By Jan Bruce
Whether you use Google Calendar or Outlook or an old-school paper day planner or just your memory, you live and breathe by the almighty calendar. We all do. There's simply no other way to stay on top of the many overlapping commitments of home, work, school, gym, piano lessons, and soccer games.
In an ideal world, your calendar would be a surefire stress-reduction tool. A chaos-management charm. But all too often you end up veering off schedule, pushing undone to-dos and unmet meetings to already-packed future days. Or, despite a wonderfully organized calendar, you're still always late and still overcommitted to the point of anxiety, sleeplessness, and stress.
This is the problem: Your calendar is lying to you. More accurately, you aren't making your calendar reflect the reality of your life and your limits, and by doing so, you're perpetuating destructive thoughts about how much you can (and should) accomplish in the time you have. To stop this cycle of certain burnout, you need to unearth those thoughts, examine them, and replace them with more productive thoughts and time management practices that will better serve your life and your goals. (Read more about how to use Trap It, Map It, Zap It to change emotional habits.)
Here are three common lies your calendar tells you and three strategies to find the truth.
Lie #1: You can get everything done in the time you have.
Occasionally, you do cross off every last to-do, and it feels great. More often, though, you don't. You run out of time. You do a slapdash job because you promised someone you'd deliver a product by an unrealistic deadline, and in one fell swoop, you've put the quality of your work and your reputation in question.
There may be some naiveté or hubris under the impulse to do it all right now, but I'd wager that you're actually being run by negative thoughts. Any of these sound familiar?
I must be all things to all people.
If I say that I can't do something, I'll never be promoted/hired again.
I don't know how I'm going to get this stuff done so I'll just act like I can do it all now.
None of these thoughts is absolutely true. The first one is downright impossible! If you let them drive you, they'll drive you into the ground.
The truth is... You can't get everything done. Accepting your limits is a powerful move.
You have a limited amount of time and energy in any given day. You can't create three spreadsheets and cook dinner between 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. You just can't.
Take some time to explore the negative thoughts and feelings that arise when you feel the urge to overcommit. After you do, try admitting to yourself that you can't meet your impossible goals. Use that vulnerable moment to figure what you really need to do in order to do your best: ask for help, talk honestly with your co-workers or boss, make a real assessment of how long a task will take and update your calendar accordingly.
Lie #2: Everything you're doing is equally important, and deserves a place on your schedule.
Chronic over-scheduling may be a national malady. It's driven by ambition and comparison to others, and the negative thoughts behind the habit tend toward the judgmental. For example:
Competent people are always busy, so if I'm not busy, I'm not competent.
Only lazy people have gaps in their schedule.
Nothing will get done if I don't do it.
Don't mistake that adrenalized rush you get when you take on lots of commitments with idea that everything has to be a priority, has to be done, or has to be done by you. Overscheduling taxes your mental, emotional, and physical health, and it weakens your support systems because you're never sharing the load. When you finally reach out for help, you may not find anyone there.
Ask yourself, what emotions and beliefs accompany these thoughts? Are they true? Chances are, you're dragging yourself down by keeping yourself busy all the time.
The truth is... Identifying and following through on your priorities is an act of strength.
As leadership guru Stephen Covey said, "I am persuaded that the best thinking in the area of time management can be captured in a single phrase: organize and execute around priorities." (I've found Covey's Time Management Matrix an invaluable tool for clarifying your most important and urgent tasks and goals.)
Bottom line, if everything's a priority, nothing is.
Lie #3: You don't need to account for transition or travel time. It'll all work out.
Your calendar is a breeding ground for this kind of magical thinking. Five minutes to go three miles across town to meet my pal for coffee? Sure, I can make it! Letting a work meeting go 20 minutes long, so you're 20 minutes late getting home, and the meatloaf needs 45 minutes to cook? Oh, it'll work out. What really happen is that you're late to meet your friend and your kids get grouchy because they're hungry. By not accounting for the time travel and activities really take, you shortchange other people and up your own stress.
You may harbor some resentment over your responsibilities and use lateness as a passive-aggressive way to sabotage those efforts. Or your beliefs about busyness might be costing you sleep, thus dulling your mental sharpness and decision-making skills.
The truth is... You owe it to yourself and to others to be honest about what it takes to function as a human on the planet, bound by the limits of space and time. You can't do the impossible, just because you wish you could.
Try some simple behavioral changes to jump start new habits as you explore the thoughts behind chronic lateness. For example, when you need to get from point A to point B, add 15 minutes to your travel time. While the priorities in life are those that align with your core values, let's face it, sometimes you need to get your oil changed, period. And it's not going to take five minutes.
The truth is you probably will always be busy and your calendar will be a work in progress. That's okay. So are you. But when you strive to accept the limits of a truthful calendar, you can manage your energy more carefully to accomplish the goals, and care for the people and things, that matter most.
Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.
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