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Wellness and Personal Development

Time Management to Prevent Stress

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The values clarification process does not generally result in such a stark decision-making process as is the case with unexpected pregnancy. More ordinarily, people will find themselves faced with the more pedestrian task of trying to balance numerous work and family responsibilities. This balance can be best accomplished through a values-driven time management process.

Time management methods involve finding ways to work more efficiently, so as to maximize one's use of time. A variety of techniques and tools for list-making, task analysis scheduling, and task prioritization are typically used for this purpose. The basic time management process involves the following steps:

  • developing a thorough understanding of all the various steps that must be performed to get a particular task completed
  • writing these steps down in the order they must be performed
  • identifying dependencies among steps that may cause bottlenecks to occur
  • scheduling the steps (using memory tools, including day planners, memo boards, sticky notes, shared calenders, project management software and personal information managers to assist in their timely performance)
  • tracking execution of the steps as they occur
  • using what is learned from experience executing the steps to improve the efficiency with which various steps may be performed

Traditional approaches to time management suffer from an over-emphasis on efficiency, technique, and getting things done and under-emphasize aligning actions with values and on preserving work/life balance. Emphasizing task completion over maintaining a balanced life tends to create stress rather than reduce it. This style of prioritizing sets the stage for failure and negative thinking when people fail to meet deadlines, or meet them in one sphere of life only by neglecting responsibilities and dependencies in the other. People are often asked to prioritize tasks according to their urgency (e.g., according to deadlines) without also considering their importance (e.g., whether or not they match values). This misplaced emphasis tends to cause people to neglect their less demanding but perhaps more satisfying relationships in favor of "oiling squeaky wheels" with potentially damaging long term results.

We recommend taking a values-centered and balance-focused approach to time management so as to avoid some of these pitfalls. The same techniques for analyzing, scheduling and tracking task performance described above can be usefully employed, so long as these techniques are used in the service of meeting work and family responsibilities, rather than just focusing on work needs.

Creating protected time for both work and family responsibilities

A good way to make sure that work demands do not intrude into people's needs for family and personal time is to set time boundaries around work activities, and to not allow those boundaries to stretch too far. This can be quite a trick to pull off for people in some lines of work, and will be impossible for some to manage. By the same token, knowing that you are in a line of work that will regularly cause you to neglect your personal and family life is information you can use to make values-based decisions about whether or not to stay in that line of work over the long term.

Taking breaks and vacations

A vital way to preserve work/life balance is to make sure to build time for play and relaxation directly into your schedule. One way to do this is to schedule and stick to having periodic breaks in between periods of work. Rather than making such breaks simply about getting a coffee or smoking a cigarette, try incorporating restorative physical activity into your routine. Try stretching, walking, a relaxation technique such as progressive muscle relaxation, or even a few yoga postures during these break times to get your energy moving again. Prophylactic, preventative use of techniques for defusing stress at such times can help keep stress from accumulating.

On a larger scale, it is important to schedule time away from work for purposes of vacation. While large-scale vacations (several weeks of travel to exotic locations) can be wonderful, many Americans simply do not have enough vacation time from work or the available resources to make them practical. There is also a question as to whether a long vacation is the best way to relax and decrease stress. Shortly after you return to work from any vacation, many people quickly become stressed out again. Keeping this in mind, it can be questionable logic to blow your entire vacation budget on something you can do only once a year. As an alternative, consider taking a number of mini-vacations spread more frequently throughout the year.

Spreading Out Predictable Sources of Stress

It is often possible to predict that particular events will be stressful, and then to use this knowledge intelligently so as to minimize their impact on the quality of your life. Scheduling stressful events to occur during times when you have fewer responsibilities and more attention to give them can lessen their negative impact. For example, repainting the house in the summertime when you have some days off will likely be less stressful than tackling the project in the evenings when you are rushing home from work. Similarly, it is useful to stagger major lifestyle changes so that they occur widely spaced apart in time (when that is practical). Even life changes that are positive sources of eustress, such as getting married or bringing home a new child, can become unpleasant and overwhelming when too many things happen at once. In the same vein, stressors that are predictable can often be scheduled during times when they are more manageable. For example, if going to the grocery on a Saturday afternoon is stressful because of the crowds and long lines, schedule your week to fit the shopping in on another day.

Sometimes stressful events can simply be avoided entirely. It is possible to research commuting traffic patterns in advance of buying or renting a home and move to a region where commutes are easier. Alternatively, it may be possible to reschedule the hours you work so that you do not need to commute during peak traffic hours. Telecommuting (e.g., working from home) may also be an option to explore if your employer allows it.