Uncluttering your schedule to keep clear of unnecessary stress

Being human can be difficult some days. I most often notice the difficulties when I’m stressed, full of anxiety, things are chaotic, and/or under pressure. Little problems that are usually dealt with easily turn into big issues because my abilities to see the whole picture or keep my cool are gone.

One time, I completely unhinged in front of one of my colleagues. I was quietly working at my desk one minute, and the next minute I threw a tantrum because a project we were working on took a turn I didn’t expect. Instead of reacting like a normal person, I chose the path of awful person. I used my “outside voice” for at least a full minute before I realized I was being a complete idiot. Thankfully, my colleague burst into laughter (instead of yelling back or quitting) and asked if my outburst helped me feel better.

It took me two hours to calm down and figure out what had happened. Many elements in my life were to blame:

Stress + Anxiety + Disappointment + Poor Planning = Awful Erin.

As full disclosure, one of these elements was completely out of my hands. I had no way to control the event that happened that triggered my disappointment. No matter what the day or how prepared I possibly could have been, I still would have been disappointed.

The other elements were all my fault, however. My poor planning resulted in stresses and anxieties that were wholly unnecessary, and which made me blow the incident with my co-worker completely out of proportion. If I had planned appropriately, I would have been able to move with the ebbs and flows of the day and not let the stress and anxiety overwhelm me. More precisely, I wouldn’t have been experiencing stress and anxiety — at least not at the level I was.

Later that afternoon, I made a heartfelt apology to my colleague, we had a good laugh, and then I went home to re-evaluate my schedule. I needed to be realistic about my abilities.

I revisited my initial estimations and doubled them. What I thought would take one hour, I doubled to two. What I thought would take a day, I scheduled to two days. I made phone calls and adjusted others’ expectations of my timeline accordingly.

With all things in life, the more stress and anxiety you feel, the less able you are to think and respond to the best of your abilities. Proper planning — being honest with yourself about how long it will take to complete action items, setting a schedule, and having the diligence to keep to that schedule — will keep you from feeling overwhelmed and in control of the things you can control.

After my tantrum and retooling of my schedule, I noticed a significant decrease in my stress and anxiety levels. I am not super human, and my new schedule was realistic and maintainable. Unfortunately, it took making a fool out of myself to realize I needed a change. How do you organize your time to keep stress and anxiety at bay, and how do you avoid potential stress meltdowns?


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

22 Comments for “Uncluttering your schedule to keep clear of unnecessary stress”

  1. posted by Mark M on

    Proper planning is the key to controlling stress at work. Proper planning also includes being able to say “No” (or preferably “Not now, but…” or “Only if I cut…”).

    Plan tasks – list the tasks in workable chunks, and estimate the time it takes. Assign tasks to hard deadlines.

    Follow up – a simple %complete vs %deadline graph will show if you’re on track. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

    Prioritise – I always need help with this, and I use my boss. 10 or 15 minutes a week is enough to make sure that I’ve prioritised correctly and that I’m working on the right things just now. As a bonus, my boss has a better understanding of my workload. As a bigger bonus, this means re-checking the plan every week – a very good idea, as it turns out. New tasks can be slotted in, obsolete ones pruned.

  2. posted by Dr K on

    This is kind of like the pot calling the kettle black πŸ˜‰ (that is, I cannot say I avoid altogether stress meltdowns…they are an inevitable product of the ambitious soul). BUT. I’ve noticed over the years that what I tend to do is *over* estimate how long it takes me to do things – not only at work, but in life.

    For example, I am rarely late (if I am it’s because I’m waiting for my husband) because I will always assume it will take me an hour to get ready + drive/walk to my destination, when it takes me only half an hour.

    I’ve heard the ‘double your deadlines’ rule, so I guess I do that as well. I tend to give myself 4 h to write a lecture, and it will take me 2.5. Then, with all the extra time remaining, I take to catch up on email, clean my desk, etc. etc.

