDs, but one that stood out was actually a silent movie. A young worker holding three or four teddy bears approaches a colleague who is empty-handed. He sees the problem and takes one of the teddy bears. The co-worker looks relieved because her burden is lessened. Pretty soon the young worker acquires another teddy, and then another, and everyone is grateful to him. But by pleasing his colleagues and making their lives a little easier, his own burden has increased enormously.
Managing your own stress isn’t about relieving others of theirs. I’m not suggesting that you should be ruthless or heartless, but that you learn when you really aren’t in a position to say yes. If you do help a colleague, you’ve banked a favor. Use it later if you need to. If you’re lucky enough to work in a team where you can delegate, do so.
At the end of an average working day you should have enough energy left in the tank to do other things, like socialize. Some days will always be busier than others, but effective time management is the smart way to regain and retain your health.
Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.