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Stanford University School of Medicine

Seven time management tips for happier (and healthier) days

For many of us, our to-do lists feel as long as the novel War and Peace and more like a war than peace. (And feeling stressed about everything on our plate certainly isn't good for our psychological and emotional well-being.) To help with time battles, BeWell spoke with Health Improvement Program instructor Laura Becker-Lewke, who teaches a class on time management.

“You can’t create more time,” Laura said, “but we can help you look at your time through a new lens to see where you can find time to do things you value.”

Laura suggests choosing only one of the following tips, to start, as tiny steps are realistic and sustainable. Try the action for a week, and if it doesn’t work, then try another action to see if it’s a better fit. “The important thing is to come up with something that is meaningful that you think would work and be helpful.”

1. Keep a time diary for a week. The difference between where you think your time is going compared to where it’s really going may both surprise and enlighten you. You’ll discover pain points that will help you decide what should be done now versus later.

2. Multiply whatever time you think a project will take by three. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: expect the unexpected. Plan cushion time between meetings and commitments to allow for interruptions like traffic, family issues or holdups at work. When we allow a margin, we’re more likely to be ready and present — and get things done on time.

3. Name your priorities. You’ll enjoy your time more if you identify what’s important to you and make it a priority. Use the time management matrix in the late Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  to see if you have any “aha” moments. The matrix has four quadrants: important, unimportant, urgent and non-urgent. For example, one participant realized, “What is important to me is also non-urgent. I need to make it urgent and put it first.”

4. Define your boundaries. You’ll protect your priorities when you erect healthy boundaries. Take a look at where you are or aren’t establishing boundaries by thinking of three recent times when you regretted not creating a boundary and three times when instituting a boundary made things better. For those who find it difficult to say “no,” remember that to say NO to someone or something else is to say YES to you.

5. Identify your optimal productivity time. Optimal productivity time (OPT) is when you’re at your highest energy level and mental capacity. This is when you should concentrate on your most energy- and thought-consuming tasks. For example, if your OPT is 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., then you should use that time to focus on a project that requires deep thought and save routine emails for later.

6. Take a break. Breaks are important mentally and physically and can be identified several ways — such as grabbing coffee, taking a walk or stretching at your desk. By taking regular breaks, you’ll feel refreshed and increase your productivity. Remind yourself to take a break by programming your phone alarm to go off at least once an hour.

7. Calendar time for yourself. For each 24-hour period, we should focus on at least one thing or one person who gives us joy. Schedule time for self-care — such as going to the gym, taking a walk, reading a book or calling a special friend. If you wait to do something for yourself until you have free time, that time will rarely materialize.

A modified version of this article originally appeared on BeWell Stanford. 

Previously: Embracing hardship: a surprising secret to happiness, Embrace your stress: From enemy to friend and Reducing your stress level could be as simple as checking email less frequently
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