Happy & Productive: Getting Things Done, including Self-Care

ImageHow do you stay relaxed and productive at the same time? How does your to-do list get checked off, without your body and mind getting crossed off?

In wellness workshops and in the acupuncture clinic, addressing stress and anxiety is unavoidable. Chinese medicine has a 2000+ year understanding of the effects of stress on our bodies. As biomedical research now shows, stress is a major factor in a number of chronic and long-term illnesses.

What are small steps we can take toward clarity, focus and efficiency – while staying relaxed, cheerful and loving in the meantime? How do we self-structure our days (especially for students, self-employed, etc.)?  I put these questions out to my network, and added their tips to my own ideas here – thanks for all the input!

1) Heart-mind check-in: “I have reduced long “to do” lists that I used to find overwhelming (and triggered all kinds of self-hate, shame, disappointment) into a 3 item “ta da” list.” – Nrinder Nann (see Comments on this post)

Are you managing time, emotions, or both? These are two major sides to “stress management”. Often responsibilities feel much weightier because of underlying fears – e.g. that we’ll fail, be a “bad” partner, parent or employee, or lose approval of family and friends. Guilt, shame, or self-criticism can become serious energy drains, and we may cope with procrastination/distraction cycles, or over-control of ourself and others. It’s always good to be check in with ourselves, and see how our emotions are driving our work or vice versa. (See the comments on this post for some insights!) Ideas:

  • Mentally “firing” everyone from having to like me – that’s my job, no one else’s!
  • Journalling about my stressors.
  • Renaming my “to-do” list: “Ideas of stuff I could do.”
  • Replacing “should” with “could.”
  • Enlisting in counselling or coaching support.

2) Slow down to get faster. “Ironically my way of dealing with stress and a long To Do list is to slow down and be in the moment. I prioritize better, am more efficient plus happier” – Zainab Amadahy, swallowsongs.com (Comments)

Time is such a weird phenomenon. By being more present with each breath, thought, or action (and thinking less about the past/future), time passes more slowly (it’s true – many meditators and spiritual seekers can attest to this!). With practice, thoughts can get clearer, decisions faster, and work more efficient. Ideas:

  • Set a timer to go off regularly throughout the day – stop, focus on breathing or your senses, and just enjoy the moment.
  • Go outside with no phone for a 5 minute fresh air break, and look at birds and plants, or walk ‘mindfully’ (i.e. only paying attention to your body walking).
  • Grow a meditation habit: go to a course or start with 5 minutes a day (see my Resources page for meditation resources in Toronto).

3) Get clear on life priorities. Heard the story about the rocks in the jar? Recognize what is truly important to you (e.g. close relationships, community, health and well-being, spiritual practice, etc.) and make sure they get a spot in your schedule first. (note: most ‘rock in the jar’ versions I’ve read list one’s “job” as a medium-sized rock, not the biggest…) Ideas:

  • Take 5 minutes a week to block off upcoming times in your schedule (e.g. quality time with loved ones, regular meals, exercise, walking in the ravine, getting a treatment or counselling, sex, movies, winding down before bed, etc.)
  • Honour self-care dates for your mind & body like you’d honour a date with a precious loved one (because aren’t you precious? Ok… self-love, that’s a whole other blog post! 🙂
  • This article helps analyze how we’re dividing our time, pro-actively and reactively (suggested by my wonderful sis Amy!) 

4) Say No!  Essential to make #3 work. Often our bodies are stuck in a stress response, and we feel like every decision/demand is life or death… when most aren’t. This is especially true for those of us who have been through some kind of trauma. Ideas:

  • Practice saying “no” on a regular basis, and realizing that was okay.
  • Be okay with backing out, downgrading to a maybe, while communicating clearly as soon as you realize you’re overcommitted.
  • Forgive yourself – and others when they do this to you.
  • Google Search “personal boundaries.”

5) PLAY (with planning)!  Everyone has their own planning style. Do you know what works for you these days? (NOTE: and what works for the person you’re dating – it’s often a bit different, no?). Lots of people had suggestions for scheduling and planning, and you’ll find some of them in the comments (feel free to add more!). Try adopting a playful, experimental, and flexible attitude toward time management and self-care (rather than being rigid and hard on ourselves…).