    I also avoid as much as possible planning meetings that are smack in the middle of the day, and get them all on one day if possible. But I have the luxury of doing that as I don’t work in a business environment (academia) so that won’t work for everyone. I agree with Mark M that saying “no” is a necessary evil. I am guilty of over-committing on occasion, but another lesson I’ve learned (the hard way) is knowing my limitations and what I can handle at any given time.

    That said, meltdowns are inevitable every once in a while. It’s how you deal with them that matters. πŸ™‚

  3. posted by Andre Blackman on

    This is exactly what I needed to read this morning. I admit things have been stressful – planning is key!

  4. posted by Beth on

    I think meltdowns are common at this busy time of year – with everyone trying to cram so much into so little time. Just the other day I came out of a store to find that someone had hit my car in the parking lot and – not left a note. Meltdown – my friend is still commenting on the amount of expletives that were used in a 5 minute conversation – nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.!

    The most important advice I have is to PLAN for down time – I call it Beth alone time! Again this holiday season I found myself wanting to go to every event, see every friend. My joke is always – where are they the other 11 months of the year!?!? So, like Dr. K, I have learned to say “no”. And, I plan my schedule for things like writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents, baking cookies.

    And, every once in awhile, I plan for “Beth” alone time – be it sitting in my PJ’s and reading the paper all weekend or taking that time to organize my office, clean the house really well, or throw out and purge things (my favorite stressbusting activity).

    P.S. Erin – meltdowns sometimes help clear the stress! Cooldowns with a glass of wine afterwards are a good remedy!

  5. posted by TippyToeDiet on

    Hmm, I’m wondering if you’ve been spying on me. πŸ™‚ I threw a minor hissy fit just yesterday.

    For stress reactions, the key for me is to recognize what’s happening (with luck, before I’m in full-scale meltdown) and then ask myself, “Is this the worst thing that could happen?” That usually helps me get the situation back in its proper perspective.

    Great post! (Timely, too.)

  6. posted by Jennifer on

    I really like your idea of doubling the amount of time you think a task will take.

    One of my biggest pitfalls is assuming everything will go as planned. Operating under that assumption, I try to fit in a couple extra tasks thinking everything will go smoothly. Ha! Rarely does it ever!

    When one of those tasks doesn’t go as planned, I’m left in a time crunch and my stress level rises exponentially which affects how I behave and deal with the remaining tasks.

    Great post! And very timely for me right now.

  7. posted by John of Indiana on

    I made the “Double the Deadline” discovery myself recently, but in my case it’s more a matter of workplace politics than stressing myself out.
    I found out that they Powers That THINK They Are would rather see me plodding away at a job for 5 hours than to have me knock it out in 25 minutes then be at loose ends to find something “useful” to do the rest of the day.
    Do I like to operate in that fashion? Not particularly, but as Ivan Denisovich observed, “When you work for the Knowing, you give them Quality. When you work for a Fool, you give them Eyewash…”
    Surprisingly, this knowledge has helped me to decrease my stress level.

  8. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    I like the idea of doubling the estimated time something will take, and I’m going to start using that one right away. Seems I’m always in hurry-up mode.

    One thing I do is set personal soft deadlines for important project milestones a few days (sometimes up to a week) before the part is really due. If I’m approaching my soft deadline and haven’t made good progress, it’s a kick in the butt to get going.

  9. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    I wish I had read this earlier this week before I scheduled myself into a lot of near-impossible deadlines. Well, not impossible, but definitely stressful. Definitely looking forward to the holidasy!! πŸ™‚

  10. posted by DJ on

    Proper planning, including realistic time frames for how long I need to accomplish any given task, is vital.

    The ability (hard for me) to take a deep breath, maybe walk outside for five minutes, and readjust my thinking when a task takes longer than it “should” for me to finish.

    Hardest of all, accepting that I cannot control the behavior of co-workers and people outside of work. I can only calmly let them know what I need and ask for them to commit to deadlines. I can’t make them work.

    Also, working from home, instead of in the office, helped tremendously, simply because I tend to feel stressed by the stress of others. The ambient stress in an office makes me tense, even if all is going smoothly on my end.

