You wanted to do it. You planned to do it. You really did. And then January 2nd rolled around… I’m talking, of course, about New Year’s resolutions: the goals we set to improve some aspect of our lives for at least the next 365 days. One resolution that I’ve been hearing more and more often, from friends and clients alike, is to become more efficient, better organized and less of a procrastinator. In fact, many of us feel that our organizational skills could use some work. Educational degrees and work experience teach us a lot about the content of our jobs (the 'WHAT'), but what about the processes behind it (the 'HOW')? So many of us make a resolution to improve our organization skills, year after year, but have limited success. That’s because the way we approach our school/work tasks can become ingrained habits that are hard to break. But as I tell my clients: we weren’t born with these habits – we learned them over repeated practice. The good news is: because we learned them, we can also unlearn them (albeit with repeated practice and sustained effort)! This blogpost is all about how you can replace some of those old study/work habits with ones that can increase efficiency and – just as importantly – reduce stress along the way!
Students faced with big exams that cover a lot of material, or employees tasked with long-term projects can easily feel overwhelmed. Just thinking about everything we have to do can be anxiety-provoking and make us want to avoid getting started altogether. But viewing things this way is like a novelist thinking of everything she has to do to get her book written, published and on the best-seller list before even coming up with the topic for her book. This would be enough to make any world-class author procrastinate! So how do they do it? And do we even stand a chance? The answer, of course, is yes! Here are some steps that can help you approach these seemingly insurmountable tasks:
- To break your big challenge down into smaller and more manageable chunks, start by making a list of all the steps that need to get done for the project (even the small steps!). Run the list by a colleague to see if you're forgetting anything.
- Identify and list areas that need to be prioritized, for example, because they have a closer deadline or because other tasks depend on this one being finished first.
- Identify and list areas that you might be able to delegate or ask for help with. For example, if you’re a student with 10 chapters to study for an upcoming exam, make a note next to the chapters that your friend is really great at so that you can ask him for help with that part. Or if there’s a chapter that you have particular difficulty with, maybe you can contact a tutor who specializes in that topic. Just knowing that there are resources out there to help you if you need them can be of great comfort.
- Schedule time to complete each task. It's a good idea to overestimate or allow yourself some leeway. Writing these steps down with corresponding times can show you that there is actually time to accomplish everything you need to do, one step at a time.
- When you come in in the morning - focus only on your tasks for that day (or even for that morning before lunch) - rather than becoming overwhelmed by thinking of all the things that need to get done for the entire project. Assign times for that day's tasks, with some wiggle room for unexpected meetings.
- Check things off the list as you go, taking a moment to give yourself credit for having gotten one step closer to your goal. Too often we focus only on what we don’t do and gloss over what we manage to do, fearing that feeling proud of our accomplishments would lead us to let our guard down, to feel “too comfortable”, to become lazy, or to have lower standards. But acknowledging our small successes is an important way to keep our motivation up and to guard against discouragement!
- If something doesn't get done, remember to move it to a later time so that it doesn't get forgotten.
- Communicate with your team if you need help or if you see that you need more time in spite of these organizational tips. It’s always better to communicate these things earlier rather than later so that they can help you brainstorm options and adjust their work and/or expectations accordingly.
- And last but not least…Plan little rewards for yourself along the way to keep motivated: Maybe you get to go to your favourite lunch spot after you've done the first 3 things on the list.
These tips can go a long way towards becoming more organized and efficient at school or work, but making these changes are, of course, easier said than done. Feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness, and irritability can often creep up and be hard to deal with. Here are some tips that can help with these difficult negative emotions:
- Ironically, exercise can be the last thing we feel like doing when we are stressed, but it can actually be one of the most helpful ways to reduce our stress! If you’re not in the habit of exercising, remember that it doesn’t have to be anything too intense – even a brisk walk around the block, jumping rope, or going for a swim can help to release endorphins and burn off some of that stress!
- Breathing exercises can also be a very helpful way to increase relaxation and reduce stress.
- This module called "The Calming Technique" from the Centre for Clinical Interventions provides a great introduction to learning these breathing exercises.
- Last but not least, try examining the thoughts underlying your negative emotions. In cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), we learn that negative thoughts can often contribute to our negative emotions, that some unhelpful thinking patterns can increase the intensity of our negative feelings, and that challenging these thoughts can reduce the magnitude of these negative emotions. For example, if your thoughts are “I'm a failure, I’m not doing enough, everyone else is doing a better job than me”, this would likely increase the intensity of your negative emotions. But it can be hard to challenge these negative thoughts about ourselves; we may be in the habit of speaking to ourselves this way, making it hard to notice – let alone challenge – unhelpful thinking patterns. To help you do this, ask yourself if you would judge a fellow friend/co-worker this harshly if they were in the same position. The answer is often a resounding “no”. But why is that? Because we are far more compassionate/understanding towards other people than we are to ourselves…but isn’t that a double-standard? Why should we use one set of standards for our friends/colleagues and a different, harsher set of rules for ourselves? Just imagine that a co-worker you were close with was going through the same thing. You might respond by saying something like “It’s understandable that you’re stressed because this is a big project and it can be overwhelming / it’s a new topic that we haven’t worked with much before / there is so much to get done in so little time. But you’re being too harsh on yourself. The reality is that you’re not a “total failure” - you do tons of things well – just the other day the boss told you he liked your work on project X. And this project is really hard – Jane and Alex were just telling me they’re struggling with it too! And remember - you felt like this with the previous project and you ended up doing really well, so there’s no reason this one should be any different!” It can be really helpful to write out what you would say to a loved one in the same situation, and then say the same thing to yourself!
- This module called "Helpful Thinking" from the Centre for Clinical Interventions can be very helpful for coping with work-related worry.
The bottom line is that habits can be very hard to break (see Mark Manson's article, "Shut Up and Be Patient")! Try to be patient with yourself along the way, and to give yourself credit for your efforts (regardless of the outcome) as best you can!
Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.