(Personally, I love planning – helps me shift from being reactive to proactive, to prioritize and commit realistically. But after many “Type A personality” (i.e. go go go) years, I made a conscious shift and discovered I also love NON-planning! Open-ended time allows for spontaneity and ‘going with the flow’, such a delightful way to experience each present moment – if you have INTENTIONS for the day/month (see #7 below), you can still get things done, just in a more relaxed and creative way, and… isn’t that the point?). Ideas:

  • colour-coding calendars to see work-life and self-care “balance” at a glance
  • phone alarm reminders
  • my new temporary obsession – to-do list management software
  • I like severely limiting the amount of time I give myself for a task; it counters my perfectionist/’tunneling’ tendencies, forces me to focus, and let’s me tick something off, and move on, knowing I did the best I could, given the time available.

6) (Get support to) tackle the “hard” stuff.  Some tasks are daunting (like this article was for me)! But if they are truly important for our long-term priorities and intentions, how can we actually get to doing them? Many have mentioned breaking them down into subtasks or steps. Ideas: 

  • Njeri Damali Campbell suggested this creative idea around “micro-movements” – breaking a bigger project into tiny steps that can be done in 5 minutes, and scheduling those 5 minute blocks into the day.
  • Tackle a hard task first thing in the day, when the mind is fresher.
  • Alternate hard and easy tasks.
  • GET SUPPORT!!!! A study partner, gym buddy, meditation friend, tutor, counsellor or coach can do WONDERS!

7) Set intentions, not inflexible goals. An intention means setting a target for our efforts, but also acknowledging we can’t control everything (other people, unexpected changes, etc.). You can set result-oriented intentions (e.g. “I intend to get to my laundry today” or process-oriented intentions “I intend to take regular breaks today, to keep my mind fresh and relaxed.”) When I’m more clear what my intention in doing something is, steps fall into place easily and I’m less prone to getting caught up in the details and derailments. Ideas:

  • Set a process-oriented or even “emotional perspective” intention at the start of the day (e.g. “today I will focus on being of service to others, and not on how I look to them,” or “today I will focus on gratitude” or “today I will encourage and praise myself for whatever I get done, no matter how much left I didn’t get done.”) 
  • Reminding myself of such intentions throughout the day keeps me aware of the bigger picture, and less caught up in the daily wins and frustrations.
  • Short- and long-term intentions can be shared with friends for further accountability and support

8) Cultivate unconditional friendliness toward self. “A lot of self-shame about laziness and procrastinating also come up for me, so I make sure I give love to those parts of me.” – Charm Torres (Comments)

The best definition I ever heard of “self-care” was “learning to treat our body and mind as we would a dear friend” – meaning, with compassion, support and acceptance, not with harsh criticism. Don’t make “self-care commitments” another thing to beat ourselves up about. We’ve all been through a lot and are just doing our best to live, be happy and do good. Ideas for questions to ponder:

  • Can I separate myself self-worth from validation and achievement from others? 
  • Have I subconsciously bought into the dominant (capitalist) culture that only values human life by “productivity” and economic “usefulness” (and devalues the work of love, care, connecting, and creativity)? 
  • What’s my worst fear if I “fail” or don’t finish this? 
  • In pursuing this goal/success, am I really pursuing approval from others, and ultimately… love?

“Don’t worry if you don’t get all the things done on one day. Most of the times the list is way too long anyway and often unexpected tasks come along (calls, emails, meetings). Rather celebrate the achievement of finishing the tasks you have completed properly and knowing that you have given your best.” – Sarah Lei (Comments)

In sum – play with these ideas, see what works for you, share your experiences, and get support!  Ultimately, accept uncertainty, embrace paradox, seize the day and let go. You did your best 🙂

These are just some ideas, and this document is a work in progress. Feedback and more ideas welcome – please comment below!

Like this article? Click here to receive a monthly newsletter with free articles, resources and workshop/event announcements. (p.s. My emails won’t be more often than once a month, as writing these articles is a hard task for me, so I have to separate it into do-able ‘subtask’ chunks and set deadlines, get support, and keep my self-criticism, perfectionism, and procrastination in check!)

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19 thoughts on “Happy & Productive: Getting Things Done, including Self-Care

  1. I use google calendar,
    -I have different coloured calendars for different aspects of my life
    -I also use the reminder function in google calendar which can send an email or pop up reminder for events

    I use google tasks which syncs with tasks n todos lite (as well as other smart phone apps), Evernote is also a popular application for this type of work
    -Again, I have different lists for different aspects of my work and life. I add due dates and the app groups them all by date. It can also remind you of things and you can add urgent etc.

