No matter how well you set your boundaries and manage your time you’re still going to go through busy periods. Today I’m talking about how to survive busy periods without losing your mind.
As much as I try to educate about how to be productive, manage your time, take care of yourself, and avoid busyness, there are times when it’s just not possible to avoid busy. If you’re an accountant, it’s tax season, if you work in retail, it’s the winter holidays, if you are a mom it’s the beginning of the school year and whenever their activities peak (ok it’s pretty much always).
Even if you have a pretty even keeled schedule, life happens. Someone close might become ill and now you’re the caregiver, you might get assigned to a last minute project, Oprah might tout your product in her magazine and now you have a windfall of customers.
Busy isn’t always a bad thing. There are plenty of important endeavors that lead to busy. But regardless of WHY you’re busy, you still need to manage your time and energy so that you can get through this period and not kill yourself in the process.
The key to getting through this period is in developing solid habits that keep you sane. You will need to spend some quality time reflecting on what works to keep you going and what is wasting your time and energy.
These habits will be different for everyone but I’ve outlined some areas below for you to consider. Keep a list of things that must be done daily or weekly to keep you going and make sure to do those. Anything else that manage to fit in will only help recharge you so that you can thrive through this busy season.
IT’S ALL IN THE PLANNING
I’m a broken record around here about planning your day. It doesn’t have to be a minute to minute perfect outline to keep you heading in the right direction. There are several ways to achieve a solid plan without going blind staring at your calendar. Below are several techniques that you can mix and match to make it work for you.
Regardless of how you plan your day, just make sure it’s the first thing before checking your email and dealing with everyone else’s to do list. Start with your most urgent and important items at the top and then work through your day from there.
The Brain Dump
The technique that I have been using for years and is touted by Mel Robbins is to brain dump and prioritize from there.
When you brain dump you just take all those things that are floating around your head and you get them down on paper. So much stress can be relieved just by getting everything out of your head. It’s like pouring out a cup of water. Once the cup – or your brain – is empty you can actually start to think again.
Once you see all the things you’ve got to do, it becomes easier to prioritize that which is most important. Oftentimes things are floating around my head that I don’t need to worry about for MONTHS. And yet there they are, stressing me out for no reason.
Every day just get a list going of all the stuff you think you need to do and then pick the 1-3 most important things that must be done today. These are the things that you need to accomplish to win your day. Then once these things are done you can move on to your email or progress to other items you can do now that will help you in the future.
Assess Throughout the Day
Peter Bergman discusses the technique that he uses to manage his days in this article. The beginning is much like the above where you plan your day ensuring that key tasks make it to the top of your to do list.
But then he also has a 1 minute check in every hour to see how he’s progressing on his list. And then at the end of the day he takes 5 minutes to reflect on how his productivity techniques were working and what he can do to make tomorrow better.
I love these 2 ideas. Setting an alarm to check in is a great way to keep your focus and you can also use that alarm to take a break. Breaks will also increase your productivity. While you’re very busy it can be tempting to just go go go, but by taking a break you will be able to do your work more efficiently – giving you more time to get everything done.
Reflection has also been shown to improve our learning. By reflecting on how the day went – what worked and what didn’t – you can notice where you might have opportunities for growth so that you can get even more efficient with your time.
If you’re a fan of to do lists then you’ll love checklists. If there are any tasks that you repeatedly do that have multiple steps then turn that into a checklist.
When we are busy we tend to get frazzled. Your brain is fried, you can’t focus, you’re just living on a wing and a prayer. In those moments the less you have to think, the better. Enter the checklist.
Checklists can be daily, weekly, monthly, annually. Whatever you repeatedly do that has multiple steps is fair game. I have a checklist for blog posts each week. You might have a checklist for work travel, or trainings you give, or closing the store at the end of the day.
Think of checklists like brain dumps – the less you have to worry that you’ll forget something the less stress that activity will hold for you.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
In the same vein as checklists is reusing content. I used to be HORRIBLE at this. I would reinvent the wheel with every email or social media post I did. It made me want to hide in my pillow fort and color all day instead of face my computer.
