Today was one of those days. You know the type I am talking about. The kind of day when so many thoughts are spinning through your head that you cannot keep anything straight. When you literally feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Days like this make staying productive difficult at best, and impossible at worst. I want to share with you my best tips for staying productive when you are overly stressed.
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Take a Time Out
First, before you try and do anything else, you need to take a break. It can be a small break or a rather long one, it does not matter. What matters is that you remove yourself from your obligations and stressors for a few moments and just breathe.
This is always where I start. Depending on whether I am at work or home will depend on how long of a break I take. Weather permitting I will take a a short walk outdoors and breathe in the sunshine and fresh air. Just find something, anything that will get you out of your own head.
On days when I find it particularly hard to clear my head, I will use a guided app like Headspace, Curestress, or Pacifica. All three are downloaded to my iPhone for this use.
The most important part is to move away from your workspace for a minimum of five minutes. This gives your mind a decent refresh and allows you to come back to your task with purpose and a clearer head.
Prepare When You Can
Preparation is not always possible. Sometimes stress piles on us later in our day without warning. But if we can prepare, if we know its coming, take advantage!
In this case, we are looking for mental preparation. We need to get our minds and bodies ready for the task at hand. There are two ways we need to do that. One, sweat it out! There is nothing better for a stressed mind than an energy release through exercise. You can take a quick morning jog, throw on a workout dvd, or even try a yoga app. Sweat for at least 30 minutes.
Secondly, eat a good breakfast. I LOVE breakfast. It is seriously my favorite meal. Ok, maybe it has more to do with my love for coffee, but I love it just the same. Breakfast will help fuel your mind and body to take on the day.
Make a List
Ok, so we may or may not have prepared, but we have definitely taken a breather. So whats next? Oh yeah, we have to get to work.
When you return to your work area, take a piece of paper and make two columns. In the first columns, write down everything you have to do. In the second column, write down all those things that are causing you stress. Now compare them. You can even use lines to connect them. Connect the stress items to the to-do items they correlate with. If you want a pretty version, get my free printable here.
Now write a new list. On it, add all your to-dos that were connected to stressors. Get those out of the way first. In this way, you are essentially killing two birds with one stone. By removing items that are causing you stress, you will therefore have less stress when you go on with your list. Makes sense doesn’t it?
Once you add that first group, you can then add any other to-do items that are not causing you stress, but that may be time sensitive as group two. Finally, add any remaining to-do items as a third group.
I work my way down the list in this manner. Any items that are not causing me stress and are not time sensitive will likely get put off until the next day. This is just fine. You will still get them done, but they are not important on a day like this.
Plan Out Your Work
Look through the first section of your list. How much time do you think each task will take? Are there tasks that can be grouped together by location or other similarity? What is the best order to put your items in to get everything done in a way that makes sense?
Be realistic about this. Are you going to be ready for lunch in an hour? Do you have to pick-up your child from school shortly? Is there a conference call you need to attend at a certain time? Don’t pick a three hour project that is going to get interrupted in an hour. Instead, pick something that you can finish in the allotted time.
Now number your items in order of which you will get them done. When you finish with the first group, move on to the next group on your list (time sensitive). Do not bother with the third group today. If you have extra time to get some of these done, great. If not, we are not worried about it for now.
Don’t Try to Multitask
Seriously don’t. You won’t get anymore done by attempting to multitask than you would by taking one to-do item at a time. In fact, experts agree you will actually get less done. If you have trouble sticking to one task at a time, keep a notebook or piece of paper near by. Any time an idea, distraction, or side thought should pop in your head and work to sideline your progress, “park it”. Parking it simply means jotting down a quick note about it on a separate piece of paper and then move on back to what you were doing previously.
When not actively using them, turn both your to-do list and your parking lot list over so you can not read them. This will help keep further distractions at bay. Staring at that to-do list is not going to help get anything done any faster.
Have a Clear Workspace
Ideally, I would like to tell you to have a clean and organized workspace. However, I find that the days that I am overly stressed are the days when neat and organized are no where to be found. Organized and neat took a wrong turn, got lost, and are sitting on a back road some where in la-la land. Maybe they are hiding behind the several looming piles and loose paperwork to be attended to.
