More isn’t always more. Deep down you know pushing yourself too hard won’t get you very far, and you don’t have to look very far to find people who agree. Japan is one of the hardest working countries in the world, but Japanese businesses make breaks for meditation and exercise a regular part of the work day. Earlier this year, a study at MIT revealed that when mice take short breaks from navigating a new maze, their brains replay their recent experiences, which implies that brains disseminate information more effectively when you have a little down time. And we’ve all experienced the dangerous or just plain embarrassing errors that are so much more prevalent when we’re run down or overwhelmed. Our best strategy for being productive and effective (not to mention sane) is to avoid taking on too much and to make time for ourselves in our busy schedules. That is to say, sometimes the best way to get it done fast is to slow down.
How much is too much?
Each person has a unique threshold. There’s no universal barometer to how much stress is too much. Add to that the fact that there are many different breeds of stresses (The emotional strain of taking care of a family member can be very different than say, on-the-job performance-related anxiety) and you have a nearly infinite spectrum of positive, manageable and destructive pressures. Suffice it to say that if your health, your work or your quality of life is suffering, it’s time to slow down.
Schedules aren’t just for work!
Many go-get-em types keep meticulous schedules and to-do lists to stay on top of their jam-packed lives yet consistently forget to schedule meals, underestimate transit times and try to squeeze time for family, friends and themselves between agenda items. Schedule your down time (which is necessary for optimal productivity) and be realistic about how much time each item on your agenda will take. Don’t forget to include game time with the kids, dinner out with friends, time alone for reading and anything else you know you need.
Including personal events on your calendar doesn’t just ensure that you maintain the balance you need; it also helps contain those activities to reasonable time frames. When it wasn’t part of your plan in the first place, a quick phone call or coffee with a friend has a way of taking up a large chunk of your afternoon, which can put you further behind schedule and ultimately add you your anxieties. If you run into a friend unexpectedly, schedule a phone call or a lunch date for a set period of time on a day when it makes sense in your calendar. That way, you make time for your social contacts that you can actually enjoy without sacrificing your sanity.
Just Say No!
It’s one of the simplest words in the English language; it’s short, easy to pronounce…and almost impossible to say. One of the prime culprits in keeping up over-booked is our unwillingness to let people down. Whether it’s your little sister’s taxes, a new project at the office, a night out with a friend, we don’t want to say no. It is possible, however, and you don’t have to look like the bad guy.
If your old college roommate wants to see you Saturday night, let him know that catching up is really important to you, so you’d rather schedule it in a couple weeks, when you can give him your complete attention. It’s even possible to let your boss down easily. Say she’s trying to pile one more project on the mountain on your plate. You might even be able to tackle it, if you work a few extra hours, push a couple deadlines and catch up on sleep next month, or you can be realistic about how much work you can handle effectively. Try communicating to your boss that you have a high standard of excellence and know that you can’t give that project the kind of attention you’d like. It’s very possible that your boss doesn’t know how full your hands are. You might also try asking: Is this a higher priority than Project A and Project B? Chances are your supervisor doesn’t want to give you an unrealistic workload; she hired you because you are good at what you do, and driving you too hard compromises your ability to function your best. Your boss doesn’t want a shoddy product (or a rundown worker) any more than you do.
You’ll have it by next week. I’ll call you before Friday. Twenty-four hours, max. It’s natural to want to make people happy. Enthusiasm is easy to come by when you’re making plans; it isn’t until you try to fit it into the rest of your schedule that you realize how difficult it will be to keep all those promises. Get into the habit of underpromising. Inflate your time estimates so that you have ample time to complete everything to your standards. Just because you could finish it by Friday doesn’t mean you should. Promise to have that project ready by Tuesday, and you’ll leave plenty of time for the unexpected. If you manage to complete it by Friday anyway, you’ll be under deadline. Your promise of an earlier deadline probably wouldn’t have impressed anyone, but your early delivery almost certainly will. Underpromising and overperforming will help keep you from scheduling yourself into a corner. It’s one more way slowing down can leave you feeling fast, effective and in control.
Finding a Balance
When we have or are working toward everything we want, life is very full. Many of us are trying to juggle work, school, love (or the time-consuming search for it), family, friends and ourselves. As hard as it can be to make that call, sometimes the best way to keep all the balls in the air is to let one drop. Effectively balancing your life isn’t just a matter of fitting it all in; you have to make it all make sense in a way that makes you happy, or there isn’t much point. You can only drive yourself relentlessly, working toward a break or a better life in the future for so long before you realize that your life is now; if you aren’t living the way you’d like, it’s time to make some changes.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help; sometimes others can see what you can’t when it comes to what’s realistic for you. Often the easiest choice is to let yourself say no, to let something go. It’s almost always difficult — you might even feel guilty — but when you look back on the things you sacrificed for a better quality of life and for the time to pursue what you really want, you’ll wish you’d done it sooner.
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