When you’re in a busy time – or ever, really – you don’t need to be creating everything anew with each project. I recommend having a word document or notes page where you just keep copy and paste content. I have one for requests that I send out, a list of all my social media accounts, frequently written emails, etc.
This doesn’t just have to be for correspondence, though. If you do presentations or trainings frequently, do what you can to reuse content. You might have to customize certain slides or pages to each customer but wherever you can reuse work you’ve already done, do it. It will save your time and brain power when you need it the most.
PLAY THOSE MIND GAMES
Normally I wouldn’t recommend playing mind games as I’m not into tricking other people or messing with their heads – but if you can turn those things on yourself so that you can get through something hard – I say go for it.
Switch Your Rewards
In Alice Boyes’ article for Harvard Business Review she discusses how you can make your tasks easier to get through. Just like when you were a kid and you had to eat your vegetables to get your dessert, you can use easy tasks as a reward for hard tasks.
Normally in a not busy time your reward might be Netflix and chill, but since you’re slammed right now, you need to make your to do list help you out.
If you’ve got something you’re dreading to do, put that sucker at the top of your list and then do the most fun thing on your list right after. Maybe you don’t want do this report, but if you get it done then you can run an errand (and possible hit Starbucks on the way back).
Alternating tasks like this can help you get a bit of stress relief break so you don’t get so stressed out that you want to throw in the towel before you’ve even made it to lunch.
Or Try the Reverse…
As I’ve said I’m all about giving you options. So if the above doesn’t sound like it would work for you then you can leverage the Progress Principle. This is basically saying that the more you do, the better you’ll feel, the more you’ll be able to do.
If you were to put the easy tasks at the top of your list would it help you build momentum? If you called the easy clients first would it make calling the tough clients more doable? If you knocked out your email responses would you feel empowered to build that presentation?
Sometimes we need a little proof that we can do hard things – and that proof comes from building up to it. If you can get yourself going with the easy things then it might be easier to keep on rolling through the hard things.
Enjoy the Ride
When you’re busy it’s easy to get trapped into the “grin and bear it” mindset. You figure everything is going to be hard so you just gotta get through today. But I’m willing to bet that somewhere in your day are some bright spots.
With your morning planning pick out some of those bright spots and focus on those. Make sure that when they come up that you really savor those moments and be mindful of them. This will help provide something to keep you going but also a bit of relief from your over worked brain.
Motivation is tough, right? Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. And when you’re busy you’re usually stressed and tired. That’s when motivation is often the hardest to find – when we need it the most.
Another Jedi mind trick is to pair something you just don’t enjoy doing with something you love and then only do that thing you love with the thing you hate.
There is a study that had people working out at the gym and while they were there they could listen to audio books that they liked. But the audio books were only available at the gym while they worked out. The people that had access to the audio books worked out more frequently and for longer than those who didn’t have the books.
When I was training for my half marathon I used to watch Netflix on the days I had to run on the treadmill. It’s what got me through the really long ones when I would otherwise be praying that the treadmill would just break already.
Find something you love and pair it with something that you don’t. If you hate meal prep, maybe you can watch a show while you do it. If you despise your commute find some awesome podcasts or audio books.
The key is just not allowing yourself access to the reward except when paired with task you don’t like.
MAINTAIN YOUR WELLBEING
If you’ve been around here a minute you knew this was coming. You can’t be your most productive self if you beat yourself up all day and don’t take time to repair. While you might not have time for a relaxing spa day right in the middle of this busy time, you still need to maintain some healthy self care habits.
Make sure that you make a bare minimum list and honor it. You cannot sacrifice those things for anything. Then when time allows make sure that sometimes you prioritize your self care bonus items instead of filling every waking moment with work.
Just as you need to take time every day to plan your work day, it can be helpful to have time for the personal side of things. For example, journaling at the end of the day might help you find unhealthy patterns that you could break, or inspire you to keep going with a healthy habit. Some people find it helpful to read before bed to decompress. If you’re religious you might be inspired to study your holy text.