Have no fear. We may not be able to get neat and tidy, but we CAN get a clear space. This is the only time I will advocate to moving those piles and loose papers elsewhere. Make a pile on another work surface out of your direct view, or a pile on the floor out of the way. Anywhere that is not your direct line of sight while you work is perfect. Yes, I did just give you permission to make a mess elsewhere. Its ok. We can clean it tomorrow when our stress is lower and we can get back to our usual productive habits. (If you find yourself moving stuff elsewhere on a daily basis, we need to take a look at organization overall my friend)
Do Not Forget to Eat
I have thought of moving this to number one, but have refrained for obvious reasons. Although I still think it is so important. I can’t be the only person who gets hangry. So we need to make sure we eat. Stress will cause all sorts of havoc on your body, including draining your energy. Eating will replenish some of this.
Plan out breaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (if needed). These should be real breaks. Meals that you eat while you continue to work do not count. Minimally take 20 minutes to eat and once again breathe. Enjoy your food and give your body a chance to feel like it got fed. No eating at your desk either, it is just asking for you to end up working while you eat (yes, this means you!).
Have a few snacks on hand as well. Make sure they are healthy snacks. These you have permission to eat while working.
Get Moving (or Sit)
Your body does not like to do the same thing for hours on end. This is especially true if your work involves sitting down. Your joints and muscles are meant to be used in multiple different ways throughout your day. So give them what they want!
If your tasks involve sitting work, you need to make sure you move at least once per hour. When your work involves standing and/or moving then do the opposite and sit/rest at least once per hour. These do not have to be long breaks. In fact they don’t really need to be breaks at all. You can transfer yourself to a different position and continue your work.
Since most my work involves sitting, both in my day and night jobs, I know how much better I feel when I go for a short walk. Sometimes I simply walk down a hall and back, or I go outside for another five minute breather. I don’t allow myself long enough to get distracted, just enough to allow by body to move a different way.
Find Something to Play With
I couldn’t get through my days without my fidget toy. I swear by them. There are dozens of different ones out there. Stores even have whole sections dedicated to them. Fidgeting with an item or toy while you work will actually help to keep your mind on track. There are dozens of theories as to why this works, but no matter the theory it really does work.
The item should be small enough that it can fit in your hand easily. Or, in the case of those who type, you can even find a few that are safe to chew on. As a former paperclip chewer, I can attest to a few of the “chewable” toys. Among all fidget toys, this one is my personal favorite. I have four of them total!
Work in Some Breaks
Read any post or book on being productive, and they will tell you that working in breaks every 25 minutes is the best way to keep your brain focused. I am going to tell you that this is even more important on days when your stress is taking over. The hard part is to not let your brain drift back to stressful matters during these breaks. Well how do you do that?
Have items on your breaks that are equally distracting, fun, and can be done in a small timeframe. Let me throw my two cents in here that playing on your smart phone is not recommended. Ok, maybe your phone is fine as long as you stay off the social media. Take a few minutes to play a game. Read a blog post that you saved just for your break. Take a few pictures that you can use later (when we finally have time again for Instagram). Or my personal favorite, look at cute pictures of animals (I work in a veterinary hospital, what did you expect?).
After you complete each to-do task, or every 2 hours, take a longer break of at least 15 minutes.
Regardless of what you do, your break should be short. It should be fun. And it should be something that you look forward to doing.
Ditch the Distractions
Distractions and time wasters are not only counter productive, but they will also add to your stress when they diminish your time. Get rid of them. Today is not the day to allow them to intrude. Crush your phone, delete your email account, lock yourself in a windowless room. Ok, well maybe lets not go that far.
It is true though that cell phones, emails, and social media accounts are some of the largest distractions in today’s society. On days when the stress is at its highest and remaining on task is important, we need to take extra measures that these items do not come into play. Put your phone out of reach and place notifications on vibrate. Close your email and don’t let it run in the background. Close the blinds on any windows that look outside if distractions lurk there as well.
Set a Reward and Know When to Quit
I put these two things together since they go hand in hand. On days when you are this stressed, have a reward in mind! After all, you deserve it after making it through today in one piece. Treat yourself to your favorite dessert! Watch that Netflix show you have been dying to see. Screw the chores tonight and put your feet up, you made it! But first, we must know when the say when.
Days like today aren’t necessarily work till you drop. We made our list, we trucked through most of it. Now we really need to re-evaluate. Do we have to finish the whole list today? Are we now just trying to squeeze in those category three items to feel more productive? Stop it! Do not do that to yourself. Know when to quit. Go home for the day. Move on to your reward. Let your mind finally have its real break. Jot down tomorrow’s list and step away from the desk. We are done!
Now, speaking of knowing when to quit, it is time for me to find my couch, remote control, and double fudge brownie. Hey, this girl knows how to reward herself!
What are your tips for getting through those stressful days?