There might be more published advice about how to find happiness than anything else. And it all seems to spin from the notion of balance. Work hard, play hard and rest often. Take deep breaths when you’re feeling stress. Leave the office at a reasonable hour. Walk barefoot through the grass. Avoid drinking wine after beer (or is it wine after liquor?). Stop and smell the roses.
I actually think a lot of that advice is completely misguided. (Except for not mixing alcohols. That’s not a lesson that needs to be repeated.)
That’s not to say that I don’t read a lot of advice articles. Because I do. Every day. I happen to love Harvard Business Review bloggers Tony Schwartz and Peter Bregman, who consistently intertwine business and emotion in their witty posts. I follow Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey who emphasize the spiritual deficit of being financially unstable while simultaneously educating you about building wealth. I think it’s important to examine and re-examine what’s really important in our lives so we can realign our actions and our priorities when they fall out of sync.
But how does all this help you in moments of stress and anxiety?
Credit Image: davegray on Flickr
I know that my family is more important to me than the tedium of running a business, but does that help me shift my focus from those annoyances to my daughter? No. Does that knowledge do much for me when my eyes fly open at 4:30 AM with thoughts racing in an attempt to solve some active issue? Not so much. The awareness of how I’m supposed to BE in these moments of just watching my daughter play or waking up peacefully – and I’m so clearly NOT – adds to my stress!
Are you with me?
So I decided to do something totally bizarre and seemingly counter-intuitive. Instead of constantly battling my inner-Buddha (and losing), I did the opposite of taking deep breaths and frolicking through the daisies. I started running my life like a business. I made a list of my goals, my priorities, my grand vision for myself and my family. I scheduled every single thing and relationship in my life, from hanging out with friends to brushing my teeth. I micro-managed the pants right off my piled-high Post It notes.
It sounds crazy, but please don’t go. I promise this has a happy ending.
I decided to make peace with the fact that there really are only a finite number of hours in the day and no amount of me adding things to my ‘To Do’ list will ever change that. I also started wondering just how critical all of these items were. Did everything have to be done immediately or was I just so habituated to chasing my tail that I didn’t know what really needed to be done and when? I got tired of always feeling like whatever I was doing, I needed to be doing something else. Playing with Harper, thinking of work. Working, thinking of Harper. Lounging with Jimmy, wanting to exercise. Eating a salad, wanting a cheeseburger (wait, that hasn’t gone away). I was never really present where I was. (I think this is a mind-disease of women – moms, in particular.)
I made a list of what was most important to me and the order of importance: Hubby & Daughter tied for #1, and everything else (work, health, play, friends, extended family) came in #2.
Then I made a list of everything that needed to be done on a basis of daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually. (Anything longer than that can be categorized as a goal or part of your vision.)
My monthly items are: Spreadsheet my business income & expenses, pay rent, pay our savings account, fun trip with Jimmy and Harper. (We rent a unit, so don’t have any monthly home maintenance. Yay for us!)
My weekly items are: Pay bills, reconcile debit receipts with our checking account, plan meals and snacks, place online grocery order (love Woolies!), read articles for professional development / research for my business, photography, read other blogs or fun books, clean the apartment, Skype calls back home, weekly meeting with Jimmy
My daily items are: Workout, eat 3X, write, laundry, cook / prepare meals, play with Harper & Jimmy, shower / groom
Quarterly items are: paying taxes (my favorite task of all), regular car maintenance
Annual items are: filing tax returns, dentist appointments, big vacation
Then I looked at my calendar and really thought about how many hours are available to do these things. I looked at when I wake up (6 AM-ish) and then played my day out in my head, accounting for all the things that aren’t on my list – unexpected phone calls, picking up toys, projectile bowel movements (my child, not me) – and realized there’s very little time to do ALL the ‘To Do’s that I would normally give myself.
And then I sighed thinking I could get so much more done if isn’t wasn’t for life.
I decided exactly how much time I had available to do the ‘To Do’s and gave each item a time limit. This was when everything changed for me. I realized that if I needed 4 hours to do my dailies and then added a weekly and a monthly for another hour total, I was at 5 hours – when all I had available that day was 4. So I had to shift things around according to where I had available time. If your eyes are glazing over, don’t worry, the math lesson is over. I hope I added right.
What started happening was remarkable though. I started actually planning my days according to what was realistic and achievable. I started creating slots of time within my own schedule instead of having my schedule dictated by the panic of the moment. I stopped being haunted by tasks that required my attention because I knew when they were getting done. Whether it was tomorrow or in 4 days, they had a home on my calendar.
The weekly meeting with my husband – which might seem strange – is one of the best things we’ve done for our relationship. If I need to talk to him about something related to family business (health insurance, car maintenance, lowering toilet seats), I make a note to talk about it at our meeting, and those thoughts don’t distract me when we’re hunting for seashells on the beach with Harper or cooking dinner together. We have fun with the meeting time, too! We get take away coffees and sit out on our balcony on Friday morning.
I started also carving out time that was just empty space. Because it felt good to. Because in a moment of feeling like you’re trying to catch up from yesterday and the day before you are NEVER going to allow yourself time to relax and have some fun. And that was another eye-opener for me: I wasn’t having any fun because I felt so overwhelmed with my snowball of obligations. But if you are proactively mapping out your days, balancing the ‘Have To’s with the ‘Want To’s, you feel prepared to handle the unexpected and feel purely blissful when you check everything off the list with sunlight to spare.
Will unexpected hassles come up? Of course. Will you under-estimate the time it takes to complete certain tasks? Absolutely. This is a process. The most important thing that happens is a shift in your thinking and an attitude of empowerment that you will not be able to avoid.
The best part of this whole plan is that your actions will align with your priorities, and that’s what allows you to fully participate in the moments of your life. You’ll work when you work and play when you play. You’ll have lunch with your girlfriends (write them all down on your priority list) because you’ve acknowledged how important they are to you. You’ll let go of what’s not important because it will be obvious to you. I stopped feeling pulled in the opposite direction of wherever I was and started feeling totally in control of my schedule. Not being totally in control of my life (because that’s just a silly notion). So now I sit down once a week, Fridays usually, and plan out every second of my life for the following week. Magically, being this rigid with my schedule has given me so much freedom with my life.
We most certainly cannot control all of the circumstances of our lives, but we can be in control of much of our time and that’s a gift we should give ourselves and our families.
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