Slay the day (and sleep better at night)

Does this sound familiar?

**2:00am – Everything is quiet… except the blaring chatter in your mind. You woke up in a sweat thinking you forgot a deadline, a promised return call and your child’s field trip.

**4:00am – Never really falling back asleep you get out of bed to find the field trip release form. You do a quick check of your email and see the name of an important client in your inbox. You start researching their question and hammering out a reply.

**6:00am – The others in your house are waking up, as is the rest of the world, and you’re feeling behind even though you’ve already been up for 2 hours.

**8:00am – More emails. More important clients with urgent demands. The phone starts ringing. Another day of fighting fires has officially begun.

**1:00pm – You grab a quick lunch while taking a call from your child’s school (turns out you did forget about the field trip and never signed the release because you got distracted by emails).

**3:00pm – You’ve not had a chance to get started on a single project on your to-do list. You were going to exercise before picking up the kids but now you decide to skip the gym to tackle the growing pile of work on your desk.

**6:00pm – You’ve been working non-stop for more than 14 hours and yet you don’t feel as though you’ve accomplished anything.

We’ve all been there. The busier we are, the more days like this we will have. But every day doesn’t have to be this stressful and hectic.

Ready to slay the day and sleep like a baby? Here’s how.

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling productivity and time management, these are my Top 3 Tips no matter your personality or situation.

1. Take Control of Your Schedule

Most of us spend our time putting out fires all day long. Whatever is most pressing at the moment gets our attention. The problem with this approach is we spend way too many hours on issues that aren’t important, tend to resolve themselves or don’t move the ball forward. It causes stress, anxiety and burnout. Important matters that aren’t as urgent seem to stay on our to-do list until there’s a looming deadline and suddenly it’s an urgent matter as well.

The only way to take back your schedule is to break this pattern of firefighting and develop a new habit of making time for non-urgent, important matters. Like any new habit, this can initially feel very uncomfortable for you and those around you. With time, however, you’ll see that there’s a better way and all the plates you’re juggling won’t come crashing to the ground.

To get started, block out 90 minutes each day for important, non-urgent projects. Schedule this time and treat it just as seriously as an important client meeting. You wouldn’t show up late or push off a client meeting just because something else urgent came up. You’d delegate the urgent matter and go to the client meeting. Similarly, just as you wouldn’t allow interruptions or distractions during an important client meeting, you shouldn’t allow interruptions or distractions during this time.

If the world doesn’t stop when you give your clients your undivided attention, it won’t stop when you block off time and refuse interruptions for focusing on important matters. If you need to go to a conference room or work from a coffee shop to avoid interruptions, do so. Protect this time every day so that you can focus on what’s truly important, not just urgent.

2. Plan the Day Before

The best way to take control of your schedule actually starts by planning the day before.

If you wait until the day of to choose your non-urgent, important priority, you’ll never get to it. In fact, you’ll likely never even identify what it is. You’ll get caught up in the day or simply not want to do it (procrastination and resistance often fuel the daily fires we choose to focus on).

Keep a running to-do list with two columns – important projects to be completed by you and important projects to be delegated.

{Note: If it’s not important, it shouldn’t be on your list in the first place… resist the temptation to write it down. Otherwise, when you do have a chance to do non-urgent work, you’ll be drawn to tackle the unimportant things because they’re less scary, don’t really matter and are likely mind-numbing tasks. Let them go.}

At the end of each day, review your list of to-dos. Delegate what you can and then identify one thing you could do the next day that would make the most progress towards finishing a project. You’re less likely to resist or procrastinate difficult projects when planning the day before so this is the perfect time to be clear and rational when prioritizing tasks. Write down this project in your calendar for the time you blocked off for important, non-urgent matters (see No. 1 above).

By giving your to-do a list a quick glance at the end of each work day, you’re more likely to not forget anything (helping you avoid middle-of-the-night mental alarms) and it helps you avoid constantly working under the stress of a deadline.

3. Take Breaks

This may seem counter-intuitive but taking breaks actually makes you more productive. If the only way you’re staying on top of things is by constantly working under the pressure of a deadline, you’re not doing your best work.

I used to claim that I did my best work under pressure but studies have proven that’s just not true. For me, working on a deadline simply allowed me to focus when I didn’t want to. I used that as an excuse to get the difficult work done. Research has shown that even though you may feel more productive and focused, the quality of your work suffers when you just push through.

Our ability to catch mistakes and find solutions is significantly impaired after long periods of focusing on a single task. By taking short breaks, you can improve focus, concentration and problem solving.

So how often should you be taking breaks for optimal performance and productivity?

It depends on what you’re doing but you should take a short 5-10 minute break at least every 90 minutes. If your mind starts to wander before then, that may be a clue it’s time for a break as well. If you just sat down to do something, it may be good old resistance or procrastination, but if you’ve been working for 30-45 minutes before your mind starts wandering then it’s likely a sign you need a break.

When you do take a break, get out of your chair. Stretch, drink some water, walk around, talk to someone. Do not give in to the temptation to check your email, the newsfeed on Facebook or your other favorite mind-numbing website. That’s not a true mental break.

If you’re under pressure and working like a madman, keep in mind that studies show 2 hours is the most you can focus without losing cognitive ability. So even if a deadline is looming and you don’t have a second to spare, remember that this is exactly when you’re most likely to make a mistake. Taking a quick 5-minute break actually increases your performance. Quality over quantity is always preferable.

Now it’s your turn.

Do you struggle to manage your day and then wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety?

If so, I challenge you to take action. Start small by implementing just one new strategy each week. Like any new habit, it takes time for new practices to take hold. You’ll be tempted to fall back into old routines and patterns. With a little persistence, though, you’ll start to have more peaceful and productive days (and nights).

Leave a comment below and let me know which of these tips you intend to start using.

And, remember, sharing is caring. If you know of a friend or family member that would benefit, share this blog post with them. It might just help them sleep better tonight!

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