    At home essentially no ambient work stress can intrude. I’m very lucky to be able to work from home. Commuting an hour each way for my job was an additional exhausation that I’m more than happy to have left behind.

  11. posted by Elizabeth on

    One of the many thinks I like about this blog is your readiness to admit to human frailty – and that you or your readers always suggest ways to do things better. At my workplace, managment has a hissy fit at realistic task/delivery estimates and demands they be halved or better (so things get left out or we get into trouble for not meeting totally unachievable deadlines. Nobody here has the energy to work 18 hour days any more). I might try quadrupling my estimates to try and get enough time to get things done!

  12. posted by Catherine on

    I wrote about something similar recently myself. Very frequently, the things I get upset about are completely avoidable, so I try really hard to keep accurate lists of my expectations (and expectations of me). And there’s something about checking items off a list… what a (nerdy!) feeling.

  13. posted by Another Deb on

    If I give myself extra time, I will end up just procrastinating longer. I have to let go of expectations and prioritize what cannot be kicked off the list.

  14. posted by Crystalyn Kokorowski on

    I also forget to allow time for those unexpected interruptions that seem to get me sidetracked. . . .

  15. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    Wonderful post and great advice Erin. This is a great example of how we’re in control of our schedules and therefore for the most part in control of course stress and anxiety levels.

    And by control I mean we make choices. Some say we don’t have the choice because we have responsibilities (like mortgage, kids, etc…) but every one of the responsibilities was a choice that had potentially choice-limiting consequences that we’re experiencing now.

    Good for you for being aware and making a change!

  16. posted by gypsy packer on

    In stress times, I schedule extra solitude time. When that is not possible, I grab the iPod and perform a little manual labor, just concentrating on the music.
    Of course, this is hard to do in a cube farm, because everyone else starts laying off office and break-room maintenance on you permanently and moves you to the bottom of the pecking order…

  17. posted by Amy on

    We all have meltdowns/tantrums now and then. I feel better when someone owns up to it so I know I’m not the only one! Building in extra time to get things done seems like a nice concrete way to counter that abstract emotional reaction that sometimes kicks in. Thanks!

  18. posted by Heather on

    Oh thank god… I’m not the only one losing my mind. I am usually very on top of things but I’d kind of lost control of my schedule, expectations etc. and my stress had no where else to go but out my eyeballs.

    Makes me feel better to know that even the most organized among us have our moments. And also makes me feel okay about cutting some things of the old to do list.

  19. posted by SewingGirl on

    One good thing about my ex: he taught me, when I am feeling things are out of control, SLOW DOWN. Become more rigid about how tasks are completed, how items are organized, check twice for keys before closing door, etc. It really works, and everyone will admire you for staying put together when everyone else is losing it.

    I think some people are just more temperamental than others, if you are prone to meltdowns, then you need to manage your environment to minimize things you find stressful. I kind of thrive on chaos and multiple tasks, but I do not multitask, I serially single task in order of priority. If I am unsure about the priority, then I slow down and make sure I have got it right before I continue.

    I’ve played this to my advantage over the years, and now make 6 figures in a secure job. One of the constant comments on my evaluations is that I always seem calm, confident, and in control! (that is so not true but clearly my strategy is working) πŸ˜‰

  20. posted by Barb on

    Excellent post. Thank you for admitting it, so I feel less alone! It is a fun but stressful time of year.

    I do the following to help manage the stress:
    1. Lists. Lists. Lists. Out of my head and down on the paper for the nerdy satisfaction of crossing stuff off!
    2. Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize. This means for a trying-to-be-organized person like me, some stuff gets a little cluttered and messy while I’m taking care of more important stuff–like the people in my life.
    3. Find a good escapist book to periodically disappear into for short breaks during holiday preparations. A little “me time” makes me calmer/less stressed during the other times…

  21. posted by Four Simple Life Blogs That Believe Less Is More | My Super-Charged Life on

    […] and anxiety plague many of us.  In Uncluttering your schedule to keep clear of unnecessary stress, Erin points out that this pressure often brings out the worst in […]

  22. posted by Kristine on

    Doubling your estimate is good–I find I usually need to multiply by pi.

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