When you make essential daily activities automatic, like answering email and moving forward on major projects, you’re creating the equivalent of a waterslide for your time and energy. By simply going with the flow, you know all of the must-do activities will get done on time or early thus avoiding stress-inducing backlogs. This then frees up more mental energy and space in your schedule for free-form creative exploration or impromptu adventures without needing to put any boundaries on yourself.
Here are four strategies for reducing your number of daily decisions so you feel a greater sense of control and can transcend from scrambling to keep up on the mundane to savoring the sublime.
Strategy 1: Make Processing Automatic
If you struggle with keeping up on communications, rituals for processing email, voicemail, and snail mail can do wonders. Putting this time into your calendar as a recurring event takes the angst out of deciding when you will reply, allows you to complete the task efficiently, and frees you from guilt surrounding a major backlog. Here are examples of different types of processing routines that I’ve seen work well depending on your relationship with processing:
- If you strongly dislike responding to communications: aim to make it the first thing that you do when you start your day. Go through a checklist of the key items that require responses, such as email, voicemail, and new files. Get them answered or turned into a to-do item to check off later in the day. Then give yourself permission to ignore everything but the most urgent communications until the next morning.
- If you find email and other sorts of communication tempting: you’ll need to take a bit different approach. Instead of getting it all done at the beginning of the day, you’ll want to limit yourself to a 5- to 10-minute check in the morning. Then after lunch and before you leave work, block in 30- to 60-minute time slots to get messages answered. This ensures that you go through new input systematically but that you don’t let it derail your plans.
Strategy 2: Front-Load Your Day & Week
To minimize stress, spend less time worrying about planning exactly how long every activity will take you to do and more time front-loading your calendar by putting your most important activities with deadlines early in the day and early in the week. For example, something due on Friday should start appearing in your schedule by Tuesday afternoon. And your amount of planned to-do items should decrease from Monday to Friday with ideally little-to-no new to-do items on Friday.
Front-loading gives you the ability to stay on top of projects that take longer than expected without getting stressed or working into the wee hours of the night. Since all of your must-do’s are taken care of at least a few days in advance, you can easily move would-like-to-do’s to the next day. Also if a cool opportunity arises, you can make a spontaneous decision to take advantage of it because you don’t constantly have the pressure of racing to meet a deadline.
Strategy 3: Set An End Time
Although it may seem like a smart move to tell yourself that you’ll just keep working until you get everything done, not setting a time to stop working leads to inefficiency. When you assume that you’ll work late, you reduce your incentive to begin the most important—and often most difficult—tasks. Also, you don’t force yourself to make the hard choices that being conscious of your time budget would require. For example, if you decide that you only have two hours to get something done, you wouldn’t spend 1.5 of those hours surfing the Internet for “inspiration.”
Use the first two strategies to make this third strategy possible. Then to really amp up your effectiveness: plan to do activities you really enjoy after your desired end time. Schedule in whatever makes you really happy (like visiting a friend) and then use that positive pressure to get your work done as efficiently as possible during the time set aside for productivity.
Strategy 4: Reward Efficiency
If the reward for getting stuff done faster is just to do more work, you won’t feel very motivated. This can lead to avoiding starting work or just slogging through the day without excitement or purpose. You can re-energize yourself by setting up the right incentives. (Think how fast you got your chores done when your mom said you could go outside to play with a friend as soon as your room was in order.) For example, if you complete your must-do tasks before your end time, you could give yourself freedom to read your favorite blogs, go to a place you find inspiring, or chat with some colleagues about some of your latest ideas. By giving yourself the promise of fairly immediate pleasure on a daily basis, you have a much better chance of overcoming the resistance to be focused and efficient with your most important tasks.
If you want to maximize your creative freedom, don’t abandon structure—embrace it—and it will carry you with amazing ease toward your goals.
How about you?
How do you structure your day to free you from stress?