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If you typically eat a rushed lunch over your keyboard because you're too swamped to take a break, or you check e-mail on your phone when you're talking to a loved one, you're doing yourself more harm than good. While you may think you're an expert multitasker, being pulled in too many directions can take a toll on your health. Busyness is a top excuse for skipping workouts. And when you're constantly frazzled with so much to do, your sleep, sex life, and mood suffer. But if you streamline and prioritize your schedule, it's possible to work and work out, get everything done and carve out downtime. Start now.Reevaluate your busyness.
Be honest: Are you truly busy, or does constantly being on the go help you define yourself? "You have a sense of purpose when you're busy," says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago and the author of A Happy You. "Having a lot on your plate makes you feel significant and important." If you have things in your life that aren't going well -- maybe your job is no longer challenging or your relationship is on its last legs -- but your to-do list is always calling your name, you don't have to slow down and focus on the fact that some bigger issue may need addressing.
What's more, even though a frenzied state might feel productive, it's not. "Research shows that when you're stressed out, you focus intensely on problems and obstacles instead of solutions," says Jill Farmer, a life coach and the author of There's Not Enough Time... and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. "We have difficulty prioritizing; every task feels as important as the next one, which isn't usually the case." Physically, your body is producing the stress hormone cortisol, and while a little cortisol can provide the jolt you need to get you going on a project, a nonstop flow will leave you exhausted and frazzled.
Track what you do every hour for a week, advises Laura Vanderkam, the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. While that might sound somewhat excessive, the trends you'll see over the course of seven days will give you an accurate picture of where your 168 weekly hours go. "I've had hundreds of people keep track of how they spend time, and every one of them had some space to repurpose if they wished," Vanderkam says. An app like aTimeLogger (free, iTunes) makes it easy to keep a tally.
While portions of your day are most likely filled with the demands of your family, your boss, or a leaky faucet, the reality is you have more control than you think you do. "We actually have quite a bit of choice about how we spend our time, but we often don't look at it that way," Vanderkam says. She suggests that you come at your obligations from a different direction: Instead of feeling as though your tasks control you, realize that you make decisions about how to spend each 24 hours and that your choices reflect your priorities.
If you find yourself missing workouts repeatedly or you haven't been to the doctor for an annual checkup in years, say out loud, "My health is not a priority," and see how that feels. Chances are, it probably doesn't feel great. (No worries, keep reading.)
One reason a hectic feeling overtakes us is that we rarely distinguish necessary tasks from those that aren't. Give yourself some structure by looking at a weekly calendar. Fill in your top nonnegotiable daily items first -- work hours, a sit-down family dinner, and eight hours of sleep, for example -- then consider your energy flow to schedule the next must-do: an exercise session. Are you a lark or a night owl? "Claim the time that works best with your natural energy cycles for a workout," says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant and the author of Time Management from the Inside Out. And be sure to enter it in your phone or work calendar. "If it isn't scheduled, it isn't real," says Melissa McCreery, PhD, a psychologist in Bellingham, Washington, and the creator of TooMuchonHerPlate.com. "A vague thought like, I'll get to the gym and do something for 40 minutes later today, just doesn't cut it." Also, try to limit your to-do list to no more than five concrete items to avoid being overwhelmed, concentrate on one task at a time, and finish the chores that you want to do least early in the day.
Morgenstern suggests taking a few minutes at the end of each day to prepare for the next three days. That way, you can forecast potential obstacles: Is that 4:00 p.m. meeting on Tuesday going to interfere with my workout? Do I know where that Pilates DVD I'm going to use on Thursday morning is? "By looking forward, you're more likely to honor the structure you've already set and to handle any surprises that pop up," she explains.
When you boil down your life to the areas that most deserve your time and focus, Vanderkam says, you usually end up with three: relationships, which can include both family and friends; self-care and nurturing; and career. Next time you're asked to volunteer or give your time to something or someone, ask yourself if the task falls into one of those three categories: Will it foster a relationship you want? Will it help you become the best person you can be? Will it build your career? If not, think twice about it. "That doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't do it," Vanderkam says. "It just means, don't automatically say yes."
If you're a people pleaser and the idea of saying no makes you a little queasy, Farmer recommends that you be as nice as possible but firm. "Say something like, 'Thank you for thinking of me, but I'm going to have to pass this time. Good luck finding someone else,'" she says. "You don't have to overexplain."
"Exercise makes you mentally sharper, more creative and efficient, and better able to cope with stress," McCreery says. "The busier you are, the more important it becomes." Even so, workouts can easily be shoved aside on hectic days because they can seem so onerous. "Many people think, I have to run five miles or it doesn't count," Farmer says. "Not true." Doing walk-run intervals for two miles is much better than no workout at all. Similarly, consider whether you have a setup that will help you succeed: Is your gym a reasonable distance away and not a 25-minute commute? Do you have space to exercise at home?
In order to embrace the exercise you have scheduled, Farmer recommends that you start with an activity you love -- running, biking, a Zumba video -- for a duration that feels "almost ridiculously easy," even 15 minutes. Stop before you feel exhausted, so that you come back wanting more the next day, and slowly increase workout length once you're in the groove.
Nobody says you have to be scheduled down to the nanosecond with productive tasks, workouts, and relationship building. In fact, if you don't factor in downtime, your hamster wheel is only going to spin faster, and you're eventually going to fall off. "If you keep pushing and pushing, you become more and more inefficient and depleted, when all you truly need is a break to reboot," Farmer says.
"Consciously choose when you are going to have downtime, then embrace it," Vanderkam says. "Our temptation is to fill empty moments with low-value activities; you could be sitting in your backyard and truly relaxing, but instead you're deleting e-mails from your in-box." If you're watching a Real Housewives marathon, don't have another screen in front of you. If you're reading a book, try not to let your mind wander to what you have to do tomorrow. If you're eating lunch, the only thing that should be in your hand is a utensil, not your phone.
You don't need hours to relax, nor do you need to wait until the end of the day or the weekend to do it. Intentionally take a break after you check two or three things off your to-do list: Indulge in a 20-minute power nap; grab a cup of tea and just sit and savor it; call a friend and catch up. You'll return to your tasks with new energy. "If you wait to reward yourself until you're all done, you're likely not to do it," Farmer says. "Something else will demand your attention."
"Up to 40 percent of a person's time is stolen by invisible time thieves like social media and not making deliberate decisions about how you will spend your day," says Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant in New York City. Here's how to stay on track.
Be mindful when you read your e-mail. Otherwise, you'll read some messages twice, forget to answer others, and end up just wasting time. "When you open a message, be prepared to answer it or file it to be answered later at a specific time in your schedule," Morgenstern says. "Go in with a purpose; don't be checking it constantly."
Set timers for social media. A few minutes on Facebook or Pinterest can easily turn into more than an hour. Give yourself what feels like a reasonable amount of time -- say, 15 to 30 minutes twice a day -- to catch up on social media, and then stop. Try the online tools at minutesplease.com or rescuetime.com if you need help policing yourself.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2013.