If you decide to do a written form of reflection don’t feel like you need to write a chapter every night to benefit. Some people are intimidated by journaling because it seems so time consuming. But it can be as simple as writing dow 3 things that you’re grateful for and/or 3 things you learned that day, and/or 3 positive actions you’d like to keep doing. If you have extra time feel free to be more elaborate, but don’t think you need to write pages and pages to get the benefits.
Stress and Mindfulness Breaks
As convenient as it would be to just bottle your stress up all day and then soak it away in a warm bath at night, that isn’t how we work. You need to take moments here and there to notice whether or not you are stressed and to relax if you are.
When we’re busy we go so focused on what we have to do next that we often aren’t in the here and now. Plus all that focus on what has yet to get done often causes more stress.
When you stop to check in with your to do list, take a moment to check in with your body. Scan yourself and notice if anything is tight – fist clenched, stomach in knots, shoulders by your ears – then release it. You can quickly stretch out whatever is tight and take a few breaths.
“Sacrificing” this time for your well being will actually boost your productivity. Relaxing your body allows your brain to get out of fight or flight mode, which puts your logical mind back in the drivers seat and lets you think clearer and be more creative.
For more stress relief tips check here.
The Mayo clinic recommends 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week. But when you’re tight on time, something is better than nothing. Even 20 minutes of cardio or 10 minutes of weights a couple of times a week can give you a boost that just sitting on the sofa cannot.
In my personal experience I have noticed that if I’m feeling tired and unmotivated but then I get a 30 min or so workout in, I get an energy and mood boost that lasts for at least 3 hours afterwards. Exercise has also been shown to improve your ability to focus and make better decisions due to the increase it causes to the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex.
Even if it feels like you don’t have time to exercise, see if you can find a place to fit it in. It might help you get more done than if you hadn’t made room on your calendar.
When things get busy, cooking is often the first thing to go. You’re tired, you don’t feel like it, if you don’t eat something soon you’re going to do something that ends in jail time.
We’ve all been there. Tired, hungry, desperate – in goes the fast food. There’s nothing wrong with this every once in awhile, but if you’re going through a busy time, rolling through the drive through on the reg isn’t going to be good for your body (or your productivity).
If you have warning before your busy time, do what you can to stock up on healthy food. Make big batches of favorite meals and portion them in the the freezer. Or look into a grocery or meal delivery service. Buy healthy pre-made meals to keep on hand. Even if it’s not as healthy a choice as you would like, it’s still probably better than take out.
Have you ever gotten super busy and then the next thing you know you haven’t seen your friends in 4 months? When things get busy we tend to bury our heads in our work and not come up for air. And while our friends will probably forgive us for our absence, that’s not the real issue.
Being busy can lead to loneliness. Even if you’re not really alone because you’re taking care of kids or an elderly parent, that’s not the same as your peers. After my son was born and my husband went back to work was some of the loneliest months of my life.
The science is strong here. Maintaining relationships is good for our health.
Make sure that you make time to go out for a drink with a friend after work, or meet up for a morning yoga class, or try to at least talk on the phone with someone you love once a week (or more). This is good for your overall wellbeing, which means it’s good for all aspects of getting through your busy time.
Set an End Time
I debated about whether this belonged under the planning section or down here and decided that an end time is really more for your mental health than anything. The to do list will always be there. It will always have around 150 things on it. No matter how much your cross off, more stuff will pop up.
So when you are planning your day write down your end time for the day (no bedtime is not a valid end time!). This is when you’ll quit working and let all that stuff go in your head.
If you don’t set this time you will likely work until you collapse, and that is not productive nor healthy. Giving yourself a quitting time lets you know that you need to productive now during working hours and that you have some free time to look forward to later.
Your brain needs a break. You need time to decompress at the end of the day. So set this up at the beginning of your day and give yourself something to look forward to.
We all go through busy periods. Even if you’re the master of keeping your calendar under control, life will still through your curveballs. But there are ways to maintain your sanity through this busy period so you don’t burn yourself out in the process.
If you’re struggling to manage your time and energy, please contact me here. Coaching with me can help you find the places where you’re wasting your energy and where you can find more time.