How to simplify your day

Prioritizing your tasks, saying ‘no,’ and allowing time to just breathe can help you work more efficiently—and ease your stress. Inhale, exhale, and read on…

Our days fill up so fast and are so rushed and filled with distractions that they seem to be bursting.

It’s a huge source of stress for most people, and stress is perhaps the most important factor determining whether we’re healthy or sick.

So how can we simplify our days? It’s not incredibly hard, but I’ve found it’s best done in steps.

These are the steps I followed, though of course calling them “rules” means we should test them and break them as needed. No rules should be followed blindly. I’ve found these to work really well, though.

See below for my tips to help you implement a simpler day:

1. Know what’s important. The simple version of simplifying is, “Identify what’s important, and eliminate the rest.” So take time to identify the (up to five) most important things in your life, and then see what activities, tasks, projects, meetings, and commitments fit in with that list. Also take time each day to identify up to three top-priority tasks, at the beginning of your day—or the night before, for the next day.

2. Visualize your perfect day. This is not so much because this “perfect day” will come true, as it is to understand what a simple day means to you. It’s different for each person—for me, it might mean some meditation and writing and spending time with my wife and kids. For others, it’s yoga and painting and a hot bath. For still others, it’s time to focus on the important work, but still get other things done later in the day. Take a minute to visualize what it means to you.

3. Say no to extra commitments. Now that you’ve identified what’s important, along with the “perfect day,” you must start saying “no” to things that aren’t on your “important” list and that stand in the way of your perfect day. The biggest thing you can say “no” to is a commitment—membership on a committee, involvement in a project, coaching or participating on a team, going to an event, being a partner in a business, etc. List and evaluate your commitments (professional, civic, and personal), and say “no” to at least one. It takes just a call or email.

4. Limit tasks. Each morning, list your one to three most-important tasks. List other tasks you’d like to do. Say “no” to some of them. Try to limit your list to seven or fewer tasks per day (not counting little things, which you’ll bundle together). Limiting your tasks helps you focus, and it acknowledges you’re not going to get everything done in one day.

5. Carve out time with no distractions. When are you going to do your most important work? Schedule it with a block of time (one hour, two hours, four hours—whatever works for you). Make this your most sacred appointment. Become incommunicado. Close the Internet, shut off all notifications, hold your calls. Do the most important task, and then the next one, if you have time.

6. Slow down. We rush through our days, almost in a single, frenetic, anxiety-filled, nonstop movement. Instead, slow down. Life won’t collapse if you aren’t rushing from task to task, email to email. You can pause, take a moment to reflect, smile, and enjoy the current task before moving on.

7. Mindfully single-task. Stop multitasking. Do one task at a time, with full focus on that task. Practice mindfulness as you do the task; it’s a form of meditation. Watch your thoughts wander to what you need to do later, but then return to the task at hand. Your day will be much simpler—and much more enjoyable—when you practice being present with your current task.

8. Batch smaller tasks, then let go. Email, paperwork, little things at the bottom of your task list (create a “small tasks” section at the bottom), quick phone calls, etc.—these shouldn’t get in the way of your important tasks. But they still need to be done sometime (unless you can let them go, which is best whenever possible). If you need to do them, bundle them and do them in one cluster. It’s best to do these later in the day, when your energy is lower and you’ve done the important tasks for the day. Don’t let the small tasks get in the way of the big ones. When you’ve done a batch of small tasks (including processing email), let them go, and get out. You don’t want to do this all day, or even half a day.

9. Create space between. We cram our tasks and meetings together and leave no spaces between them. The space between things is just as important as the things themselves. Leave a little space between meetings, even tasks. Take a break to stretch, walk around, get a glass of water, or perhaps do some simple breathing meditation for a minute or two. Enjoy the space.

A version of this article first appeared on ZenHabits.

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This article originally appeared on Ragan.com in June 2013.

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