A few years ago, I was working a full-time job, two part-time jobs on the side, while commuting two hours a day and raising my kids. I was rushing from teaching to work, to seeing clients, to picking up kids, to making meals and running errands... it felt like an endless hamster wheel. And whenever I did have a little downtime, my brain would just start listing all the stuff I had to do in the future, instead of... relaxing.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Now, as a clinical therapist who specializes in time management and productivity skills, I see my clients frequently getting stuck in the same mindset of “endless hamster wheel” that doesn’t allow them to relax or enjoy their successes.
Even now, when many of us are working from home due to quarantine, people still find ways to over-work themselves into missing lunch breaks and pushing past workday end times.
Over the last years, as I pared down my jobs and prioritized tasks more, I made an interesting discovery: When I narrowed my focus and took things slowly, one task at a time, I actually wound up accomplishing more! I learned that multitasking was not only making me stressed out, it was making me accomplish less overall.
So, how do we keep ourselves off of the multi-tasking hamster wheel of stress? Here are six strategies I’ve seen be effective:
1) Make a daily list of things that you need to do.
When our brains feel overloaded and stressed, we have trouble making decisions, prioritizing tasks, and moving forward. Write down a daily list of things you need to do.
Keep your list simple – leave off things that aren’t important to accomplish on that particular day. The fewer things you put on your list, the less overwhelmed you will feel, and the easier it will be to begin.
2) Take it one task at a time.
What is one small simple task you can do to move forward? What is the easiest task to start with on your list? Pick one to start with, and then block off a few hours to concentrate on only doing that one task. Avoid multi-tasking during this time in order to reduce feeling overwhelmed.
3) Block off chunks of time for each task.
Using “time blocking”, set aside a few hours for each task on your daily calendar where you can focus all of your attention on completing the task. The goal is to narrow your focus by minimizing distractions, so I often encourage clients to set their phone aside or to leave it on the charger to avoid getting derailed. Try to resist jumping around from one task to another, and instead narrow your focus on what’s in front of you.
4) After each task is done, give yourself downtime in between.
Mental downtime is just as important as taking action. Schedule in breaks in between your “time blocks” to reset yourself. Leave your work area, take a walk, sit in a different room, read a book. You might find that the breaks give you the clarity and focus you need to tackle the next task ahead. At the end of day, have a clear “end time” when work is over and stick to it as much as possible.
5) Celebrate your small successes.
Are you giving yourself enough praise for all the things you do each day? During your breaks in between tasks, remember to connect with the feeling of relief that the task is done. Allow yourself to feel proud of yourself for the small things you do each day.
6) Remind yourself: Balance is key.
Sometimes, when we keep pushing ourselves to multi-task and to constantly overwork, we might need to step back and get some perspective. What is reasonable to expect of ourselves each day in terms of tasks? Relaxing, being in the “now”, and connecting with our loved ones is also important to our stress levels and our emotional states. When you think of these things as essential to your well-being, you can find ways to get back in balance. When you do less with the clear intention of maintaining your balance and focus, you might find that you actually accomplish more. And more importantly, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy what you’ve accomplished...instead of just rushing off to the next stressful task on the endless hamster wheel.
Risa Williams is a licensed psychotherapist and online life coach in Los Angeles who specializes in anxiety reduction techniques and time management coaching.