A manager looks over the shoulder of an employee sitting at a desk late at night

Ways to manage your time and mind when it’s all too much

By Dr. Michelle McQuaid, MAPP July 22, 2022

Are the ever-increasing demands of work wearing you out?  Does your To-Do List feel like a treadmill of doom you just can’t seem to dismount (or at least slow down)? Are you fed up with falling into bed, only to find your brain is too busy to gain back desperately needed hours of sleep?

You’re not alone. As the world reels from multiple years of uncertainty, ad-hoc solutions, and over-exertion in almost every area of life, it can be increasingly challenging not to slip towards a state of learned helplessness and feel we have little or no control over our time, circumstances, or how we feel about them. Sure, we’d love to attend an all-day well-being day or take a week off to reconnect and reset, but when we can scarcely find the time for a coffee break, these solutions often present more stress than relief.

In short, it just feels like there’s simply too much to do and no time to recover.

But what if managing our time, energy, and emotions wasn’t actually as hard as we’ve been led to believe? What if, equipped with the latest evidence-based well-being tips, we could learn to work smarter (not harder) and recover faster and more consistently?

At The Wellbeing Lab, we put our heads together to collate some of the best research-backed practices to help you manage your time and emotions as you navigate the increasing demands of the modern workplace.

MANAGE YOUR TIME BY…

  • Writing Down Goals (Daily) – When it comes to goal-striving research, simply writing down our goals has repeatedly been shown to set us up for success. In fact, in one study those that wrote down their tasks were 3 x more likely to achieve them. Supporting us practically and psychologically, writing goals/tasks down helps to narrow our focus and provides short-term motivation and excitement. Writing our tasks down forces us to get specific and measurable and to define what is most important to us in the long-term and short-term. Having this clarity helps you filter out things, activities, and people that don’t support your immediate goals.
  • Being Clear To Be Kind – Very often feedback conversations at work can be viewed as being ‘tough’ or ‘mean’. In a way, this makes sense, as they require us to care enough to get uncomfortable with each other in order, to be honest about what’s not working as well as it could. As such, it can often feel easier or ‘kinder’ to avoid these moments. And yet, the truth is, if you really respect and value other people, then biting your tongue, fixing things for them, or moaning behind their back are not kind acts.  It robs other people of the change for learning and growth and implies that you don’t think they are capable enough to even be worth a conversation—even if it might be awkward. Not only that, but it often lumps you with more work to do while letting an unresolved error continue. As researcher Professor Brené Brown wisely said, ‘clear is kind, unclear is not.’ So spark that kind of conversation without delay.
  • Asking For Help – Studies have found that we routinely underestimate others’ willingness and ability to help. Add to this that many of us worry that asking for help will make us seem weak, incapable, or like an imposter, and it’s no wonder that we avoid it. And yet, Professor Wayne Baker (2019) has found that asking for help makes us more effective at our jobs. It leads us to new job opportunities ⎼ or new talent for job openings. It helps us better adjust to new circumstances and manage our stress better. It enhances learning and boosts creativity. It elevates team performance, reduces costs, and improves operational efficiency. Asking for help in a SMART way is often the one simple act standing between us and success.
  • Protecting Your Flow – You know that feeling, where you’re so absorbed in a task that you lose all sense of time and space? Where do you feel ‘in the zone’ or ‘one with the music’? Referred to as ‘flow’, this experience happens when our skills and interests match perfectly with the demands of the task at hand. The good news? It’s not only associated with enhanced productivity but increases in our short- and long-term wellbeing. The better news? We’re all built to experience ‘flow’ – if we set ourselves up for success by choosing a task that we enjoy (at least somewhat) and are capable in, allocating a time (in our diary, which others know about) where we won’t be interrupted, and creating a peaceful, comfortable environment for yourself to minimize distractions (think: comfy chair, quiet room, or even binaural beats to help you focus).
  • Running A Learning Loop – Everything you’ve ever learned to master in your life—from walking to speaking a language to building good relationships with others—you did so by taking three simple steps:
    • Acting  – You’ve drawn on your curiosity and creativity and maybe even the wisdom of others to playfully experiment with different ways to accomplish the behaviors that have mattered most to you.
    • Assessing – You’ve used your curiosity to reflect on what’s working, what’s not working, and how you can use what you’re learning to continue improving at the behaviors you’ve chosen to master.
    • Adjusting – You’ve used your learning to continue adjusting your behavior until you can consistently achieve the outcomes you’ve wanted.

Getting good at this practice is paramount when we’re trying to optimize our use of time and energy. Luckily, you can use the following questions to help your run a Learning Loop on any of your efforts by asking: What did I try? What went well? Where did I struggle? What did I learn? Given this, what will I try next?

What About Stress?

Getting better at managing our time and tasks is a moot point if we haven’t found a way to truly, deeply recover, and rest. It is common to assume that the moment you deal with the source of your stress, (e.g. a deadline, an awkward conversation, a public presentation) your body and mind will return to a more normal state of functioning. But researchers suggest (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2020) that in modern life often our fight-flight-freeze stress response cycle becomes stuck due to a lack of a clear signal that the struggle has passed and we are now safe.  As a result, your neurochemicals and hormones degrade but never shift into relaxation.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book “Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle” note that simply telling yourself “you’re safe now, calm down” doesn’t help. Nor does – much to my disappointment – trying to ‘Netflix’ the stress away. The fact is, if you’ve dealt with the stressors (the source of stress) but haven’t dealt with the physiological stress itself, your body won’t let you rest.  You have to do something that signals to your body that you are safe. Here’s what the research suggests:

MANAGE YOUR STRESS THROUGH…

  • Physical activity – Literally any movement of your body is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.
  • Breathing – A simple, practical exercise is to breathe into a slow count of five, hold that breath for five, then exhale for a slow count of ten, and pause for another count of five. Do that three times—just one minute and fifteen seconds of breathing—and see how you feel.
  • Positive social interaction – Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place.  Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place and that not all people suck.
  • Laughter – Laughing together—and even just reminiscing about the times we’ve laughed together—increases relationship satisfaction and produces endorphins that help us to feel better and reset on a neurochemical level.
  • Affection – It doesn’t have to be physical affection, though physical affection is great; a warm hug, in a safe and trusting context, can do as much to help your body feel like it has escaped a threat.  Animals have also been found to be an effective source of affection.
  • A big cry – You know when you need it, so lean in. Put on your favorite sad song or scene from a film and let your body release pent-up emotions with a good cry.
  • Creative expression – Visual and performing arts of all kinds give us the chance to celebrate and move through big emotions. Even if it’s 5 minutes of drawing, singing, or scribbling, this is a playful and powerful way to reset both your brain and body.

With all you’ve got going on, the last thing you need is to add multiple things to your To-Do List, so just pick one and begin to playfully experiment with it. Which one will you try this week?

Dr. Michelle McQuaid is a best-selling author, workplace wellbeing teacher, and playful change activator. With more than a decade of senior leadership experience in large organizations around the world, she’s passionate about translating cutting-edge research from wellbeing, positive psychology and neuroscience, into practical strategies for health, happiness, and workplace success. 

An honorary fellow at Melbourne University’s Centre For The Science of Wellbeing, she blogs for Psychology Today, hosts the top-rated weekly podcast Making Positive Psychology Work, and her work has been featured in Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, Boss Magazine, The Age and more.  

To measure your wellbeing at work try the free 5-minute workplace wellbeing survey Michelle and her team have created at www.permahsurvey.com.  You’ll immediately get your results and can create a personal wellbeing plan from more than 200 evidence-based tiny wellbeing nudges.

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