    I use alarms on my phone
    -These remind me to take my pills or deposit money etc. This is especially for urgent things that I forget to do

    I look forward to other replies!

  2. Multitasking is not good for the brain. Ironically my way of dealing with stress and a long To Do list is to slow down and be in the moment. I prioritize better, am more efficient plus happier. I’ve realized that being too busy is one way I cope with suppressing unpleasant thoughts and feelings. When I realize that and stop to feel, the unpleasantness dissipates and, though it may come back again, I can lighten up for a while and that’s great for clarity and creativity. My thots.

  3. If it calls for it (ie exam time) I hibernate, tell everyone i’m about to hibernate (which helps with my own mental preparation) try not to schedule anything if i don’t have to, ditch plans if i have to and hope people around me understand

  4. How do you structure your time (especially for people who have a lot of time they need to self-manage (students, self-employed, self-managed people, etc.)?

    I’m in a research-based grad school program and trying to get a side-business started. That means nearly 100% of my time is my own and my productivity relies entirely on my time management, work ethic, and level of motivation (all of which go through waves). I try to structure my time by putting all TO-DOs (incl. study sessions, grocery shopping, phone calls to make, etc.) into Google Calendar and doing my utmost to stick to it. This way, I’m more relaxed and less worried about forgetting what I need to get done because I’ve slotted it within the time I have. I sometimes use the colour-coding feature of Google Calendar to get a quick glance of how balanced my life is (school vs. family vs. friends vs. hobbies). I also use Gmail’s starred mail to mark everything I need to respond to; I go through this list of emails multiple times a day to make sure I’m on top of responding. I’m now considering ‘labelling’ all emails and TO-DOs based on the well-known time management matrix (http://www.effective-time-management-strategies.com/time-management-matrix.html), to better prioritize the emails I respond to, and see visually in the calendar how much time I’m spending on each quadrant:

    I am far, far, far away from figuring out how to be as productive as I want to me without neglecting my own mind, body, and spirit. I have fallen off the wagon in the past month with regular exercise, sleep, and mind/spirit-building things that I used to practice often (yoga, meditation, prayer). All to say, if you’re running a workshop, I probably need to be there!

  5. I have reduced long “to do” lists that I used to find overwhelming (and triggered all kinds of self-hate, shame, disappointment) into a 3 item “ta da” list. I like to get things done to my own standard of excellence and find focusing on 3 things a day allows me to do quality work I enjoy (yeah, I’m a Capricorn!) I recently added self-care to that also…which includes doable daily practices like “drink more water than yesterday”, “laugh with loved ones”, “yoga”, “meditate”, “go for a walk”, “chew slowly and thoroughly”, etc. This has allowed me to show up and be more present while completing my studies, designing my own business, and being active in my community-based work/volunteering.

  6. Don’t spend too much time on planning what you are going to do and making lists and bullet points. Try to move on to your tasks as soon as you have created a list and don’t worry if you don’t get all the things done on one day. Most of the times the list is way too long anyway and often unexpected tasks come along (calls, emails, meetings). Rather celebrate the achievement of finishing the tasks you have completed properly and knowing that you have given your best.

  7. as an aries sun (ie. i am excited about many things and love to start projects, relationships, many exciting things a lot, all at once), i gently remind myself to slow down. how i do it: (1). i make sure i sleep by 10pm, it makes for a well rested next day. (2). a lot of self-shame about laziness and procastinating also come up for me, so i make sure i give love to those parts of me. (3). i have a comprehensive colour coded digital calendar. my systems (aquarius moon) are detailed, just the way i like it. for example, at one glance i can see if i booked “too much” socializing time, and so i make a commitment to self to spend a lot of time alone time the following week like going to therapy, getting acupuncture (by you!). (4). i always make time for joy, every day, always. it makes for a whole, full, present sense of being. (5). and when my own time-management fails me, and i feel overwhelmed, i take space and cry. most of the time, that clears up the fog and i end up opening up more space for me after. ❤

    • These are beautiful tips for balance and self-love, Charm! Thanks so much. Totally relate to the getting excited about lots of new directions at the same time. I’m a Pisces. What does that mean?

      • haha! I’m Pisces rising! (are u Pisces sun?)…all I can say for me, it’s ESSENTIAL to spend enough time being alone because as the last boundaryless water sign, u may find this for u too, that I’m very sensitive to ALL energies (Pisces: we are all one). and so, I can really channel in and understand what I need & want when I’m alone and I’m not feeding off or on someone else’s needs & wants. sound familiar? hehe

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